Creating a supportive classroom culture is essential for effective teaching and learning

In the STEM literature, the term ‘community of inquiry’ (COI) describes a learning community composed of students and the instructor(s) who together engage in knowledge formation and the process of scientific inquiry in an educational environment. We will use the COI framework below to help categorize strategies to develop robust and supportive learning communities at Mines. The development of this community is important for creating meaningful educational experiences for students (Fiock, 2020). A community of inquiry (COI) has three components (as defined in Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999): 

  • Teaching presence: includes the design and facilitation of the educational experience. 
  • Cognitive presence: ability of students to construct meaning (take in new ideas, make connections between concepts, as opposed to memorizing and repeating information) and think critically. 
  • Social presence: the ability for students to bring themselves (their ideas, experiences, interests) into a class environment.  

The relationship between these three components is shown in Figure 1. As illustrated in this figure, teaching presence and social presence both support students’ cognitive presence, and a teaching presence supports students’ social presence. 

Figure 1 – Components of a community of inquiry (learning community)

In an effort to support students’ cognitive presence and the development of critical thinking skills, it is important to consider strategies that can create a teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive section. 

Strategies to create a community of inquiry

There are several strategies that you can use to create a community of inquiry (Fiock, 2020), as shown in Table 1. These strategies are grouped into strategies that promote 1) teaching presence, 2) cognitive presence, and 3) social presence.

Table 1. Strategies to create teaching presence, cognitive presence, and social presence in classes (both online/remote and face-to-face).

Teaching Presence

Cognitive Presence

Social Presence

Course structure and organization/Setting up your course

Create a consistent course structure in Canvas (use modules, etc.)Identify and communicate the big ideas/skills you want students to take away from your courseCreate a discussion for general course questions and answers. Check out this Q&A discussion forum description.
Send a note to students prior to the first day of class outlining how to access the course, how the course is organized, when dues dates are, what the expectations are, etc. Create a course introduction videoCreate spaces were students can interact (e.g., discussions). Check out this virtual café/lounge description for an example of creating informal spaces for students to interact
Clearly state learning outcomes and expectationsProvide multiple representations of the content/skills you want students to learn (articles, videos, podcasts, etc.); Use both words and pictures to explain conceptsShare tips for engaging in virtual environments and strategies for how to be successful in online environments. Consider including these tips in your Syllabus or in your Canvas course
Make everything explicit (say more than you think is necessary)Provide multiple activities for students to practice desired skills (problem sets, writing assignments, projects, etc.)
Ensure that course materials are accessible (captions for videos, use headings in documents which is beneficial for screen readers). Use this web accessibility checklist to help you get startedInvolve students in the course content using videos, case studies, labs, stories, simulations, and games

Don't be a robot/Make it personal

Show your personality (e.g., create a video to introduce yourself and include some information about who you are outside of being a faculty member) Example excellent introductory video from Mines' Dr. Wood. Use short videos to introduce course topics. Begin sessions and videos with an overview of the organization of course topics (e.g., how a video builds on a previous video, how course concepts are related)Create a discussion where you and students introduce themselves (if you have large classes, consider breaking the class into smaller groups). Check out this handout for tips and step-by-step instructions for this activity
Share personal stories and experiences

Facilitate Interactions

Provide opportunities for interactions between you (the instructor) and students (e.g., email for private questions, discussions for questions about the course content). Outline these modes of communication in the syllabus Encourage multiple perspectives (during brainstorming, when coming up with examples of applications of course content, etc.)Establish Netiquette rules for engaging in your course
Explicitly set norms (guidelines) for interacting in the course. Establish Netiquette rules for engaging in your courseModel, support, and encourage different perspectives (e.g., in discussions)Explicitly discuss the importance of interactions in the class (can include a statement in the syllabus)
Be active in discussions (facilitate rather than dominate). This resource has great tips for facilitating discussionsIncorporate cooperative and collaborative assignments where students can learn from and work with each other (use Zoom breakout rooms, use collaborative documents for shared work, etc.)Require students to respond to discussion posts written by their peers
Provide structure for group work and collaborations (e.g., each group member has a role, roles are rotated, students generate a team charter [see this example team charter assignment, beginning on pg. 98], students create a policies agreement)Use discussions to engage students in the course material (check out the wide range of discussion prompts (beginning on pg. 13) in this article, use a problem of the week discussion, incorporate a case study analysis)Incorporate activities to build rapport
For discussions, set due dates to mid-week to promote engagement during the week
Model the language that you want students to use (use inclusive language, use the language of your discipline, guide discussions and promote reflection)

Activities, Assignments, and Assessments (oh my!)

Provide clear instructions for all activities, assignments, and assessmentsDevelop course activities and assessments that help students achieve the learning outcomesUse discussions, and/or journaling to promote reflection
Create diverse, graded activities that students complete each weekIncorporate a variety of activities/assessments. Check out this list of different online assignments and activitiesAssign students to lead a discussion (serve as an expert on a topic)
Incorporate choice (allow students to identify a topic of interest for projects, select which questions to complete on a homework assignment, etc.)Incorporate a variety of resources (videos, articles, podcasts, etc.)Incorporate ice breaker activities (e.g., short polls on a fun topic; start Zoom sessions with a question where students respond on a shared whiteboard, in a poll, or in the chat)
Make student work authentic. Use authentic assessments (e.g., case studies) where students create authentic products (complete a certification, design/build something, create a report that can serve as a writing sample for jobs, etc.)Use self-testing and practice assignments to help students develop skills
Use rubrics/ outline expectations for assessments so students know how they will be assessedUse writing assignments to help students learn concepts and processes (find out the benefits of including writing assignments in engineering classes and explore different types of writing assignments in engineering)
Incorporate authentic case studies and examples (current events, real world examples)
Develop rubrics for discussions, assignments, and activities. Share rubrics with students in advance of an assignment so students know the expectations and targets

Incorporate Feedback

Provide feedback to students (use rubrics, auto feedback in Canvas quizzes)Provide frequent opportunities for practice and feedbackIncorporate peer reviews (be sure to discuss how to give good feedback and the role of feedback). Set up peer review assignments in Canvas
Ensure that feedback is clear and helps students improveUse rubrics to provide feedback to students
Grade frequentlyIncorporate formative assessments where you and students can evaluate progress (collect muddiest point responses in a Google Doc or Canvas survey, ask students to generate test questions in a discussion, incorporate a concept mapping assignment)


Fiock, H. (2020). Designing a Community of Inquiry in Online Courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 21(1), 134­–152.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The internet and higher education, 2(2–3), 87–105.