Option 3: Facilitate peer interaction to build community in the online classroom (2-3 hours)

This pictures shows a hexagon to represent structure.This option invites participants to explore some best practices for encouraging peer interaction to build community in online teaching and learning. Although all options are designed to familiarize you with community building practices, this option takes a closer look at the benefits of peer interaction and group work. Remember that what we offer are strategies and suggestions only. It is always up to you to determine whether or not a particular tool or technique will align with your own approach to teaching or the learning outcomes of your unique course.



  • Part B) Facilitating online discussion boards (20-30 minutes)
    • Review an infographic for best practices for creating effective discussions in online courses.
    • Review resources for effective online discussions.
  • Part C) Activity (40 minutes – 1.5 hours)
    • Create an activity or section of your syllabus that will facilitate peer interaction and that aligns with the included checklist.
    • Optional:
      • Contribute to a collaborative document sharing resources for best team work, group discussion, and peer interaction strategies.
      • Share this activity with your peers in the module discussion forum for feedback.

Time: Depending on your level of engagement, this option should take between 2 – 3 hours to complete.


Guiding Questions:

  • Why is it important that learners interact with each other in an online environment?
  • What are some challenges to implementing peer interaction in an online course?
  • How can I facilitate peer interaction as a means to create community and increase student engagement?
  • What are best practices for facilitating group work in online courses?

Part A) Facilitating online group work

Hopefully, after working your way through the preceding pages in this module, you will have gained an appreciation for the importance of building community in your online course. One way of ensuring community through peer interaction is to implement group work in your course. Below, read through the rationale and challenges in facilitating group work in online courses:

Rationale — Why should you consider group work for your online class? 

      • Increases sense of learning community among a smaller group
      • Makes it easier for you to track discussions
      • Allows for application of concepts in a setting similar to many workplaces.
      • Helps students build communication, leadership, and team building skills.

What are some challenges to implementing group work? 

      • Many students may have had a negative experience with group work that was not well-facilitated in the past.
      • Because of negative experiences with ‘coasters’ or those students who do not pull their own weight, learners may be skeptical about the benefits of group work.
      • Students don’t understand what the expectations are or are left to determine these on their own.
      • Students lack the skills necessary for effective group work/peer interactions.

Key Considerations:

Given these challenges and the compelling reasons to include peer interaction in online courses, how can instructors ensure that their courses include well designed activities that will ensure students meet their learning goals? There are many considerations for implementing peer interaction or group work in your class, but two of the most important  are the following:

a) Model your expectations (i.e. practice what you preach)

  • If you want students to value their interactions with each other, you need to show them that you value their interactions. You can do this by using their names (when possible), recognizing and outwardly valuing different kinds of contributions, and giving respectful and generative feedback.

b) Provide explicit rationale for group work

  • When students understand why you believe creating opportunities for peer interaction as a means to build community is important, they will be much more likely to be on board with the learning experience.
  • As noted above, sometimes students resist the idea of engaging in peer interactions, such as peer review or team work because they feel they and/or their peers don’t have the necessary skills. As faculty we may also resist creating peer interactions for this same reason. This becomes a self-fulfilling endeavour, however,  for if we fail to provide adequate support and clear guidelines about how to engage in peer interaction such as giving peer feedback, it is unlikely to be effective or well-perceived by students.

As a part of ensuring learners interact and engage thoughtfully and productively with each other, incorporating peer feedback is an effective strategy. Watch the following video (5:20min) about the RISE model of peer feedback developed by Emily Wray. As we shall see below, building in opportunities for structured peer feedback is a way to ensure your peer or group activity is effective.


Teamwork or Group work resources:

Team project and peer feedback/assessment tools (e.g. rubrics, checklists, contracts, samples, etc.):

  •  Sample rubric provided by the LinkResearchLab.
  • Webpage from Carnegie Melon University with many group and peer assessment tools.
  • Australia’s University of New South Wales has compiled a resource page including videos, case studies, and rubrics for peer assessment here.
  • George Brown College provides this sample of a Team contract.
  • University of Waterloo’s Group Contracts.

Reflection: What do you find useful about these tools? What would you change and why? How do these approaches align with your own teaching philosophy? Feel free to take some time to share your reflections with your peers in the module discussion forum.

Part B) Facilitating online discussions

Just as in our F2F classrooms, discussions in online classrooms allow learners to synthesize the material as they articulate their ideas to peers. It also allows them to engage in critical thinking by responding to peers’ questions and asking questions of their own. Moreover, online discussions allow students to build community among themselves as they share their ideas and experiences (Bickle & Rucker, 2018; Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Similar to our face-to-face (F2F) classrooms, creating the space and the structure for thoughtful and productive discussions to happen requires more than opening up a discussion board. It requires active facilitation that demonstrates both teacher presence and social presence. As in our discussion about team work, students need guidance and modelling to ensure that they will engage effectively in online discussions.

