Building Community in Large Classes

In large, crowded, undergraduate classes students can feel anonymous, passive, unmotivated, and isolated (Trees & Jackson, 2007). When students have the opportunity to interact with one another, they can make acquaintances and friends, which is the first step to developing social support, acceptance, camaraderie, and, ultimately, a sense of community. Feeling a sense of community at school is associated with increased motivation, greater enjoyment of class, improved conflict resolution skills, and more effective learning (Kangas Dwyer et al., 2009; Sawyer et al., 2009; Wilcox, et al., 2005). Making acquaintances and friends is the first level of building community (Brown, 2001) and developing social support. Instructors can foster a sense of community by increasing their social presence and by increasing student interactions at three levels: student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-content (Moore, 1989).

When you employ these activities, be explicit and explain why you are asking students to engage in these activities. It’s also important to model your expectations. For example, participate in the get-to-know-you activities yourself, so students see that you are sharing the type of personal information that you’re asking them to share with one another.

  • Don’t cold call or single out a student or pressure anyone to join in. Some students like the anonymity of large classes. Given the high prevalence of anxiety among university students it is likely that some students may be too anxious to interact in person; these students can still benefit by observing others who are participating. Consider using LEARN or other technologies to help students who are more comfortable communicating through technology.
  • Provide multiple opportunities for interaction throughout the term. Rather than using ‘icebreakers’ on the first day only, consider using course-related activities to break up a lecture into smaller segments.

Student-to-Student Interaction

The goal of these activities is to provide students with the opportunity to get to know one another. These activities are intended for groups of 2-4 people, and each one lasts approximately 5-10 minutes. When introducing these activities, tell students why you are using the activity. Consider using these activities throughout the term (i.e., not just in the first week of class). Note that some students might feel uncomfortable participating in interpersonal activities, especially icebreakers that are not tied to course content. It’s best not to force students to participate; rather, allow them to opt out and learn by observing.

  • Cell Sharing: In a small group, each student shares a photo, song, or video from their mobile device that they think best represents them. Each person has a chance to talk about their selection and why they chose it.
  • Virtual Introductions: Set up a LEARN Discussion forum where students introduce themselves. This can be completely open-ended or structured (e.g., Introduce yourself by stating your name, your major, what year you are in, where you are from/where you live now, what you want to do after university). Instructors can then use this information to group students into similar groups or dissimilar groups and/or refer to students’ future occupations as they make connections between course content and professional applications of the material.
  • Texting Interviews: Randomly pair students (can be done either face-to-face or virtually). Ask each student to develop 3-5 questions that they would want to ask others to help them get to know someone better. The pairs then text their questions and answers back and forth. The pair can use a free communication spaces that do not require the user to login (e.g., TodaysMeet) or they can use a LEARN discussion forum that has been set up prior to the class. Interviewers summarize what they found out about their partners and post their partners’ names and this information in a class-wide LEARN discussion forum.
  • Common Ground: In groups of two, students have 1 minute to find 6 things they have in common. They then pair with another group of 2 and then the group of four has 2 minutes to find 6 things that they all have in common.
  • Sharing Trepidations: This can be done in small groups, online, or anonymously via the learning management system or a polling tool (e.g., Poll Everywhere). Follow this with a discussion of students’ most significant concerns or fears.

Student-to-Instructor Interactions

These activities are meant to foster a positive class climate and engage students in the class community. By participating in these activities in pairs or small groups, these activities also promote student-to-student interactions.

  • Course Outline Icebreaker: In small groups, students identify outstanding questions or complete a course outline quiz. An alternative would be to give an “assignment icebreaker” where students work in groups to discuss and identify questions regarding assignment instructions.
  • Class Expectations: In groups of 2-4, students identify up to 6 ground rules for the use of technology in class (discuss pros and cons and etiquette). Instructors follow up by summarizing and discussing the expectations with students.
  • Collaborative Start, Stop, Continue: Students work in pairs or small groups to provide their thoughts about what they’d like their instructor to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing in class. The groups then submit their responses to a free online bulletin board (e.g., PadletLino). Instructors follow up by summarizing the results and discussing what will change/not change, and why.
  • Interview the Instructor: Students work in groups to develop questions for the instructor. Questions should pertain to the instructor’s professional life.
  • Twitter Scavenger Hunt: Students in the course work in pairs to tweet the responses to ten questions. The questions are provided at the start of class and the students have the class period to complete the assignment, either in the class or outside of class. This assignment should be linked to course or class learning outcomes.

Student-to-Content Interaction

These activities aim to actively engage students with the course material. These activities can also be used to promote student-to-student interactions when students are asked to work on the activity in small groups. By participating in these activities in pairs or small groups, these activities also promote student-to-student interactions.

