Third Place: Creating Course Community

Third Place: Creating Course Community

Student engagement has been adversely affected by the emergency shift to online instruction at the start of the pandemic, and the return to in-person classes has highlighted students’ overall struggle to form connections with each other; no one to ask for notes if they miss a class, and mindfully attend to class content; unable or unwilling to participate in class discussions. Student engagement can be bolstered by cultivating supportive communities that shift focus from academic performance to the whole well-being of students and faculty. Applying the Third Place approach to facilitating student engagement in your course can be a fertile foundation for cultivating supportive communities that facilitate and nurture student engagement.

Please join us on Wednesday, June 21st from 12:00pm-1:30pm, for Third Place: Creating Course Community, an active discussion session on how we can engage your students in our current world. Register at  

Students gathered around table, chatting and eating

Third Place

What is Third Place?

Third place, first defined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, refers to a public neutral place or location; that is not home or work, that allows people to gather to share interests and knowledge, engage in cultural exchanges, and form community connections with others (Oldenburg). Third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” Providing the foundation for a functioning democracy, these spaces promote social equity by leveling the status of participants, providing a setting for grassroots politics, creating habits of public association, and offering psychological support to individuals and communities. The classroom is a vital habitat to nurture a Third Place.

Third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them thereby centering socializing. The emphasis on socializing underscores the importance of attending to the experience of belonging to a community that fosters interdependence and collaborative development.   


Creating Third Place

Creating a Third Place experience in classrooms requires allowing space for students and faculty to connect without the expectation of performing their roles or being evaluated.

Arranging classroom seating; if possible, to facilitate communal connection, collaboration, and active learning may be beneficial. Instructional communication theory suggests that seating arrangements can impact how the instructors communicate with students and how students interact with one another, impacting engagement, motivation, and focus (McCorskey and McVetta, 1978). Aim for arrangements that center both student-to-student, and student-to-instructor interactions these include; roundtable, semicircle, double horseshoe, and pods/pairs/groups.

Cultivating an environment of community support can be done in pockets of time that exist beyond academic performance, such as in-class check-ins, somatic regulation activities, and class sessions dedicated to communal interests related to the course’s real-life applications.

  • Discuss, promote, or invite students to talk about student clubs, societies, and/or any extracurricular activities related to the course and its real-life applications.
  • Invite speakers from support services around campus (counseling services, tutoring, academic advising, etc.) and/or alumni to designated class sessions.
  • Implement In-Class Check-Ins – Students appreciate time for check-ins and casual conversations. Students can talk about how they are feeling and how they are doing. This shows that their instructors truly care about their well-being both within and outside of the classroom.
  • Offer Support – Reach out to students, individually or in group settings. This can positively impact student motivation and engagement. Expressing concern about the barriers students might be facing, and offering compassionate guidance and support can motivate students to re-engage with the course. Some ways to offer support include, scheduling first-week and midterm check-ins, dedicated time for check-ins during class sessions, individual office hours. For larger classes, consider using a questionnaire or poll via Mentimeter or Polleverywhere to check in with students halfway through the semester in order to assess how they are feeling, their level of engagement, and whether they need additional support.
  • Sharing Your Background – Sharing your background with your students and your own personal experiences and connections relevant to your course can help your students get to know you better, show that you are enthusiastic about the course, and encourage students to share their backgrounds and interests with each other.

(Barnard College)



Student Engagement and Community Building

Student Engagement and Community Building

Meaningful engagement occurs when students are focused, interested, and motivated. Students tend to learn best when they are not only invested in the course content and the learning process, but also feel connected to others in the class (peers, instructors, and TAs) (“Student Engagement and Community-Building” 2021).  A sense of communal connection can be cultivated by intentionally creating interactive activities, learning collectives, and or creating a space that invites faculty and students to meet at their intersecting interests and common goals without the expectation of performing their respective academic roles. This fosters openness, collaboration, resourcefulness, and intrinsic motivation. 

An important aspect of promoting student engagement and building community is creating psychological safety. The overarching definition of psychological safety describes an environment where an individual feels able to ask questions, make mistakes, take interpersonal risks, and collaborate with those around them, all without the fear of aggression, judgment, or rejection (Delizonna, 2017; Edmondson, 1999). This requires the dimensions of diversity and inclusivity so that students can feel valued, respected, and open to engaging in empathetic curiosity; these conditions may also attenuate anxiety, and promote the development of interpersonal communication skills.

Creating Learning Communities

Why are student-to-student interactions important? 
In a learning community students are collaborators who engage in developing and supporting each other’s learning. To foster a learning community in a course, it is vital to pay particular attention to building student-to-student interactions that encourage trust, intentionality, communication, and collaboration (Barnard College)

Learning communities may consist of semester-long small groups/cohorts of students that share common goals and interests, and in the Third Place approach these goals can be both academic and non-academic.

Creating Learning Communities is a collaborative effort that invites both faculty and students to be intentional about their interactions and open to learning as a bidirectional process.  In this collective learning dynamic various types of knowledge are shared, transformed, created, and reinforced by communal intercations.


