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Wednesday, August 05, 2020

The Importance of Building Connections and Community -- Preparing for Fall Teaching in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, or Remote Courses

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the other posts in the series, see here and for the  five step approach that I am using, see here

My posts so far in this series have focused on the first two steps of my five step approach to redesigning your courses to be physically distanced or remote— (1) identifying your learning objectives and (2) deciding on your assessment and engagement techniques.  This post will introduce the third step, which focuses on building connections and community in these new learning environments.  

We may think of connections and community as things that are nice to have, but they are actually essential to student learning.  Research shows that a sense of community at school is associated with increased motivation, greater enjoyment of their classes, and more effective learning.  The research also suggests that building this sense of community is much harder in online or hybrid courses.  Students in online environments struggle with feeling isolated (as do many professors!).

Most of the empirical data on this topic comes from undergraduates, but data from the Law Student Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) shows that a sense of belonging matters to law students as well.  LSSSE data has been used to examine both the inputs and outputs of law students’ sense of belonging.  In other words, using the LSSSE data, we can gain insight into what causes law students to feel a sense of belonging (the inputs) and the impact that a sense of belonging has on law students’ performance in law school and their career more generally (the outputs).

Starting with the inputs, LSSSE’s 2018 report Relationships Matter surveyed more than 18,000 students at 72 different law schools.  They conclude:  “Relationships with faculty, administrators, and peers are among the most influential aspects of the law student experience. These connections deepen students’ sense of belonging and enhance their understanding of class work and the profession.”  Connections, in other words, are key when it comes to fostering law students’ sense of belonging.  That’s not surprising.  Think back to your most meaningful learning experiences in law school.  They probably didn’t happen when you were passively listening in class.  For me at least, they came through study groups and conversations with faculty—i.e., those times in law school when my learning combined with meaningful relationships.

When it comes to the outputs, we can look at research summarized here by Professor Victor D. Quintanilla, who was one of the researchers who conducted a key study using LSSSE data.  They found that a sense of belonging significantly predicted three key outputs – (1) students’ overall experience in law school, (2) whether they would choose to go to law school again, and (3) their academic success (i.e., law school GPA).  Moreover, not only does a student’s sense of belonging help predict their academic performance, but the impact was even greater than other commonly used predictors such as undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores.  This means that, even if students come to law school with different academic backgrounds, we can help close this gap by fostering our students’ sense of belonging. 

Professor Quintanilla depicts the inputs and outputs of law students’ sense of belonging as follows:

The takeaways from this research are clear.  We cannot just focus on the content of our courses.  If we want our students to succeed, we also need to help foster key connections between our students and between our students, faculty, and staff.  In traditional classes, these connections develop fairly naturally.  Students talk casually with the professor and each other before and after class, and they bolster these connections through interactions outside of class—stopping by a professor’s office, running into their classmates in the hallways or the library, etc.  There are also personal bonds that develop in class when we can see people’s faces and expressions.  These connections will be much harder in physically distanced or remote classrooms, so this fall we will have to be much more intentional about developing a sense of connection and community among our students.

So how do we do it?  The theory on building community in online courses is built around the community of inquiry model.  The model has been represented as follows:


Social presence refers to the development of an online environment in which participants feel socially and emotionally connected with each other.  Cognitive presence describes the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse.  Teaching presence is defined as the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the realization of meaningful learning.

This can feel a little abstract, but the main idea is that you need to think intentionally about how students will interact with the content, how they will interact with you, and how they will interact with each other.  I’ve talked about how students interact with the content in my prior posts on assessment and engagement techniques.  In my next two posts, I’ll discuss the other components, starting with how to foster connections between you and your students.  

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 5, 2020 at 06:49 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


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