  • The Alphabet Game: Students think of a discipline-specific concept/theory that starts with the letter A, the letter B, etc. until they reach they end of the alphabet (e.g., “What Do Sociologists Study?”). A variation would be to see how far down the alphabet the groups can get in 5 minutes. The instructor follows up with the large class. (Eggleston & Smith)
  • Collaborative Response: The instructor poses a question to the class and invites responses by a show of hands or via an online immediate response tool (e.g., Clickers, Polleverywhere). After providing their individual response students discuss the question in small groups. Each small group develops a group response which is then shared or submitted along with all individual responses.
  • Thought Provoking Questions: The instructor poses a thought-provoking, “yes or no” debatable question to which students respond individually and then discuss in groups of 2-4 (e.g., Food banks should be discontinued because they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.) The instructor follows up with a large group discussion. This can also be done in the large class with immediate response tools (e.g., Clickers, Polleverywhere).
  • Using Popular Music to teach course concepts or themes: Music can be used in a variety of ways to encourage interaction and engage students in the course. One idea is to play energizing, popular music as students enter the classroom to create an informal, relaxed atmosphere, focus students’ attention to the course, stimulate conversation, and increase the instructor’s social presence. Increase the relevance of this activity by selecting a popular song that expresses the topic of the lecture and have small groups discuss the song’s relevance. As the term progresses, ask student groups to suggest relevant songs. Another idea is to use “Classroom Karaoke”: In Classroom Karaoke the instructor shows song lyrics on screen while playing the instrumental sound track and invites students to sing along or just follow along with the words (Baker, 2012). As the term progresses, ask student groups to suggest relevant songs.
  • Two-Stage Testing. IF-AT (Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique) Cards: IF-AT cards are unique pre-designed cards that function like multiple choice questions, yet instead of indicating an answer by circling a letter, a learner can actually scratch the card to reveal what they think is the correct answer. Students begin by answering the list of questions on their own without use of IF-AT cards. Afterwards, students work with a group to go through the questions, convince one another of the correct answer, and then scratch the card to discover what is right. Ideally used to provide immediate feedback to students about concepts tested outside of the class. IF-AT cards can be used as diagnostic quiz at start of term, can be used as a unit test. CTE will provide IF-AT cards to instructors for a one-time trial (i.e., for one term).
  • Collaborative Concept Maps: Done either individually and shared, or created collaboratively from the start, a concept map can reinforce concepts learned out of class and build connections between various topics. Students map out how concepts, ideas or theories are thematically related in a visual manner. Any gaps can be useful inspiration for discussions either on a group of class level.
  • Find, Post & Vote: First, student groups find images from the media (e.g., advertisements, news headlines, TV shows, movies, newspapers, etc.) that portray the concept/topic being studied. Next, each group posts their image to LEARN. Finally, the instructor and TAs create a selection of the top 10 images and the class votes for the winners and have a class discussion on why the winners were the top picks. The top selections can be displayed for the class on one of the free, online bulletin board (e.g., PadletLino).
  • Think-Pair-Share: Students take a central concept presented in the out of class material, or a particularly controversial quiz question from the prior assessment, and reflect on it individually before discussing it with a neighbour. Think phase: students work independently and flesh out their thoughts/arguments and may write their thoughts down. Pair phase: students discuss their response with a partner. Share phase: elicit responses from members of the class and begin to engage your students in a wider discussion demonstrating the many different perspectives. Note that in large classes, there might only be time for a sample of groups to share with the large class.
  • Inkshedding: Give students up to 3 minutes to write their thoughts about a thought-provoking question on a piece of paper (students are instructed to put their name on the paper). After 3 minutes, students pass their paper to the person next to them. The receiver adds comments on what was written and/or adds to it. Repeat this process two more times with the last round returning the paper to its original author.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 



  • Brown, R.E. (2001). The process of community-building in distance learning classes. JALN, 5(2), 18-35.
  • Kangas Dwyer, K., et al., (2004). Communication and connectedness in the classroom: Development of the connected classroom climate inventory. Communication Research Reports, 21(3), 264-272.
  • McKinney, K., & Graham-Buxton, M. (1993). The use of collaborative learning groups in the large class: Is it possible? Teaching Sociology, 21 (4).
  • Moore, M. G. (1989). Editorial: Three Types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.
  • Sawyer, J.K., et al., (2009). To get-to-know-you or not to get-to-know-you: A two phase study of initial engagement activities. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 21(2), 187-196.
  • Trees, A.R., & Jackson, M.H. (2007). The learning environment in clicker classrooms: student processes of learning and involvement in university-level courses using student response systems. Learning, Media and Technology, 32(1), 21-40.
  • Wilcox, P., et al., (2005). ‘It was nothing to do with the university, it was just the people’: the role of social support in the first-year experience of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 30(6), 707-722.

Penguin image used with CC permission from Antarctica Bound

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