The first day or week of the semester is often referred to as what students call “syllabus week,” because professors typically spend the first day of class reviewing the syllabus—interject a big yawn here. It’s usually the professor standing in the front of the room and going page by page reading through the syllabus—interject another yawn. Do you know that when teachers fail to hook students’ attention on that first day, engagement remains a struggle for the rest of the semester (Roberto, 2021)?
My goal of last semester was to build community within my classroom from day one and throughout the semester. I consistently wanted to integrate community building activities for the students to participate in and feel safe and comfortable. It is important to build this type of classroom environment so students can feel safe to respond freely and ask questions all throughout the semester (Ricevuto & McLaughlin, 2022), which of course, increases student engagement. I wanted to establish a sense of belonging for each student, a basic motivation that is common to all humans (Bentrim & Henning, 2022). The benefits of students feeling like they belong to a classroom community include academic motivation, success, and persistence (Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen, 2007).
Instead of boring my students and reading my syllabus from top to bottom, I wanted to focus on community building by sharing some personal information about myself. Oftentimes, students form judgements about their courses and their instructors within the opening minutes of class (Roberto, 2021), so I wanted to “wow” them and encourage them to feel connected to me by sharing some personal information. I shared something called “Meet the Teacher.” It is a colorful document that has personal information shown in a creative way, including the institutions I attended (college) and the degrees I obtained, my hobbies, and various other things. I put the document on a screen and reviewed it with them. Here, they were free to ask me any questions. Some students asked questions, but they were still very quiet and not saying much during class. So, I moved onto showing them the “About Your Instructor” icon in our LMS. This included the “Meet the Teacher” document as well as: a video of my husband and I scuba diving, all of my publications with live links, my contact information, and lastly, a GIF of how to pronounce my last name.
At this point, I still have not reviewed the syllabus with them and instead begin a community building activity. Initially, I knew I wanted to get them up, moving around, and interacting with one another, so I found an activity on Teachers Pay Teacher and modified it to make it relevant to college-level students. This activity consisted of setting up six different stations throughout the classroom where students had to complete different tasks as a group. Each station had directions listed on a large Post-it poster on the wall along with accompanying materials. The six stations included the following:
Station 1: Study the syllabus: This task asked students to decide as a group what two to three pieces from the syllabus were the most important to remember.
Station 2: Investigate the teacher: Students look at 10 different pictures of me in various settings (with my husband, with my children, our RV, scuba diving, vacations, published book, etc.) and analyze what they see and state what they think they know about me.
Station 3: Classroom culture: Students decide on two to three rules they think we can establish as a class to ensure a positive learning environment.
Station 4: Bare your bio: Students individually complete a sheet that includes personal questions, such as: how do you learn best, your proudest moment, something I should know about you, etc.
Station 5: Positive psychology: Students write a letter (on paper and sealed in an envelope) to their future self (which is then distributed back to them the last day of class).
Station 6: Birthday chart: Students write their name and date of their birthday with a Sharpie (which is later celebrated and acknowledged during the semester). After completing all of the stations, we discussed each activity as a class.
The station activity was a very positive experience for all of the students and established many expectations for the semester. I often heard how much they enjoyed doing that activity because it was atypical of how the first day of the semester usually is conducted but was also very informative. Students stated they felt they knew more about me and their fellow classmates after that first day and looked forward to the next class.
Each class thereafter, I purposely included at least one community building exercise for the students to complete. None were as time consuming as the stations, and would maybe take one minute or less to conduct, but had powerful results. Other activities included short polls to begin class (using a tech platform called Slido) with questions that were relevant to the class topic or something as simple as asking what they did over the weekend. Or I would post a question on the whiteboard that they would answer as they walked into the classroom, such as, What is your favorite movie?
Another “assignment” that students were required to complete was a quick slide that was called the “All About Me Bag.” Students had to create one slide with a bag “holding” three pictures of items that were relevant to them and that they would feel comfortable sharing with the class. Then each person would quickly show their slide and state what was in their “bag” and its relevance. After each student presented, all of the students clapped for one another—and without my prompting! This assignment was later mentioned as one of their favorite community building exercises.
Mid-semester and at the end of the semester, I had the students complete a survey about the class. The first question I asked was if they felt part of the classroom community and ALL of the students responded yes! The students also responded that they never felt more comfortable in a class than they did in this one due to all of the community building activities we did, as well as never feeling anxious to ask or answer any questions. The majority of the students also stated that they enjoyed working in groups because they felt comfortable with the other students in the class and felt they could be themselves.
I really enjoyed teaching this semester because I felt that each and every student participated in my class and the class was always so engaging. I believe it was from the commitment to all of the community building activities that I strategically conducted every class. I would like to encourage all instructors to find a way to include community building experiences in their classes so they get the same results.
Dr. Joanne Ricevuto is the assistant vice president for instructional success and is responsible for the faculty programming at her institution, which includes providing and presenting a multitude of professional workshops to the faculty on various current topics in higher education. She also serves as the managing editor of the website for the Office of Instructional Success. She has been in higher education for 20+ years and a professor of early childhood education. Additionally, she is the author of many published articles on virtual learning and student engagement, as well as a co-author of Engaging Virtual Environments: Creative Ideas and Online Tools to Promote Student Interaction, Participation, and Active Learning.
Bentrim, E.M. & Henning, G.W. (2022). The impact of a sense of belonging in college: Implications for student persistence, retention, and success. Stylus Publishing.
Freeman, T.M., Anderman, L.H., & Jensen, J.M. (2007). Sense of belonging in college freshman at the classroom and campus levels. Journal of Experimental Education, 75(3), 203-220.
Ricevuto, J. & McLaughlin, L. (2022). Engaging virtual environments: Creative ideas and online tools to promote student interaction, participation, and active learning. Stylus Publishing.
Roberto, M. (2021, April 9). Engaging students on the first day and every day: 7 strategies for connecting in the classroom. Harvard Business Publishing Education. https://hbsp.harvard.edu/inspiring-minds/engaging-students-on-the-first-day-and-every-day