Supporting cohort cohesion is important for maintaining engagement of all types of learner, new and returning.
Cohort identity and cohesion emerges when students:
- experience authentic participation; arising when students feel safe and supported to fully contribute their perspective. This is fostered by adopting inclusive approaches to communication (see below ‘Creating a culture of belonging’)
- are supported to have meaningful interaction with peers and create shared experiences (through design and modelling of interactions, for example, structuring group work)
- have dedicated online spaces to become familiar with others, develop shared understandings, trust and mutual respect, as a whole cohort and in smaller groups
During periods of remote teaching and learning, peer interaction is important for enabling students to feel a sense of belonging to learning communities within their courses.
- Use Blackboard Groups to create remote peer support networks, and set a task to break the ice. Consider keeping this group together for a few informal activities or for group work projects, to give remote students time to really get to know some peers and establish authentic relationships in a small group.
- When creating Groups, enable tools that will allow your students to interact exclusively with other members of the group via their Blackboard module, for example, the Email, File sharing, Collaborate Ultra tool and Discussion Forum.
Online communications can alter the way we perceive each other and ourselves. For example, online discussion groups may be inhibiting for students for whom English is not their first language, or students may be unfamiliar with the technologies used for live interaction. Consequently, students may lack confidence to fully contribute or express themselves, leading to feelings of anxiety, isolation, imposter syndrome or perceptions of being an 'outsider'.
In summary, students need help to:
- Adapt to new ways of communicating to effectively engage
- Have the confidence to contribute and/or voice concerns
- Feel like they are valued participants in the module community
Implement a few practical steps to foster an inclusive online dialogue, such as:
- Use of non-threatening icebreaker activities;
- Encouraging all students to share thoughts in a non-judgemental way;
- Establish some ground rules for online interactions (I.e. discussion boards, virtual meetings, group work etc.) and involve students in establishing these;
- Avoid and confront micro-aggressions and practice and promote micro-affirmations in online interactions (I.e. through monitoring of the chat panel during live interaction,
- Ensure careful use of terminology, such as awareness of colloquial language, academic jargon and cultural context of metaphors
- Use break-out rooms during live teaching (available in Teams meetings and Collaborate) and give presenting roles to students for sharing feedback. See also; tips for communicating with students in a webinar to see more options for involving students in live teaching to encourage dialogue.
Set up Blackboard discussion forums to answer FAQs and gather questions or opinions prior to live teaching (and reduce individual student queries/emails). Check the posts regularly and respond in a timely manner. You could communicate a regular time (for example, weekly time slot) when you will be checking/posting.
Forums can also be used for social activities and to facilitate smaller group discussions. Consider creating new forums as new topics or discussion points arise during the module, to pose questions for the whole module to participate or for specific groups of students.
As with classroom discussion, student engagement is unlikely without structure and some planned teacher intervention. Therefore, when deploying discussion boards;
- Clearly indicate the point of the forum
- Make the first post yourself
- Model engagement by posting questions/opinions/reflections and responding to others
- Support can be gradually withdrawn as learners become more independent and discussion shifts to more learner>learner interaction.
Signify key points in the term, such as the end of a project, end of the first week, the end of term etc. You could record a message to draw attention to the module progress, student successes or bring everyone together for an ad-hoc virtual social:
- Consider host a weekly virtual drop in at the start of term. Start with a format where you take the lead and are on hand to answer questions. Create a friendly environment and begin with a short check-in to see how everyone’s doing. To close the session, everyone shares one thing that went well, and one thing to focus on for the week ahead. Smaller group sizes will be more manageable and productive online, so you may wish to divide your time or schedule slots for specific groups to meet.
- As the group becomes more familiar they may feel confident to lead elements of a virtual social or continue these without your presence required.
- You might nominate students or groups to lead some activities during the session, to get others posting in the chat.
- Keep it simple, create a quiz (or nominate students to do this) and ask everyone how they are getting on.