This article is based on a webinar discussion presented by WGU Labs and InScribe.

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InScribe, a WGU Labs partner, leverages the power of community and artificial intelligence to connect students to the resources, answers, and individuals they need to succeed in school and beyond.

The Importance of Community

In a recent webinar, three education and technology leaders discussed two timely topics that are on the minds of many higher education professionals: building community and retaining students. In this discussion, Dr Omid Fotuhi, director of innovation at WGU Labs, recognized that education is facing disruptions, and we aren’t sure what our future student and educator (and staff) interactions will look like. As educators and administrators, what can we do to retain our students?

For all students, learning and succeeding in postsecondary education requires a variety of human supports—peers, advisors, instructors. These individuals or groups of individuals form communities throughout the university to which students belong. Katy Kappler, Co-founder and CEO of InScribe, clarified that establishing community is important, but it is not one size fits all. At its core,community is about human connections and providing access to information. Your first inclination might just be connecting students to services and people, but building a resilient community means including faculty, administrators, and staff. Community provides relationships and support mechanisms that can be carried beyond the education experience. It also gives members the ability to find resources to navigate the learning experience.

Community starts with Belonging

Why is a sense of belonging critical?

Learning is not simply absorbing content and demonstrating mastery—learning is a social experience. According to Dr Fotuhi, students experiment with their social identity as a learner, and the most important questions they ask themselves are:

“Do I belong? Can I do it? Do I matter?”

That means in a mathematics class, students will ask “Am I a math student? Can I do this? Will the teacher help me?” The answers ultimately determine whether or not they choose to engage.

Dr Fotuhi continued, “Ironically, these questions have little to do with mastering content.” And merely getting into college doesn’t automatically translate to students feeling they belong.

It is up to educators and administrators to help students find their identity as a “learner” and a member of their institution’s community. We need to introduce opportunities for students to belong often and throughout the entirety of their higher education experience. Faculty, staff, and administrators also must have a sense of belonging, in order for them to provide this access for students.

During the spring 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, student belonging and communities were tested. In particular, the forced move from in-person learning to online caused individuals and groups to adjust. However, virtual communities, we found, can be effective when structured well.

Strategies to spark belonging:

  • Give students a platform for frequent access and interactions with a diverse set of peers. Diversity plays a crucial role, bringing identity to the many groups students identify with.
  • Offer faculty and staff care, support, and peer mentoring.
  • Provide structures that communicate belonging.

Building Community

Here are three broad principles for building community at your institution: engage, be flexible, and and be humble.


A community cannot grow and thrive without providing member access and opportunities to connect. How do we create opportunities for people to engage that are both natural and efficient? How do we give people opportunities to engage without adding to already competing priorities?

Use small focus groups. Set up Informal career exploration. Involve recently-graduated alumni.

Small focus groups. Encourage students to speak-up and be active. You can get a tremendous amount of information directly from students telling you what they need and giving them opportunities to raise their hand and say, “Here’s how I want to engage.”

Career exploration. This is not formal career services, but an informal way for students to connect with professionals who are living the results of their education. It empowers students, and also helps them feel connected to the institution. Involve alumni in these communities – don’t underestimate the power of their story. It can inspire students to hear from graduates who are now practitioners working in roles and employers that students are interested in.

Reach out to recent graduates who missed their graduation ceremony during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ask them to record a short “graduation speech” about what their degree means to them; what challenges they had to overcome to reach their academic goals; and how they plan to use their degree in the future. Play the messages to pass the baton to the incoming cohort of students. It can be something that continues after the pandemic is over, helping build community across academic years.


Educators need to be intentional and present at the best of times. This crisis is an exceptional time. You can take advantage of creativity and be flexible about your approach.

  • Consider replacing a one-hour class with two 30-minute classes with a smaller number of students.
  • Try being flexible in the content you cover, how you cover it, and how you grade assignments, recognizing that students are experiencing additional stress with different demands.

Create spaces that are student-driven. These spaces should not be bound by a particular date or a particular time, so students can engage and interact when it’s convenient. When students are in need they will engage. Open the door for students not on a traditional cycle and for those who need a little more time to think through what they want to post.


Many educators will have difficulty adapting to the technology, such as different scheduling, video connections, virtual meeting rooms, and other constraints. This is a great time to focus on humility.

There is a humanity in not knowing everything.

If you convey you are not the “all-knowing authority on everything”—and that you are on this journey with the students—you will validate students’ feelings. You can admit to feeling frustrated or alone at times—because it helps students see that their feelings are normal and common. How students view their instructors is crucial—if students think educators have no trouble, they may feel shame about their own feelings, and feel additional stress to perform well.

How do I avoid critical pitfalls?

When building community at your institution, there are some actions we should start and others we should avoid so you can navigate around critical pitfalls.

Provide adequate and accurate representation of diverse student groups

If you don’t have engagement from students, it may be they do not feel they can see themselves in the people helping them succeed. Review and replace images, textbooks, media in your courses to make sure diverse groups are represented adequately and accurately.

Address stereotype threat

Some students are already contending with the belief they will be negatively viewed because of the groups they identify with. In the absence of a different narrative, these students will default to those negative stereotypes when they face difficulty or ambiguity. Your role as educator means changing that narrative; that the student does belong, is capable of doing the work, and does matter. If you find those students are not engaged, take time to check in.

Be aware of contextual cues and lack of representation

If someone is clearly underrepresented in a class or program—a common example is the underrepresentation of female students in STEM—your role is to be aware of the contextual cues and barriers. A female STEM student walking to class who sees a series of pictures with one white man after another will get the message “You don’t belong.” This is magnified if that student recently had a negative interaction. Change what you can and listen to those who feel they can tell you when something is wrong.

Understand pluralistic ignorance

Most students believe they are alone feeling anxiety and uncertainty, when in actuality most of the students are feeling the same. A student may disengage and look inward, asking themselves again: Do I belong? Can I do it? Do I matter? Helping students continually answer these questions is important to create a resilient sense of belonging.

Go beyond existing metrics

You cannot easily measure the quality of interpersonal interactions. If students approach teachers to discuss and share, that is a sign the students feel safe in taking that risk, that they belong. If they are not, look for what you can change; offer live office hour sign-ups at varying times (day/evening), send a quick message to your quieter students, or set up a live review lesson before a quiz.

Continuity of Community

It can be overwhelming for students to navigate education, more so in a time of crisis. Now, more than ever, community and a sense of belonging are critical to attracting, retaining, and graduating students. Rely on virtual spaces to help structure a community and build a resilient sense of belonging as we encounter new, unexpected challenges.

This period of time is unique. Stay flexible, engage your students, engage your staff. Listen and find creative ways to build a continuity of community that can last beyond the education experience.

Kevin Kelly, EdD, Consultant, @KevinKelly0
Katy Kappler, @katykappler
Omid Fotuhi, PhD, @OmidFotuhi

Header image by Christina @ on Unsplash