  • Design introductions with intentionality 
    Early in your course, it is important to establish rapport among students. Ask students to compose a self-introduction message to share online and in class, allowing them to get acquainted with each other before assigning students to various learning collectives. Communicate what these introductory activities should look like—be specific and prompt students to get to know each other in ways that go beyond surface-level introductions (Barnard College)
  • Learning in the Collective: Peer-To-Peer Learning – People learn through their interaction and participation with one another in fluid relationships that are the result of shared interests and opportunities. In this environment, the participants all stand on equal ground — no one is assigned to the traditional role of teacher or student. Instead, anyone who has particular knowledge of, or experience with, a given subject may take on the role of mentor at any time. Mentors provide a sense of structure to guide learning, which they may do by listening empathically and by reinforcing intrinsic motivation to help the student discover a voice, a calling, or a passion. Once a particular passion or interest is unleashed, constant interaction among group members, with their varying skills and talents, functions as a kind of peer amplifier, providing numerous outlets, resources, and aids to further an individual’s learning (Thomas, Brown, 2013).
  • Sample Small-Group Exercises : Below are some examples of brief small-group activities that instructors can use at different points during class sessions, to complement a lecture or other formats, and deepen understanding of the material (Harvard Kennedy School)
    • Turn-and-Talk: Pairs or trios briefly share responses to an instructor’s prompt. The instructor then elicits responses from the whole class, calling on various groups.
    • Think-Pair-Share: Individuals write in response to an instructor’s prompt, then share those responses in pairs; the instructor then facilitates report-outs from some pairs.
    • Peer Instruction: The instructor polls the class (Poll Everywhere or raise of hands) on a question; if responses are sufficiently divergent, students talk with 1-2 peers about their responses, then instructor polls again.
    • Jigsaw: Class is divided into several teams, with each team preparing separate but related assignments. When all team members are prepared, the class is re-divided into mixed groups, with one member from each team in each group. Each person in the group teaches the rest of the group what he/she knows, and the group then tackles an assignment that pulls all of the pieces together to form the full picture.
    • Pro-Con-Caveat Grids: Students analyze a proposal or solution to a problem with a pro-con-caveat grid individually. They then come together in small groups to take the best ideas and form a more nuanced, complex grid. After teams complete the new grid, they pass it on to another team, where students discuss what they agree and disagree with, what points they find interesting or surprising (Millis, 2014).
    • Three-Step Interview: Students interview each other in pairs. The pair links with another pair and the four-member team shares what insights they gleaned from the initial interviews. (Davidson et. al., 2014)
  • Concrete Strategies for Building Community (Carnegie Mellon University)
    • Directly assign tasks that involve students getting to know each other
    • Host informal “work time” sessions
    • Create opportunities for students to share their work
    • Hold an “Ask me anything about my discipline” lecture
    • Provide structure for students to get to know each other
    • Giving pets a cameo appearance (virtual class)
    • Check in often with your students; ask them to share
    • Share a bit of yourself with students
    • Create small groups of students to interact frequently
    • Invite students to share a special location/scene with the class
    • Invite students to attend office hours in groups
Digital Tools To Help Create Third Place In Your Classroom

These are digital tools that focus on communication and collaboration and lend themselves to use inside and outside of the classroom. These tools can be used across various devices i.e. laptops, desktops, mobile phones, and tablets.


  • A Slack workspace is the home for your course and a digital space for various class content, organizing projects, facilitating discussions, and creating teams.
  • Create a Slack workspace
  • Slack organizes conversations within a workspace into dedicated spaces called channels. Channels would allow open communication and collaboration among students assigned to that channel. Building teams or learning collectives with Slack helps streamline engagement in and out of class settings.
  • Create a channel


  • Discord is a messaging and social platform, here faculty can create community servers where students can come together unified by the commonality of being a part of a course/class.
  • Setting Up Community Servers
  • Some features to facilitate engagement include:
    • Announcement Channels help deliver updates to everyone.
    • Stage Channels make it easy to engage and grow your community through in-server events like seminars, study halls, and live workshops.
    • Forum Channels help provide a space for organized discussions where every subject, course topic, or team/learning collective can have its own space.
    • Private Threads offer a space for one on one communications or virtual office hours.

Microsoft Teams

  • Microsoft Teams is a communications platform with an array of features such as video conferencing, meetings, and instant messaging that creates a virtual communal space in and out of class.
  • CommunitiesCreating Communities in Teams means you can connect with people in one place to engage in conversations, community video calls, file and photo sharing, membership management, and more.​ Create a more secure space to share with management tools that allow a community creator to invite others, set guidelines for engaging with community members, and enable others to help you manage the community.

Open Source Digital Platforms

Use digital community platforms, such as:

  • City Tech’s OpenLab – City Tech’s OpenLab is an open-source digital platform where students, faculty, and staff can meet to learn, work, and share their ideas.
  • Commons in a Box – Commons In A Box OpenLab (CBOX OpenLab) is a free, open source software that enables anyone to launch a commons for open learning. It provides a powerful and flexible open alternative to costly proprietary educational platforms, allowing faculty members, departments, and entire institutions to create commons spaces for open learning.