Connecting Students in Virtual Learning Environments

Last updated on: December 17, 2020

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All students benefit when their learning experience includes opportunities to connect with their peers. But student-to-student engagement is especially helpful for adult learners in virtual classes. These learners bring a wealth of work and life experience to courses, which can enrich their learning by making it personally relevant. In this article, Luke Cable, Senior Learning Designer at Wiley University Services, shares ways to help students connect in virtual classes and beyond.

When students get opportunities to be vulnerable and express themselves through course activities, they become more visible and relatable to their classmates and you as the instructor. These opportunities are especially beneficial in virtual environments. Let’s look at ways you can create the right conditions for student-to-student engagement—and encourage participation—in virtual learning.

Connecting Within the Class

Instructors cannot shoehorn social and emotional student connection into a virtual class. Instead, you must interweave it carefully throughout the semester. Treat it as a course characteristic, not a standalone item. To incorporate fruitful student interaction, you can:

Use Discussion Forums

There’s a good reason most virtual courses use discussion forums—when done well, they foster engaging learning experiences. Plus, these forums give online students a platform to share ideas through thoughtful conversation.

So, how can you foster constructive discussions? By posing open-ended questions that tie directly to course topics, spur an investigation of concepts, and stimulate reflection. Avoid posting questions that seem like assignments and have clear “correct” answers. For the best results, be sure to take part in the conversation.

Develop Relatable Activities

Enabling students to connect activities to their life experiences is a small change that can make a big difference. Think through your course activities—do you provide opportunities for students to compare topics to their past accomplishments and future goals? By making learning personal, you can enhance social interaction in your virtual class and gain insight into what motivates your students. 

Require Video

As you move on-ground classes to a virtual environment, you will likely hear how important it is for students to engage each other using video, and with good reason. Video has a positive impact on peer-to-peer interaction and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Set the expectation for required video use—and follow through on it—so students adapt quickly to video chat as their new normal for learning.

Note that video use offers benefits beyond videoconferencing. Ask students to turn on their cameras during discussion forums and activities, as well. For added engagement, encourage them to post video replies to assignments.

Connecting Beside the Class

When a class meets in a physical room, natural interactions take place during transition moments. These transitions occur before and after class, as well as when you pivot to new topics within lectures. We refer to these transitions as beside-the-class times. These times aren’t directly related to class content, but they create valuable interactions that take place solely because students have come together in your class.

Beside-the-class times can also take place naturally in virtual classes. But you may need to lay the foundation for these moments to occur. To create opportunities for students to connect beside the class, you can:

Create a Student Lounge

A student lounge is a dedicated area of the virtual classroom—such as a discussion forum in your learning management system (LMS)—that you set aside for open student conversations. It isn’t tied to course content or a course’s weekly flow. Instead, students can chat freely by posting questions and sharing thoughts on personal interests. When you create a student lounge, it’s important to set ground rules to foster participation that is civil and kind. But don’t make the rules too constraining or require students to post in the lounge. Feel free to join conversations in the student lounge, but focus more on making personal connections than offering academic feedback.

Assign Group Work

Group work benefits students most when it relates to their learning experience. It’s also an excellent way for students to connect personally. Group assignments are especially worthwhile to students who rarely participate in class-wide activities. Follow these guidelines to organize group work that promotes student connection:

  • Set expectations for professional interaction, goals, and deliverables.
  • Vary your approach for assembling groups. You can assign groups or allow students to form groups on their own, a process that adds to peer-to-peer engagement.
  • Let students determine when and how they meet. Feel free to suggest collaboration tools and meeting times, but don’t make your ideas binding. By coordinating group work logistics, students get to interact even more.
  • Encourage students to begin group work by creating a “Ways of Working” document. It will outline how students are accountable to one another as they work on assignments.

Promote a Variety of Communication Tools

Students can communicate by sending text messages or using video and audio platforms beyond the LMS. At schools that use Microsoft Office 365, students can talk over Teams or Skype. Additionally, students can connect via Google Hangouts at schools that use G Suite for Education. Through these tools, students can meet in relaxed study groups as they experienced on campus. As a result, you’ll help narrow the social distance they may feel following a rapid transition to virtual learning.


Student-to-student interaction is a valuable component of virtual classes. By establishing a social presence in your course, you can develop a balanced learning framework that enables students to bond and work together. Be intentional as you connect students and weave a variety of opportunities for collaboration throughout your virtual courses.

Want to learn more? Visit our Virtual Resource Center to access articles and guidance for building, maintaining, and enhancing virtual courses.

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