Building Classroom Community, Part 2

In Fall 2015, I explored community building as means of increasing student engagement and performance in my junior level interdisciplinary writing course, ENG 305W: Writing in Disciplinary Communities.  What I found is that gamification and student led learning contribute to a sense of community, which ultimately leads to improved engagement and performance.   University researchers J. McKinney, K. McKinney, Franiuk, and Schweitzer affirmed this relationship between community and classroom success in their 2006 study, concluding that students’ sense of community predicts attitudes, perception of learning, and performance (284).  The variables that they determined to be important in community building are similar to my own: encouragement/support, participation, belonging, connection, empowerment, and safety, with my own addition of fun/enjoyability.  In Spring 2016, I researched the effectiveness of several pedagogical approaches that support these variables in building a classroom community.  Here’s a summary of my strategies and results based on student surveys:

  • Gamification – To make class time fun,interesting, and learner-focused, I incorporated trivia into most class periods. Trivia questions included questions based on course lessons and readings (for example, I asked students the difference between active and passive construction), as well as random facts about writing (such as the most commonly used letter).  By making many of the questions pertinent to the course lessons and readings, trivia served even more of a purpose than a fun and engaging community building activity; trivia was a way to review course material and promote retention of important concepts.  Trivia was met with enthusiasm by students in both Fall 2015 and Spring 2016.  In accordance with student feedback, next semester I’ll base the majority of the questions off of course lessons and readings.
  • Student-led Learning – Across the board, nearly all students in both Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 felt that teaching and learning from other students was key to making the course a success. Students became “experts” in their disciplines and in the topics (grammar lessons and course readings) they presented.  Thus, students were empowered to become valuable members of our class community, which opened students up to participating in discussions, even when they were not presenters or discussion leaders.
  • Small Group Discussions – Frequently before discussing course readings as a class, in Spring 2016, I had students begin discussions in small groups. This made it easier for more reserved students to participate in discussions, and helped students organize their thoughts before participating in full class discussions.  Small group discussions helped develop our class community in several ways: it helped students connect on an individual level in small groups, and prepared students to participate in the larger community discussion.
  • Group Project and Group Activities – As with small group discussions, having a large group project and group activities provided opportunities for students to serve as experts in their disciplines, empowering them apply their knowledge, talents, and strengths. I designed the project and activities in ways that could be approached from various disciplines. This not only was good practice for workplace writing, but furthered students’ sense of belonging in class.
  • Choice in Topics for Assignments – At first thought, it may seem to be a stretch that freedom in topic selection contributes to a positive community. However, by providing students this autonomy—to choose topics relevant to their discipline or desired profession—their interest, and therefore, effort improved.  In ENG 305w, students choose a research topic at the beginning of the semester, and nearly all major assignments—culminating in a final research paper, project, and presentation—relate to this topic.  This leads to a heightened sense of empowerment and belonging in the class.  Students become authorities on their topic, and share their expertise with their peers.  Every student in Spring 2016 ranked “choice in topics” as very effective in making ENG 305w a successful experience.
  • Detailed Feedback, Instructor Availability, and Individual Conferences – To support student progress, I provided detailed feedback with suggestions for improvement on each assignment, and I offered individual conferences to students throughout the semester. Toward the end of the semester, I required all students with a C or below to meet with me individually.  Students noted that this care, support, and encouragement was essential to the success of the classroom community and the effectiveness of the class.

Nearly anything we do as teachers can make (or conversely, break) students’ sense of classroom community.  For example, one student in Fall 2015 noted that just my showing a genuine concern for students’ well-being by asking students how they are at the beginning of each class, and giving them an opportunity to respond, increased his engagement in the course; he felt supported and connected in our classroom community.  Other students mentioned that my simply making the effort to learn and call students by name made a difference by providing a sense of value and belonging in our classroom community.  “Trivia,” as written by a student, “was fun and added a humorous element to the class,” which helped develop a friendly class environment.  As noted by several students, student led learning made the class “comfortable.”  Creating an environment where students felt safe to share their ideas in our class discussions made the class “fun,” and “interesting,” and as a few students discussed, increased engagement in the course readings.   In a community centered classroom—one that promotes encouragement/support, participation, belonging, connection, empowerment, safety, and  fun/enjoyability— the classroom transforms from a traditional lecture course to an interactive course, where students  become active participants in both the dissemination and receipt of knowledge. Students’ contributions to the class are essential to their own learning as well as to their peers’ learning; students truly become valuable community members.  This has significant benefits in an interdisciplinary writing course where many students are in the class by requirement, and not by choice. In my ENG 305w course, community development appears to have resulted in improved student interest, engagement, and performance.

McKinney, John Paul, McKinney Kathleen G., Franiuk Renae, and Schweitzer John. “The College Classroom as a Community: Impact on Student Attitudes and Learning.” College Teaching 54.3 (2006): 281-84. Web.