Better outcomes for students = build community

Neon lights 'You belong here'
Image credit: unsplash, Amer Mughawish, CC0

In this post, Dr Catherine Bovill shares some thoughts on the importance of building belonging, community and relationships to ensure a more positive student experience in the classroom, whether online or on campus. This post highlights materials developed for the Hybrid Teaching Exchange, including video discussions with Dr Chris Mowat and Professor Tina Harrison on this topic, as well as a selection of useful resources. This post is part of the Hot Topic theme: Revisiting the Hybrid Teaching Exchange.

It is clear from research literature that taking time to build relationships and a sense of community is really important for students to have a positive experience and successful outcomes at university (Bovill, 2020; Felten & Lambert 2020; Mayhew et al, 2016; Thomas 2021). Whatever mode of teaching you are planning this year, building student-staff relationships and student-student relationships, communicating that you care about students and providing time for sharing interests (both staff and students), can make the difference to students in feeling that they matter. There are many ways to do this in all the different modes in which teaching is taking place.

The following videos, PDF, and blog post resources bring together a range of ideas and approaches to building community. Whether it’s taking time to learn and remember students names, which indicates to students that you are making an effort to get to know them (Cooper et al, 2017), or whether you are creating spaces for students to ask academic questions, or whether you are organising social events, these efforts are highly likely to enhance a sense of community, mattering and belonging for students.


Video 1: Defining community and belonging for hybrid (Tina Harrison & Cathy Bovill)

Video 2: The importance of creating a sense of belonging in hybrid (Tina Harrison & Cathy Bovill)

Video 3: How to build community in the hybrid classroom (Chris Mowat & Cathy Bovill)

Video 4: How to create a sense of belonging for large groups in hybrid (Tina Harrison & Cathy Bovill)

Video 5: Engaging students online and building community ( From an engage event in April 2020, with Gill Aitken, Tim Fawns, Derek Jones, Debbie Spence).


A selection of previous Teaching Matters blog posts and podcast episodes

These resources highlight some key points we should consider further if we wish to build community:

  • The need to create an environment that is respectful and safe, which enables belonging;
  • Creating community starts before students start studying for the academic year;
  • Recognise there are different kinds of community, and that it’s important for students to feel they belong to at least one community at university;
  • The importance of being transparent and honest in communications with students, even when things are uncertain;
  • Do not assume students will be familiar with the mode of teaching you are using, take time to enable students to build confidence;
  • Think carefully about the concept of teacher presence and how you achieve this through different approaches to teaching;
  • Ensure teaching is engaging, whatever mode of teaching you use;
  • Ensure there are spaces for fun, and for social connections to be formed alongside the academic;
  • Do not get too focused on technology and ‘delivery’ of teaching and forget the importance of community building and, for example, group work;
  • Design assessments that can enhance connections and deeper approaches to learning.

To be effective, teaching is relational and builds meaningful connections between the teacher, students and the subject. As we start the academic year, it is worth stopping for a moment to recognise that community building is not an optional extra, it is at the heart of good teaching.


Bovill, C. (2020) Co-creating learning and teaching: towards relational pedagogy. St Albans: Critical Publishing.

Cooper, K.M., Haney, B., Krieg, A. and Brownell, S.E. (2017) What’s in a name? The importance of students perceiving that an instructor knows their names in a high-enrollment biology classroom. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 16: 1–13.

Felten, P. & Lambert, L.M. (2020) Relationship-rich education: how human connections drive success in college. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Mayhew, M.J., Rockenbach, A.N., Bowman, N.A., Seifert, T.A., Wolniak, G.C., Pascarella, E.T. and Terenzini, P.T. (2016) How college affects students. Volume 3 21st Century evidence that higher education works. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Sense of Belonging Task Group (2020) Fostering a sense of belonging at our University: a guide for Schools. University of Edinburgh:

Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student retention and success programme. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation / HEFCE / Higher Education Academy.

Catherine Bovill

Dr Catherine Bovill is Senior Lecturer in Student Engagement at the Institute for Academic Development (IAD), University of Edinburgh, Visiting Fellow at the University of Bergen, Norway and Visiting Fellow at the University of Winchester, UK and previously a Fulbright Scholar. She is Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Fellow of the Staff and Educational Development Association. Cathy leads the IAD programme and course design team, leads the UoE Student Partnership Agreement and funding scheme, is Convenor of the UoE Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme and is co-chair of the Curriculum Transformation Programme Student Engagement Strategy Group. Her research focuses on student-staff co-created curriculum, having published over 50 articles and books in this area and she is regularly invited to present her work internationally.

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