Review this summary of some tips for best practices in facilitating online discussions in both synchronous and asynchronous classrooms:

Note that this interactive infographic was made using H5P. Learn more about H5P here.

Suggested resources:

Part C) Activity

Activity: Facilitating peer interaction

  • Create an activity or section of your syllabus that will facilitate peer interaction. Ensure that it aligns with some of the principles and strategies you’ve encountered above in the readings/video. To help you create your activity, you may find the checklist below useful.
  • You may also wish to create a rubric for assessment. See the samples above.
  • Purpose: The purpose of this activity is to enable you to create or modify an activity or assessment so that it aligns with the principles and strategies for facilitating effective peer interaction presented in this chapter.
  • Time: Depending on your level of engagement, it may take you 40-minutes to 1.5 hours to complete this activity.

Below is a checklist you can use when creating effective group work activities or assignments in your online course:

  1. Have I determined which content in my course may be a good fit for a group work activity or assessment?
  2. Have I ensured this activity/assessment assists students in meeting one or more of the course learning objectives?
  3. Have I structured this activity/assessment so that it breaks the main task down into smaller tasks?
  4. Have I created enough opportunity at the beginning of the activity/assessment for peers to get to know each other? (icebreakers)
  5. Have I created opportunities for the group to reflect on and document their own understanding of what it means to be an effective team member? (e.g. build a team charter)
  6. Have I structured the activity/assessment so that all participants have the opportunity and motivation to contribute?
  7. Is the activity structured so that it builds on the diverse experiences and expertise of each member?
  8. Have I ensured students have the structure, tools, and guidelines they need to be effective team members?
  9. Have I built accountability to peers into this activity/assessment? (peer assessment guidelines/rubrics)
  10. Have I ensured multiple opportunities for feedback — from me and from peers? (formative? summative?)

Group formation 

  1. Have I considered how I will form groups? Randomly? Deliberately? Why?
  2. Will I create groups that are homogenous or heterogenous? What is my rationale?
  3. Will the group formation process be transparent or not? Will I involve students in the process?
  4. Have I considered what will be the best group size?

Extension Activities:
  • If you wish to help create a collaborative crowdsourced document of best practices for effective group work facilitation, click here to participate.


Bickle, M. C., & Rucker, R. (2018). Student-to-student interaction: Humanizing the online classroom using technology and group assignments. Quarterly Review of Distance Education19(1), 1-56.

Bowness, S. (2019). How to bring students into the feedback loop. University Affairs. https://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/how-to-bring-students-into-the-feedback-loop/

Clark et al., (2018). Off to On: Best Practices for Online Team-Based Learning. White paper for Team-Based Learning Collaborative (TBLC) Conference, San Diego, CA, March 2018. http://www.teambasedlearning.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Off-to-On_OnlineTBL_WhitePaper_ClarkEtal2018_V3.pdf 

Covelli, B. (2017). Online Discussion Boards: The Practice of Building Community for Adult Learners, The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 65:2, 139-145, DOI: 10.1080/07377363.2017.1274616

Donovan, J. (2015) The importance of building online learning communities. Colorado State University. http://blog.online.colostate.edu/blog/online-education/the-importance-of-building-online-learning-communities/

George Brown College. Template Group Contract. Retrieved from https://www.georgebrown.ca/peerconnect/team-contract.pdf

Lawrence, J. (2018). Using Educational technology to facilitate online peer learning. Educational Technology Solutions. Accessed on April 14th, 2020 from https://educationtechnologysolutions.com/2018/03/using-education-technology-facilitate-online-peer-learning/

Michaelsen, L.K., Knight, A.B., & Fink, L. D. (2004.) Team-based learning: A transformative use of small group in college teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Mintz, S. (2020). Beyond the discussion board. Inside Higher Ed. Accessed on April 18th, 2020 from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-gamma/beyond-discussion-board

Palloff, R.M. & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Collaborative online learning: Fostering effective discussions online. Centre for Teaching Excellence. https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/alternatives-lecturing/discussions/collaborative-online-learning

Whiteside, A. (2018). Continuing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Returning Compassion, Connection, and Social Presence to Teaching and Learning. Educause Review. Retrieved on April 6, 2020: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/10/continuing-mister-rogers-neighborhood-returning-compassion-connection-and-social-presence


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