Building Classroom Atmosphere Without the Classroom

The scratch of chairs sliding, the zip of backpacks opening, and the hum of students chatting have been replaced by squares of faces on a computer screen, often inanimate.

Those once routine sounds that marked the moments before class began helped create the learning atmosphere in which students formed bonds with one another or approached their instructor casually. That atmosphere helped set the tone of a class that is difficult to duplicate when teaching remotely.

Still, instructors can build a positive remote classroom atmosphere with a few strategies, outlined below.

Assign “class-adjacent socializing.” One ofthe biggest losses during remote teaching has been the inability of students to connect with one another to create the social bonds that lead to a sense of community in a classroom. A recent post from Inside Higher Ed discussed a way to create informal “class-adjacent socializing” to accomplish this desirable outcome.

The main point of the activity was not for students to discuss class material, but rather for them to get to know one another so that when they didcollaborate online, they felt comfortable doing so. In this series of graded, low-stakes activities, the instructor put students into groups of four and tasked them to talk about anything, class-related or not. Each group had an organizer who received an e-mail with instructions about how to set up the meetings, possible discussion topics, and an explanation of the activity’s purpose. The exercise occurred three times early in the semester. The role of organizer was switched each time, and that individual was responsible for sending the instructor a screenshot of everyone on the videocall with a 100-word summary of what the group discussed.

Have students work in learning pods. Learning pods can be used to conduct peer editing or to facilitate group meetings, discussions, or writing workshops. Depending on the instructor’s preference, students may remain in the same pod for an entire semester for consistency or be in different pods for each group assignment so they meet more classmates. Many apps for group work exist including Slack, Google’s Messages, or Zoom. Zoom’s breakout room feature, for example, allows the host to set up groups beforehand or to assign students to groups at random. Zoom also allows the instructor to “visit” the breakout rooms.

Help students feel part of a learning community. Research has shown that students in online writing classes are more motivated if they feel a sense of belonging to the class. Instructors can foster this feeling first by making sure they have no biases in their own teaching practices.

In addition, instructors may need to adjust their teaching practices to help create an atmosphere in which students feel invested in a class despite being physically separate from classmates. Several strategies work to accomplish this. Many studies have shown that students feel part of a learning community when they can choose topics that interest them either culturally or professionally.

This can be tricky in the business communication classroom, but it is possible to integrate assignments that give students some level of agency. For example, instructors might assign students to work in groups to create a social media campaign for a local non-profit, write a brochure or newsletter for a campus organization, or compose a letter to a firm’s board of directors asking them to reconsider a policy. Such activities help support students’ learning by enhancing their motivation and by giving them a chance to make their voices heard.

Another method to encourage students to take a stake in their learning is to vary the ways they demonstrate what they’ve learned. Of course writing is integral in a business communication classroom, but many genres require the clear, purposeful prose characteristic of writing in professional contexts. Oral presentations accompanied by slide decks can replace a written business report. A speech can be given in lieu of writing a persuasive proposal. A podcast can deliver information. These alternatives to traditional writing assignments may bring in students who might otherwise feel adrift.

Students and instructors alike are looking forward to the day when the sounds of an actual, not virtual, classroom mark the beginning of class. Until then, the above activities provide students with a semblance of the classroom atmosphere to which we long to return, hopefully sooner rather than later.

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