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Harness Teamwork to Build Community in an Online Course

Using teamwork to build community is a high return investment. Students benefit from team work a number of ways.

We established in the last two posts that building community in an online course is no easy feat. But the return on the investment is high enough to make it worth the work. Using teamwork to build community is one of those high return investments.

Creating a sense of belonging in an online class has a huge positive impact on learning. It increases motivation and task persistence. It improves the chances of student success in the course. And it can affect the perception of the course instructor. These are all skyrocketing effects on student learning.

That is why it’s so important for you to leverage building community in an online course. You can’t afford not to.

How do we build community in an online course?

I wrote about building community in a paced online course (synchronous) and a self-paced online course (asynchronous) earlier this month. You may want to pop over and read those before you continue with this one.

In this post, we’re going to be diving deeper into teamwork and group assignments. No groaning from the audience, please. Group assignments have a history of being difficult, contentious, and downright painful, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Using teamwork to build community

When students have a smaller cohort to work with within a larger class, they get the chance to build stronger connections with their peers. An active discussion board is an excellent class resource, but there are always voices that get lost in the noise.

In small groups, students get more opportunities to use their voices. They can explain concepts to others in their group to help them learn. This also helps catch errors in thinking before moving into the whole group.

Small groups that work together regularly become accountability buddies. If someone isn’t showing up, a group member (or three) will reach out to check on them.

What makes an effective small group assignment?

The group assignment only benefits the students as much as you design it to. Before you assign a group assignment, make sure it’s really something that needs a group. If there is not a role for everyone to play, it may not be a good fit for group work.

Make sure your expectations of group work are clear and hold students to those expectations. One strategy for setting expectations for group work is to provide a log they need to fill in as they work. It can have a place for the group to list what each person’s role is for this assignment.

I have an example that is set up like an action plan where students have to list who handles each step and by what deadline. Give them the log for the first group assignment and then require them to set up and turn in their own logs on later assignments.

Group activity logs can act as a framework for teams learning to work together. Successful teamwork helps build community.

The intangible benefits of teamwork go beyond building community

The intangible benefits of teamwork are what make it worth the effort.

Companies all seem to complain about the same thing: No one has the soft skills they need.

What does this have to do with online classes, you say?

Let’s step back and see what exactly they mean by soft skills. Doing a quick Google search for “employer soft skills” returns this:

A Google search return on the words 'employer soft skills' returns a number of articles about in-demand soft skills. Teamwork in an online course builds community and practices these soft skills.

According to Top Soft Skills Employers Value With Examples, the soft skills most in demand are leadership, communication, work ethic, critical thinking, positive attitude, and teamwork. I’m sure you noticed teamwork on that list, but that’s not the best part.

The best part is that teamwork incorporates ALL those soft skills. Let me explain.


When you give students a group assignment, they have to work out who is taking on what role. This sometimes creates conflict, especially when the group has more than one strong personality. Conflict resolution is a leadership skill.

Other leadership skills that shine in group assignments are motivating others, giving clear feedback, and project management. Someone has to make sure everyone stays on top of the schedule and plan. And since this is an online course, you get the added leadership skill of managing remote teams.


Members of a team have to communicate clearly and regularly. That lands squarely in the communication skill camp. They also may have to negotiate things like what the format of the end result will be or what to include and what to leave out.

Other communication soft skills that get practice in team assignments are listening skills and writing skills. If your assignment has students presenting, then you get to add presentation and public speaking skills to that list. Wow. You’re on a roll!

Work Ethic

Then they have to meet deadlines and do their part. That sounds a lot like work ethic to me. The work ethic soft skill also includes attentiveness and reliability. Time management plays a part, and if time management isn’t so hot, well, you’re in luck because working well under pressure is another valuable soft skill. The students can’t lose!

Critical Thinking

Depending on the assignment, students can have many opportunities to develop critical thinking skills. The assignment may call for creativity or design aptitude. It may need logical thinking or problem-solving. No matter what the assignment, it will likely require flexibility when students decide to make a change, and with that comes tolerance of change and uncertainty.

Positive Attitude

It’s no secret that one person with a sour attitude can stop a small group on its tracks or at least make things very uncomfortable. A positive attitude sometimes requires practice. Encourage students to be friendly and courteous. Just like that one bad attitude can derail a group, one person with enthusiasm and energy can infect the entire group.


Teamwork itself is a soft skill that includes the ability to receive feedback. (No throwing a desk, please). It also lets students practice empathy and dealing with difficult personalities. (Just put the desk down, and everyone will get back to work, okay?) And students can also practice networking. (Yes, I do know a good therapist. I’ll get you the name.)


A group that works well together collaborates to meet a goal. And since this is an online course, they get to practice flexing the technology collaboration muscles.


The soft skills practiced in group assignments are a huge benefit to students and, by extension, the society they serve. Teamwork gives them all the chance to exercise those muscles.

And practicing all those skills together builds connections between students. It gives them someone to reach out to in class. It gives them others to walk with and look out for. And that is community.

Read the building community series

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Are you interested in learning more about creating effective online learning? You might want to check out some of my other posts.

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