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Today’s college and university students want flexible learning options for communication. We have an opportunity to shift our focus from courses to student experience and the need to address interpersonal connections in online learning. Fostering a sense of belonging is essential for student success in online courses, and now is the time to integrate synchronous components that elevate the student experience. Technology has advanced to a place where online synchronous coursework and inclusive design elements lead to better learning outcomes, higher retention percentages, and improved completion rates.

Why connectedness in the classroom matters

Connection matters because being seen, heard, and known by faculty and peers is foundational to engagement and student success. Positive learning outcomes result from a sense of belonging in virtual classrooms—including higher academic performance, increased engagement, and a culture of growth born out of trusted educator relationships.

Higher academic performance

According to a 2019 study by Gopalan and Brady, having a greater sense of belonging is associated with higher academic performance, and persistence, and is protective for mental health. Creating this sense of connectedness in the classroom is shown to improve a student’s outcomes in significant ways.

Increased engagement

A 2011 Walton and Cohen study found that students who are confident they belong in an environment can engage more fully in learning within that environment. More recently, a 2020 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) report observed a positive correlation, noting, “This relationship is particularly strong for students’ quality interactions with others on campus, their sense of institutional support, and their perceived gains in learning and development attributable to their college experiences.”

Culture of growth

A student’s level of belonging in the classroom isn’t fixed, either. 2019 work from Gripshover and Paunesku suggests that teachers can change their classroom practices to demonstrate greater caring, provide more growth-oriented feedback, and consistently engage students meaningfully. These shifts can have consequential impacts on students and their learning outcomes.

The building blocks of belonging in the classroom

Creating a perception of connectedness in the classroom takes intentional effort. To foster a digital environment that allows students to cultivate the gains noted above, it’s essential to facilitate a specifically nurtured online classroom experience, and to do that designing with our users is key. The following questions represent what students ask aloud or subconsciously as we invite them to come to class, participate, and build relevance and understanding with instructional content.

  • I am included and invited into the conversation
  • My contributions are seen, heard, and valued
  • I know why this content matters
  • I am known by others and have the opportunity to share my perspective

How to create belonging in the classroom

Intentionally incorporating the following elements into instructional practice ensures a connected and inclusive online learning environment for students.

Set the stage

Establishing the right classroom culture is essential for cultivating a sense of connectedness and belonging among students. A well-defined framework promotes a supportive atmosphere, encouraging open communication, mutual respect, and shared expectations—all fundamental elements in building a cohesive learning community that empowers each student to thrive socially and academically.

Try these tips to ensure your online course has the proper structure and norms in place to best establish a classroom culture of connectedness:

  • Set clear expectations in each learning segment to encourage student contributions
  • Establish regular verbal and nonverbal check-ins with students to increase connectivity
  • Course design should be intentionally designed to create rich opportunities for discourse

Facilitate active learning

Upon setting the stage, improved interaction can be reinforced through strategically planned virtual activities. Try leveraging these active learning strategies using breakout rooms—and predefine which learning objectives are best suited for each—to promote engagement and a sense of involvement:

  • Think-Pair-Share: This strategy involves students individually reflecting on a question or prompt, and then discussing their thoughts with a partner before sharing their ideas with the whole class. It encourages active participation and allows students to engage in meaningful discussions.
  • Jigsaw Technique: In this approach, students are divided into small groups, each focusing on a topic. They then share their expertise with members of other groups, promoting collaboration, information sharing, and a shared sense of responsibility for learning.
  • Problem-Based Learning (PBL): PBL involves presenting students with a real-world problem or scenario they must solve collaboratively. This strategy not only encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills but also promotes active engagement as students work together to find solutions, fostering a sense of involvement in the learning process.

Amplify the learner’s voice

Enhancing students’ opportunities to have their voice “heard” can happen verbally and nonverbally. Giving ample time to consider opting in, including advanced notice, can help students prepare to engage more confidently than being put “on the spot.” Additionally, utilizing nonverbal communication for more frequent and consistent touchpoints promotes inclusivity and encourages students to participate using many available channels.

Ensure the availability of online support services

Students participating in online education should have access to the same resources as those learning on campus. Here are a few ways to ensure virtual student support is available:

  • Deliver student support services online to improve academic performance for all learners
  • Host digital advisory sessions to discuss academic, social, or career issues
  • Promote behavioral wellness with social and emotional interventions

The right tools for the job

Like any other aspect of effective teaching, it’s essential to have the right tools to achieve the desired outcome. When it comes to increasing student connectedness in the classroom, a virtual classroom platform offers many helpful features that are difficult to replicate in in-person environments.

Real-time analysis

Top-end online classroom platforms provide real-time engagement data educators can use to ensure they’re fostering belonging in the classroom. See how frequently each student is verbally participating by checking their talk time meters—and capture their nonverbal involvement, as well, through the number of virtual hand raises or poll questions answered.

Privacy wins

Some students are less likely to participate because of shyness around their peers. Best-in-class virtual classroom platforms offer enhanced privacy where a student’s camera view can be made available to their instructor or teaching assistants and not the rest of the class, allowing more learners to confidently demonstrate nonverbal responses to the materials.

Future-focused engagement

Not only are there plenty of remarkable features and tools online learning platforms use to facilitate connectedness in the classroom, but more are on the way. Embedding AI technology into real-time, synchronous classrooms can allow students to ask questions of a virtual AI teaching assistant without interrupting class—and educators can be made aware of query frequency as another measurement of learning engagement. These insights, as well as AI-generated session notes, can then be shared among peers to further improve a sense of belonging in the classroom.

Next-level belonging

The evidence is clear that fostering a sense of belonging in the classroom for learners has many benefits for their learning experience. While past perceptions may have seen online learning as sacrificing a feeling of connectedness in the classroom, new technology not only addresses this head-on, but real-time data actually provides insights not capturable in person.

Are you ready to see how a best-in-class online learning platform can help your educators create that valuable sense of belonging for students? Speak to one of our Class team members today, and let’s take your student experience to the next level.

Jason Bedford

Jason Bedford is the SVP of Education at Class, and is a passionate educator and technologist. Having held executive positions with leading EdTech companies, he's worked hard to drive innovation with global educational partners and support their mission of equity and student achievement. Before EdTech, he was an educator in Wake County Public Schools.

Jason Bedford

Jason Bedford is the SVP of Education at Class, and is a passionate educator and technologist. Having held executive positions with leading EdTech companies, he's worked hard to drive innovation with global educational partners and support their mission of equity and student achievement. Before EdTech, he was an educator in Wake County Public Schools.

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