Creating a Sense of Community in Online Classes for International Students

By Shawna Barnes

In this video I discuss the importance of a sense of belonging within online classes for international students and provide easy-to-implement strategies that benefit all online learners.

Transcript – Creating a Sense of Community in Online Classes (click to open)

Hi! My name is Shawna Barnes and I’m a professor from the School of Business at Centennial College. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve been very worried about the mental health of my students during Covid 19, and one group of students that I’ve been particularly concerned about are my international students. Even under the best of circumstances, international students face a variety of stressors. These include unfamiliar living situations, language barriers, academic pressure, financial concerns, and feelings of isolation. International students may also experience racism, discrimination or microaggressions. The stresses associated with the adjustment to a new culture can cause physical symptoms such as cognitive fatigue, confusion, disorientation and difficulty concentrating, in addition to those feelings of isolation.

In a recent article published on October the 6th, international doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant Mir Ashfaquazzaman, from the University of Iowa, stated that his anxiety and homesickness has been amplified by the feeling that he’s stranded indefinitely, having to cancel plans to return home over summer, and worrying about the health and safety of his friends and family back home. In his article, he says, “I am struck again and again in university communique, newspaper articles, and TV media dominated by discussions of connectivity – not connection”.

And I felt the same sentiment from many of my students, and so I decided to conduct some research in order to better understand how I can help to foster a sense of belonging and community within my online classes for international students. Through this research, I’ve gained a great deal of understanding, and I have some recommendations that I would like to share with you, to help you also foster a sense of community and belonging within your own online classes, that will be beneficial for all of your online learners.

So, when I started my research I found that very little of it focused on international students within online classes, but this is likely due to the fact that international students have only recently been permitted to complete their studies within online classes, while still qualifying for post-grad work permits in Canada. For this reason, my research has drawn from articles that are focused on how to create community and online classes, international student challenges, and then those few articles I found that looked at all three elements: international students, online learning and a sense of belonging.

Here’s something really interesting that I learned. Many of the articles that I read indicated the majority of international students didn’t really care about getting to know their fellow classmates. They viewed the classroom and their social life as two different spaces. They were, however, very interested in having a good relationship with their course instructor.

And I’d like to take a quick moment now to note where the majority of our international students are currently coming from. As you can see here India, China and Korea represent the top three study permit holders in Canada currently. And it’s notable that these three countries are all considered to be collectivist cultures. Students from collectivist cultures are typically accustomed to classrooms that focus on exams, memorization, and lecture. Alternatively, Canadian classrooms tend to be more process oriented, less structured, and focused on application. Canada is considered to be an individualistic country and Canadian classrooms are student-centered, whereas collectivist cultures tend to have teacher-centered classrooms. This means that the majority of your international students are going to be looking to you, their professor, for leadership. Professors play an important role in setting the tone in their online classes by modeling the communication and participation that they hope to see from their students. So, while it may be true that international students do not always see the need for socializing in their online class, there are many academic benefits, and in the absence of campus clubs, events, and extracurriculars, classrooms are one of the only opportunities that students have to socialize with one another.

So, there is a lot more research, thankfully, on how to create a sense of belonging in community within online classes, and trust is a key foundation for community building in any classroom. Gaining trust within an online course requires that students view one another as real, authentic people. One of the recommended ways for achieving this in online spaces is by creating opportunities for spontaneous conversation to occur. Another suggestion is to encourage students to turn on their cameras for class discussion. Now, I think it’s important to respect that some students may not be able to use their cameras due to technology issues, accessibility, or living situations. However, we do know that seeing our teachers and classmates on camera, as well as allowing time for spontaneous conversation, goes a long way to helping students feel that sense of connection with one another.

So, based on the information that I have, I also have some simple recommendations that I think every professor can easily implement in their online classes. The first recommendation is, remember that most students, international students in particular, are looking to their instructors for leadership and direction. So, professors need to take initiative early on to make themselves real through video, and by providing personalized introductions. This also models the expectation for students that they, too, should be seen as real. Turn on your camera, record video messages, and use your camera during online lessons. Humanize yourself by sharing some personal details with your students.

Recommendation number two: instructors should explain the value of student-centered learning and becoming familiar with their classmates. Let students know that they can expect group assignments and activities, and that it would be much easier for them to identify potential group members if they are connecting with one another. Share with them the need to cultivate the skill of teamwork and collaboration. Remind them that having allies in the class can help them to pool their resources, accelerate their learning, and lean on one another for advice or support throughout the course.

Recommendation number three: students should be given lots of opportunities to connect and communicate with different classmates in order to establish trust and emotional safety. Give up some of your lesson time for icebreakers and small talk, put students into breakout rooms for a small discussion. Remember that students need a lot of circulating and lots of multiple conversations before they’ll start to feel really comfortable with one another.

I believe that giving our students the chance to build connection and community in online classes will have positive academic outcomes, as well as mental health outcomes. I love this quote from Dallas Lawrence that says, “Monitor, engage, and be transparent; these have always been the keys to success in the digital space.”

Thank you for watching and if you would like to continue the conversation, feel free to send me an email. And if you’d like to do some additional reading, here are my resources.

References (click to open)

Bradley. G. (2000). Responding effectively to the mental health needs of international students. Higher Education, 39, 417-433.

Cornell, H. R., Sayman, D., & Herron, J. (2019). Sense of Community in an Online Graduate Program. Journal of Effective Teaching in Higher Education2(2), 117–132.

El-Assal, K. (2020, February 20). 642,000 international students: Canada now ranks 3rd globally in foreign student attraction. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

Hamza, C. A., Ewing, L., Heath, N. L., & Goldstein, A. L. (2020). When social isolation is nothing new: A longitudinal study psychological distress during COVID-19 among university students with and without preexisting mental health concerns. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne. Advance online publication.

Hsiao-ping Wu, Esther Garza, Norma Guzman, “International Student’s Challenge and Adjustment to College”, Education Research International, vol. 2015, Article ID 202753, 9 pages, 2015.

Keung, N. (2020, May 15). International students studying online will still qualify for Canadian work permits. Retrieved October 27, 2020, from

Liu, X., Liu, S., Lee, S., & Magjuka, R. J. (2010). Cultural Differences in Online Learning: International Student Perceptions. Educational Technology & Society13(3), 177–188.

Mir Ashfaquzzaman (2020) Pandemic pedagogy in post-COVID age, Communication Education, 69:4, 534-535, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2020.1804130

Prieto‐Welch, Susan L. “International Student Mental Health.” New Directions for Student Services, vol. 2016, no. 156, 2016, pp. 53–63., doi:10.1002/ss.20191.

Sumer, S., Poyrazli, S., & Grahame, K. (2008). Predictors of depression and anxiety among international students. Journal of Counseling and Development, 86, 429-437.

Wendt, J., & Courduff, J. (2018). The Relationship between Teaching Presence and Student Course Outcomes in an Online International Population. International Journal on E-Learning17(1), 111–129.

Zhai, Y., & Du, X. (2020). Addressing collegiate mental health amid COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry Research288, Article 113003.

Zhang, Z., & Kenny, R. F. (2010). Learning in an Online Distance Education Course: Experiences of Three International Students. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning11(1), 17–36