By Kristen Stevenson

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework promotes synergies among teaching presence, cognitive presence, and social presence to achieve learning in courses. Your teaching presence sets the tone of the classroom (both face-to-face and virtual) for students to safely and successfully interact with both the content and one another. While college classrooms often focus on the interactions between teacher-student and student-content, social presence may require thoughtful implementation, especially with college students today.

Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2012, accounts for approximately 24% of the U.S. population (Pichler et. al., 2021). As the first digital native generation, 98% have access to smartphones and 45% are “constantly online.” They express anxiety about group work, preferring to work individually, and 70% struggle with in-person communication. They report lower levels of emotional intelligence and demonstrate higher rates of anxiety, self-injury, and attempted suicide. The news is not all bad, though. GenZ is also the most diverse generation with 48% non-white, 62% believing that increasing diversity is good for society, 81% believing that they have a high tolerance for others with different beliefs, and 78% stating that they can see another’s perspective.

How can we take advantage of GenZ’s strengths, while building courses that teach them to overcome their anxieties about failure, interpersonal relationships, and communication? By designing with the social presence, cognitive presence, and teacher presence in mind, we can create classrooms that push GenZ students to build the soft skills they will need throughout their lives and their careeers.

Here are a few techniques rooted in social and emotional learning to get you started:

Scaffold the work. Consider scaffolding your course to allow students to work in small, low-stakes formative steps towards a larger paper, project, or lab. Students cannot proceed without completing each step, giving them time to incorporate feedback for a higher grade in each subsequent task.

How does this help promote a safe environment? Students who feel supported in their learning and who know that help is readily available are more able to develop a growth mindset focused on improvement not fear of failure. They are also less likely to commit acts of academic dishonesty.

How does this promote soft skills? Students need to know that it is safe to ask questions and work on projects in small steps rather than tackling the whole thing (like a research paper) the night before it is due.

Allow a redo of the assignment. Allow students to rework certain assignments for a higher grade based on your feedback. This provides the impetus for the student to learn from their mistakes, master content, and reflect on their learning.

How does this help promote a safe environment? If students know that one failure does not condemn them to failing the course, they are more likely to try critical thinking, creative problem-solving, and new practices without fear of “doing it wrong.”

How does this promote soft skills? Failure is not the enemy. The key is to learn the lesson and not repeat it in the future.

Ease into group work. There are some disciplines that inherently require you to work in groups whether you prefer that method or not. For instance, nurses need to be able to work collaboratively in teams of healthcare professionals. Start group work with small, low-stakes assessments (minimal grade or none at all) to help students become comfortable with solving a math problem together, design a better solution to an environmental problem, evaluate a patient’s intake interview, or review a peer’s essay. For large projects, take time for teams to create team codes of conduct and to delineate team roles.

How does this help promote a safe environment? Encourage students to find their strengths and learn to confer with others in their own areas of expertise. Teamwork is easier when you see the other members as assets rather than someone who might criticize you. It also allows students to practice leadership, decisiveness, negotiation, and conflict resolution.

How does this promote soft skills? Students have valid fears of team members who do not pull their weight, pick fights, complete poorly executed work, and dominate the conversation. This is an opportunity for students to recognize their own strengths: if they are detail-oriented, for example, they may choose a role that uses their skills to the group’s advantage.

Hold class discussions. Discussions may be in class, online, or a mix of the two. The key, as we all know, is to ensure that one or two students do not dominate the conversation and that everyone has an opportunity to share. Online discussions are great to help quiet students feel more confident in sharing their ideas without being penalized.

How does this help promote a safe environment? Encourage empathy and inclusion in discussions by providing guidelines on communication expectations in the classroom from the very beginning of the syllabus. Communication goes both ways, and as such, provide methods in which you will communicate with your students so that they may provide feedback to you.   

How does this promote soft skills? Everyone has valid input into conversations. Some individuals need to learn to listen more while others trust their own voices on the topic.

Use the CoI Framework to your advantage. Use your teaching presence to encourage a safe interaction for students to collaborate with each other and their content. If you teach general education classes, consider the broad appeal of how your class can apply to any number of professional disciplines. If you teach a field-specific course, work with your students to prepare them to be the best employees in their discipline. A safe environment will help you get there.