5 ways to build a safe and collaborative learning environment

Building a safe and collaborative class environment can be the difference between a student excelling and a student struggling.

It won’t happen overnight, or in one lesson, but a safe and collaborative class can be nurtured and developed consistently over time. Some students feel comfortable contributing and interacting with their peers from the beginning, but for some, interacting takes time. Achieving comfort with class interaction is well worth the time and effort required to overcome apprehension. 

To feel safe and comfortable collaborating, instructors must ensure students grasp the objective and learning goals of each project. These aspects may need to be presented in multiple ways to connect to the diverse learning needs of students. This could mean sharing assignment instructions through written form, rubric, and orally during the in-class time. When students are connected to and reflect on the purpose and objective of the activity, they have a chance to participate in their own unique manner (Curtis & Lawson, 2019).

One of the most important factors in building this positive environment, whether online or in person, is trust. When students trust each other, they are more willing to share information and solutions. They will also be more engaged when working as a team.

Trust must be developed by both the professor and by the students themselves. This means removing assessment bias, valuing all feedback, questions and opinions, providing opportunities for students to share their unique perspectives and provide meaningful feedback that demonstrates care and concern for students’ academic success and personal well-being.

Struggles with students feeling apprehensive  and disconnected with online learning

Technical difficulties are unavoidable in a digital world. There are few things more frustrating than the wi-fi going down mid-sentence or in the middle of a lesson or group work session. That being said, it is important to approach the digital classroom with an understanding of these types of challenges so that students do not have added stress for elements out of their control (Campo, 1993)

It is also important to realize students differ in terms of the technology and workspace they have available to them. It’s important to address this early on in a supportive way, so students know their work quality and classroom interactions are what is most important and not the type of monitor or computer they are using (Dytham, 2017).

Students in an online learning environment often have varying struggles and competing commitments outside of the course. Some students have moved out for the first time, some are working part-time jobs, and others are balancing a full degree with family obligations at home. (Kumi-Yeboah, 2018). Whatever is going on, these unique experiences are a great opportunity to infuse diverse thoughts and opinions into course material.

It is common for students to feel less connected to their classmates and the course material through digital learning, however, there are ways to remedy this. Instructors should make it clear early on what they expect from their students in terms of participation and involvement. In addition to setting the expectations, it is important to explain why participation and engagement in the course material are necessary to get the most out of the course.

Rather than focusing on the limitations of online learning, acknowledge the challenges and reflect on the gains from this type of virtual environment, including developing a skillset with virtual programs, and preparing for a work environment students may experience after graduation. Online learning also allows flexibility for students, and in many cases, it can bring individuals together from a wider geographic area (Oliveira et al., 2019)

Peer assessment and peer learning using the AI-driven Kritik platform is an effective way to build trust in a safe and collaborative class environment. Kritik features, including anonymous peer assessment, team-based learning, and class discussion address these concerns and help engage students in their learning while developing the ever-important soft skills and critical thinking skills.

5 ways to build a safe and collaborative learning environment

1. Encourage dialogue

Promote debate and inquiry in class, across different mediums. This can include written discussion boards, public speaking opportunities, small group live discussion and peer feedback. It is through open and honest dialogue students can engage more deeply with course material and expand their worldview through conversation with their peers. Whether through anonymous and bias-free peer assessment or through open discussion, Kritik fosters open and constructive dialogue.

2. Bias-free assessment

While we may be well-intentioned, it can be difficult to omit our personal biases from our work, our conversations. Assessment bias can occur with the type of assignment, how the assignment is asked, and the examples provided in the assignment. Assessment can also occur through the professor or peer interactions. One effective way to address assessment bias is to incorporate anonymous peer assessment. When students provide feedback to each other without knowing whose work they have in front of them, they are more likely to focus on providing critical and motivational feedback. Additionally, students will feel more comfortable providing genuine assessments to their peers when they know it is anonymous.

3. Incorporate opportunities for Inquiry

Inquiry-based learning not only is a powerful learning strategy, but it is an effective way to engage students and demonstrate appreciation and value for students’ individual interests and perspectives. By providing freedom and agency over what and how students demonstrate their knowledge, students will feel empowered to incorporate their unique perspectives, and opinions. This not only leads to a more welcoming and safe class environment, but it can expand the learning for the entire class when they have exposure to diverse viewpoints.

4. Conduct regular check-ins and in a variety of ways

It is critical instructors check in on their students to understand how they are doing, and what challenges may be occurring. Check-ins help students understand their instructor cares and appreciates their input. Not every student will be willing to share feedback in a class or 1:1 setting, so it’s important to provide different ways to receive the feedback. For example, emails, surveys, scheduled meetings, and class discussions can all be used to conduct check-ins (Colin, 2003).

5. Peer learning opportunities

Peer learning and peer assessment are effective ways to develop safe and collaborative learning environments. Peer learning provides agency to each student for their learning. They become the teacher, with the supervision of their actual instructor, and are required to think critically about their own work and the work of their peers. The benefits to peer assessment are endless, for instructors and students alike.


Safe learning spaces empower students to reach their full potential. They encourage students to step out of their comfort zone and take a leadership role in their own learning.

As humans, when we look back at our most memorable learning and life moments, we gravitate to the feelings and emotions those moments evoked and not on the experiences themselves. With this in mind, it is critical our learning environments allow students to approach course material and interactions in a positive, safe and collaborative way.

Kritik helps professors facilitate peer assessment and peer learning with these exact principles in mind. With Kritik, professors increase student engagement, develop critical thinking and soft skills, and enable students to take more control over their learning.

Campo, C. (1993). Collaborative School Cultures: How Principals Make. A Difference. School Organization, 13(2), 119-127. https://doi.org/10.1080/0260136930130202

Colin, R. (2003). Small School Collaborative Working. FORUM, 45(2), 64-66. DOI: 10.2304/forum.2003.45.2.8

Curtis, D., & Lawson, M. (2019). EXPLORING COLLABORATIVE ONLINE LEARNING. Online Learning, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v5i1.1885

Dytham, S. (2017). A framework of postgraduate collaboration: post graduate collaborative space in a UK university. Studies in Higher Education, 44(3), 446-458. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2017.1371688

Kumi-Yeboah, A. (2018). Designing Cross-Cultural Collaborative Online Learning Framework for Online Instructors. Online Learning, 22(4). https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v22i4.1520

Oliveira, A., Pereira, P., & Jassabi, J. (2019). Collaborative Safe Escape in Digital Transformation. Collaborative Networks and Digital Transformation, 598(2020), 431-444. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-62412-5_14

Justin DeMarchi
Content Marketer and Education Consultant