A Vision for Community
Reframing community as a verb instead of a noun enables us to understand classroom community as one that has a relational center that employs ongoing processes (Burkett, 2001). This helps the refinement of classroom community over time and enables teachers to learn and adopt strategies to better position its development in future semesters. Creating community in the classroom requires a paradoxical experience that involves unity and difference, harmony and conflict, wholeness and separateness in an effort to encourage authentic experiences among students, where learning happens as a result of all views presented (Burkett, 2001).
Reaching Diverse Students
Ever since the Post-World War II era, universities began opening their doors to students from all socio-economic levels, races, genders, etc. An openness to international students has brought in a multitude of students seeking higher education from the U.S. Diverse students need to be received and accepted, while teachers also want to effectively reach their students. This can be made possible by establishing a thoughtfully crafted vision of classroom community (Shevellar, 2015).
The Subject-Centered Community
When thinking about educational community, Palmer (2017) urges us to move beyond the therapeutic, civic, or marketing models. According to him, the therapeutic model values intimacy which can only be achieved with a handful of people throughout one’s life. The civic model employs negotiations with outcomes favoring the majority. Similarly, the marketing model cannot be relied upon because it reduces the vision of a university (to build and offer knowledge in all areas) and evaluation of educational offerings by consumers could mark some of them as unworthy. Palmer (2017) argues that community in education is best served when it is based on the ‘community of truth’ that takes from each of the models above but ultimately claims that “reality is a web of communal relationships, and we can know reality only by being in community with it” (Palmer, 2017). The community of truth depicts knowing through the model in Fig. 1. At its center, lies the subject which holds the attention of the professor and students, and keeps them accountable.
Fig. 1. The Community of Truth (Palmer, 2017)
Studying the truth is dynamic and complex and passionately takes the classroom into an eternal conversation about valuable things. When the teacher is no longer the center of the classroom, and learning is being facilitated by collaborative dialogue, a community of inquiry is established where the subject itself is the authority (Palmer, 2017). This aids learning through mutual renewal and reconstruction and is particularly important in classrooms where future teachers are being developed (Brubaker, 2012). According to Palmer (2017), the community of truth allows students to learn from the inner logic of the discipline and unburdens the teacher from the preoccupation of showcasing expertise. The result of a classroom community built on the community of truth is that it not only creates deeper learning through time spent together but builds value beyond the classroom by enabling students how to learn.
Creating Classroom Community
Classroom community is somewhat context- and discipline-specific. For example, traditional classrooms can create a sense of community in Business (especially Marketing), when the priority is competition (Clarke et al., (2020) and in STEM, where formative assessments convey that the instructor cares and is determined to reduce learning gaps through open communication (Dibbs et al., 2017). But overall, scholars have found the greatest sense of classroom community in cooperative spaces.
Cooperative learning is a strategy for classroom interaction built on social interdependence theory that accounts for both positive and negative interdependence among students within a setting. Since an individual’s goals can either be promoted (positive) or obstructed (negative) by the actions of others (Johnson & Johnson, 1989), instructors should try to foster positive interdependence to develop responsibility towards oneself and others. It is helpful to remind students that when one’s share of work is completed, others can be facilitated, and failing others can be seen as worse than failing oneself (Johnson & Johnson, 2009).
When the goal is to move students toward higher levels of mastery motivation as well as to increase perceptions of classroom community, cooperative classrooms need to use interactive learning methods.
Bonding and Bridging games
Though bonding capital (ties with similar people) is important, particularly for first-year students, in providing support, it is equally important that students develop bridging capital (ties with dissimilar people) in the classroom. Instructors can use games and activities to help students engage beyond cliques. A way to do this is to pair up students who are not sitting together for group activities and to begin these activities with icebreakers or team building games. This provides benefits in the classroom, but also beyond it, as students navigate the complexities of higher education (Tinto, 1997).
Collective Narrative Practice
A sense of community cannot be built without recognizing each other. Collective narrative practice can be used as an intervention in diverse classrooms, and this works by maximizing the positive features of diversity. By encouraging “students to open up to each other in genuine dialogue,” the focus is drawn away from assumptions about students to “concentrating upon what students do and how they learn.” One way of doing this is by asking students to share examples about the current topic from their context or life. Thus, a “perception of students can be shifted from ‘bearers of problems’ to ‘bearers of culture,’ enabling ‘both students and lecturer to see all class members as resilient, capable and resourceful” (Shevellar, 2015, p. 15).
Effective group work
In cooperative classrooms, students perceive more interactive learning and report a higher motivation for mastery along with a lower sense of competition (Summers & Svinicki, 2007). Although the competition may be perceived as lower, instructors must ensure that groups are working collaboratively and effectively to achieve the goals of all members. For cooperative learning to succeed, students must be taught and motivated to use small-group and interpersonal skills that are required for high-quality cooperative work. For example, students need to become acquainted with each other to establish trust, be unambiguous to create accuracy in their communications, be accepting to be perceived as supportive, and work towards resolving conflicts in a constructive manner (Johnson, 1972; Johnson & Johnson, 1991).
Special considerations for Online Classrooms
Attending class online automatically creates the perception that classroom community will be lower than if students were present physically in the same room (see Socialization in Online Learning and Engagement in Online Learning guides). Several studies have explored how to elevate the perceptions of community in the online classroom.
Virtual Learning Communities
Some course management systems have collaborative platforms designed to enable student collaboration within the same structure. These platforms are called virtual learning communities (VLC) and their use can help to establish a sense of classroom community, since being connected, experiencing community, and engaging collaboratively with other students impacts persistence among first-year online students (Laux et al., 2016). The utilization of VLCs is a good indicator of affective organizational commitment that impacts persistence. Students who utilized the VLC beyond five hours had greater affective organizational commitment whereas those whose VLC utilization was less than 5 hours had double the turnover intention (i.e., interest in switching schools) and lower affective organizational commitment. Instructors who work with first-year students in an online environment can incorporate collaborative learning activities and forums to develop a sense of classroom community, as well as a connectedness to the institution, thereby reducing turnover intention.
When students see that a class has good organization, effective instructional design, as well as discussions that are directed and facilitated, they perceive greater teaching presence, and because of this, they are much more likely to report higher levels of classroom community (Shea et al., 2006) in their online classes. And yet gender differences are also at play. In a study analyzing a five-week graduate-level course, using an e-learning system with unlimited access, female students were found to have a greater sense of classroom community as well as connected communication patterns, while male students reported a lower sense of classroom community and preferred engaging in independent work (Rovai, 2001).
Using social media
Another way to enhance the sense of community in an online classroom is to increase social connectedness using social networking technology. Though Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram dominate the social media market they are not the sole platforms available for connectedness. The concerns of instructors as well as institutional policies do need to be kept in mind as open-ended use can have serious implications (Hung & Yuen, 2010). It is important for instructors to understand that students are dynamic and know how to present themselves on social media as well as in the classroom, but whether they reinforce or break down the social media wall will depend on how they understand it.
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