Classroom Community: The Ecology for Learning – The Research

(Excerpts from: Meredith, J. R. (2013). The impact of podcasting on perceived learning, classroom community, and preferred context for podcast consumption. Regent University.)

This is part 1 of a two part series. This article presents the research basis for developing and nurturing a strong sense of community in our classes. Part 2 will provide an overview of various community building strategies for use in any modality.)

What do we know about how people learn best? If there was something you could do—a practice to implement in your courses that would have a significant impact on student learning, wouldn’t you be eager to give it a try?

Of course, some might say, “There are lots of things that I can do that significantly impact student learning. Surely you are not suggesting some kind of silver bullet are you?” That is correct. We all know there is no silver bullet, or “blue pill” that eradicates all obstacles to student learning. However, there is one factor that has repeatedly been demonstrated to be a predictor of student success and persistence in an academic program: Community. Research in learning theory, cognitive sciences, collaborative learning, and engagement all agree that people learn best in community.

Defining Community

Harper (2001) traced the etymology of the word community to the Latin communitas, indicating “common, public, general, shared by all or many,” and closely related to communitatum, referring to “fellowship, community of relations or feelings.”

In his seminal work, Sarason (1974) first proposed a concept of community independent of physical or geographical boundaries. He defined community as a “sense that one is part of a readily available, mutually supportive network of relationships upon which one could depend” (p. 1). This relational view of community embraces the fact that human behavior is influenced by human relationships—both individual and institutional—and is not independent of the social connections developed in relationship (Rovai & Ponton, 2005). Similarly, Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton (1996) defined community as a group of people who are socially interdependent and participate together in both dialog and decision making. They also share specific practices that, in part, define their community and are, in turn, nurtured by their community.

Characteristics of Community

Though researchers exploring psychological sense of community develop more or less comprehensive definitions of psychological sense of community, a number of common characteristics have been identified in the literature McMillan and Chavis (1986):

  • Membership—may include psychological or behavioral boundaries that contribute to feelings of emotional safety, as well as feelings of belonging or personal commitment.
  • Influence--refers to the sense that members matter to each other and to the group.
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs--Members feel a strong sense of belonging or community when they participate in meeting the needs of others or having their own needs met by members of the community.
  • A strong sense of belonging or emotional connection--Membership in a community provides opportunities for personal, positive interaction and sharing of ideas and information resources. This strong sense of belonging also facilitates members encouraging each other or recognizing members for notable contributions to the vitality of the community.

More recent research has identified two important dimensions in psychological sense of community: social community and learning community (Rovai, 2002; Rovai, Wighting, & Lucking, 2004).

  • Social community encompasses students’ sense of the community related to the level of “connectedness, cohesion, spirit, trust, and interdependence” (Rovai, 2002, p. 206).
  • Learning community refers to students’ feelings of shared values within their group and that their needs and expectations for educational success are being met as well (Rovai, Ponton, & Baker, 2008). Others equate learning community with community of inquiry or community of practice (Weigel, 2002, p. 7).

The Importance of Social and Learning Community

Wegerif (1998) suggested, “Without a feeling of community people are on their own, likely to be anxious, defensive and unwilling to take the risks involved in learning” (p. 48). Research on psychological sense of community suggests the development of social and learning community among class members is vitally important in reducing student attrition and improving student persistence, as well as improving student engagement and achievement (Lui, X., Magjuka, Bonk, & Lee, 2007; Ouzts, 2006; Rovai & Jordan, 2004). The most common method of developing community in either dimension is through interaction. There is a rich variety of interaction strategies to use in the traditional and online classroom.

Researchers have grappled with ways to categorize interactions that may occur in the online learning environment. Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) suggested communities that function well in an online learning environment exhibit three types of presence or interaction:

  • Social presence is defined as interactions in which learners make efforts to authentically communicate their personalities and emotions, creating connections between themselves and others in the community.
  • Cognitive presence is defined as the degree to which community members reflect and engage in discursive interaction to construct or maintain understandings.
  • Teaching presence refers to instructional design strategies and pedagogical strategies for directing and supporting social and cognitive interactions, resulting in achieving the desired learning outcomes (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2005).

Both social presence and cognitive presence correspond well to the characteristics of community identified by McMillan and Chavis (1986) as mentioned earlier. Baker (2003) noted that instructor presence (teaching presence) is a strong predictor of student learning.

Community-Building Strategies

Researchers have suggested a number of strategies and methods for building and strengthening community (Misanchuk & Anderson, 2001).

  • Activities requiring high levels of interaction
  • Activities requiring high levels of communication or collaboration
  • Requiring students to construct personal (online) profiles viewable by fellow students
  • Group projects
  • Face-to-face orientations
  • Collaborative tasks requiring students to establish the communication protocols for their group can facilitate in the development of a sense of community.

Rovai (2002) suggested a sense of community is facilitated by two types of interactions—task-driven interactions and socio-emotional interactions.

  • Task-driven interactions are designed to facilitate learning and achieve stated outcomes
  • Socio-emotional interactions are designed to develop and strengthen relationships between students. Both synchronous (e.g., Skype and Blackboard Collaborate) and asynchronous technologies (e.g., online discussion forums, wikis) may contribute to development of community in a variety of ways (X. Liu et al., 2007).


The literature also suggests community building can be successfully and effectively accomplished in any modality and contribute to student learning and engagement.


Baker, J. (2003). Instructor immediacy increases student enjoyment, perception of learning. Online Classroom, September.

Harper, D. (2001). Online etymology dictionary. Retrieved from

Sarason, S. B. (1974). The psychological sense of community. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rovai, A. P., & Ponton, M. K. (2005). An examination of sense of classroom community and learning among African American and Caucasia graduate students. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(3), 77-92.

Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A., & Tipton, S. M. (1996). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 6-23.

Rovai, A. P. (2002). Development of an instrument to measure classroom community. The Internet and Higher Education 5 (2002), 197-211. doi: 10.1016/S1096-7516(02)00102-1.

Rovai, A. P., Wighting, M. J., & Lucking, R. (2004). The classroom and community inventory: Develoment, refinement and validation of a self-report measure for educational research. The Internet and Higher Education, 7(4), 263-280.

Rovai, A. P., Ponton, M. K., & Baker, J. D. (2008). Distance learning in higher education: A programmatic approach to planning, design, instruction, evaluation, and accreditation. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Wegerif, R. (1998). The social dimension of asynchronous learning networks. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 2(2), 34-39.

Lui, X., Magjuka, R. J., Bonk, C. J., & Lee, S. (2007). Does sense of community matter? An examination of participants’ perceptions of building learning communities in online courses.  The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 8(1), 9-24.

Ouzts, K. (2006). Sense of community in online courses. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education7(3), 285-296.

Rovai, A. P., & Jordan, H. (2004). Blended learning and sense of community: A comparative analysis with traditional and fully online graduate courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning5(2).

Misanchuk, M., & Anderson, T. (2001). Building Community in an Online Learning Environment: Communication, Cooperation and Collaboration.