Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

A Place of (Remote) Belonging

How educators can create a welcoming classroom community during distance learning
Boy taking an online class

While instructional approaches to education are adjusting to remote learning, a sense of belonging and community is still critical to ensuring students remain engaged and enthusiastic learners. Students may be accustomed to finding that sense of belonging from interactions with their peers and classmates during transitions or unstructured periods like lunch. As instruction is delivered virtually, they are likely to feel more disconnected, uncertain, or even get distracted in their new learning space.

Educators should take into account how class time and instruction can address their students’ new concerns. Creating a virtual community is just as important for remote learning as it is in a physical classroom. A series of resources now being used by Harvard instructors contains the following suggestions, which can help educators at every grade level reestablish norms, connections, and a sense of belonging: 

Create ways to show caring

  • If the class is small enough, greet students by name when they enter the chat room.
  • You can even create a playlist of songs that you use to welcome students into the virtual classroom.
  • Begin with a check in. Ask students how they are doing using a “rose/thorn” format or asking them to express their week with a meme or emoji. In larger classes, a chatroom can help enable this check in.
  • Build in time for announcements and free time for students to interact with each other, since the virtual format often limits the amount of time students can chat.
  • Model vulnerability and share your own uncertainties. Setting an example as the instructor will encourage and signal to students it’s OK to do the same.
  • Encourage students to respond to each other using the chat feature, which allows them to message one another or the whole group. (But make sure the chat function doesn’t get too distracting; consider limiting the time you leave it open.)
  • End class with a closing circle. Have students express a takeaway or a question via chat — or a Google doc if time is short.

Establish norms

  • Revisit any norms the class may have established at the beginning. What should still hold true in the new format and what may need to change?
  • See if the platform allows users to set up profiles. Have students personalize theirs with a picture and pronouns.
  • Decide if students should speak up or if they should use the “raise hand” feature or another signal.
  • Ask students to set an intention and to be present. Consider whether they should close their other browser windows, move phones, and take notes.

Promote engagement

  • Give clear instructions to avoid unnecessary confusion. Post instructions in the chat room so that students can readily access them.
  • If students are in a breakout room, circulate through the rooms and check in on how students are progressing.
  • Encourage students to come prepared to lead discussions themselves — have them prepare questions or take on a role that helps facilitate the class (recorder, time keeper, reporter).
  • Give students stretch breaks for sessions longer than 40 minutes.

Provide support to make learning accessible for all

  • Demo any Zoom features you wish students to use, particularly collaboration tools.
  • Consider students accessing the meeting via phone. They do not have access to the chat room or breakout sessions. To help, read questions or comments from the chat room allowed and allow students on the phone to remain in the main conference room and discuss with others there.
  • Describe any slides and post them online for students to access before or after the class.
  • Refer to speakers by name so that everyone can follow the conversation, regardless of how they are accessing the meeting.

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles