Connecting while connected: Building relationships with students in online classes

Professor sitting on couch teaching remotely

After three months of working remotely at home, I was finally able to put my finger on what had been bothering me since I began scrambling to offer two face-to-face classes in an online format in March.  The unsettled and uneasy feeling I had been experiencing since then had nothing to do with my health or the wellbeing of my family, as everyone was safe and feeling well.  What I realized in shock and disbelief was that I had demonstrated that I could successfully deliver courses using just my laptop, while sitting in my pajamas on the couch in my living room.  To fulfill my obligations as a teacher, I did not need to be in a classroom at the university, and I did not need to be in front of other people or look into their faces.  I felt redundant and unnecessary in the traditional role of instructor that I have seen myself in for over 20 years.  This role involves me going to class, walking amongst the students, and learning from each other, in person.  Central to my philosophy of teaching is that learning develops within an environment of trust and respect, which I achieve by connecting with students and building relationships with, and between them.  My classes are designed to maximize the contact time with students, not limit it; I truly enjoy being there with them and for them, more than anything else.  So why then was I so bothered by my experience this Winter?  The truth is, it was not because I was physically separated from them like I first thought, it was because I was struggling to reconcile in my mind why they still seemed satisfied and happy with the experience I was able to give them, despite me not being there in person.  How could this be?  The quality of my delivery was adequate at best as I had no experience with online teaching and I was forced to figure out how to provide material without enough time to formulate a proper plan that was informed by evidence and experience.  The students clearly did not need me to physically be there for them, in a class, or in my office.  I was devastated.  But what they told me, and what I had done for them without thinking, was continue to be there for them and support the relationships that we had forged earlier in the course.  It was as simple as that – I was present and I communicated with them regularly, often using humour to engage them, and drawing on personal anecdotes that they could relate to, given the common circumstances we faced.

As I prepare now to deliver two fully online courses this fall – one of which is a large (200+) first-year course that has never been offered virtually before – foremost in my mind is not the content I need to provide or how to assess them, but rather how I am going to stay connected to them without being able to interact with them in person.  In my experience, and from what I have learned from the wonderful experts in the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Office of Open Learning on campus, the things that will work for building relationships and making students feel engaged in the learning experience in an online course, are exactly the same things that I do when teaching face-to-face.  The environment may be different, and some things may need to be emphasized more in an online format (e.g., instructions for using course-based technologies), but the core principles of good teaching remain the same.  One such principle is that developing community in classes is key to students having a meaningful learning experience.

With that in mind, I would like to share a few strategies that I use as part of my teaching practice to connect with students and build relationships with, and between them, in any learning environment.  How many of these are implemented in a particular course may differ depending on factors such as the number of students, the level of the course, the material being taught, and the comfort level and experience of the instructor.  But, these practices work, and I recommend that you consider them, if you have not already, when preparing your online courses this Fall. 

1. Be present

As I experienced in the Winter, students appreciated that I was there for them.  I did not hear from everyone individually during the last few weeks of the term, but what I learned was that being present in my courses showed them that I cared about them and was interested in their well-being, that I was available, that they were not in it on their own, and that someone was visibly putting their experience at the forefront.  This was most critical for students who were living on their own, or were away from their families.  When teaching online, students can be anywhere, so I learned not to assume that everyone in my classes had a support network in place – you need to be part of their support network.  Being present in a course can be accomplished in a few ways.  Most simply, schedule times each week when they know you will be there, whether it is during class time, office hours, or when they are taking a test.  Fully asynchronous delivery, whereby students are expected to learn entirely from pre-recorded lectures, for example, isolates them from you and does little to establish your presence in the course beyond them hearing your voice when they review your slides.  Consider ways of providing a mix of asynchronous and low-stakes synchronous delivery that gives students the opportunity to see you and the passion you have for your discipline.  Not only does this help to establish presence, but it also really helps to facilitate community and spark students’ interest in learning.

2. Communicate regularly

Communication is central to every good relationship, but it is the regularity of the communication that I would like to emphasize here.  In an online environment, many students feel separated, so asking them to do most of their work independently without touching base with them, can cause students to disengage and disconnect.  Having a regular schedule is important to keep them interested in their classes and motivated to learn.  By contacting them through emails or announcements, and providing them with course materials at the same times every week, it helps them establish a routine that is consistent with the expectations of the course.  They will become used to hearing from you and feel comfort in your presence.  In terms of what to communicate, first and foremost, you need to be explicit and clear about your expectations as an instructor regarding learning outcomes, assessments, course conduct, topics to be covered in the course, etc.  All of these things should be shared with them openly through your course syllabus, and reinforced verbally and through course materials (e.g., lecture notes, slides, etc.).  That said, there is a fine line between reminding students about deadlines and expectations, and overloading them with too many messages.  As a rule of thumb regarding how many messages are appropriate, I suggest that a reminder or two about the same thing can be very helpful for keeping students engaged and on track during the term – more than that can irritate them (just like you can be irritated by repeated messages from them), cause them to stop paying attention to the messages and you, and ultimately give them reason to disengage from the class.

3. Let them know you

In my experience, learning students’ names and connecting their names to their faces means more to them than almost anything else that I can do, particularly in a large class. Students are more connected to me and engaged in class material when they are aware that I know who they are.  This can be more challenging in an online environment if students do not feel comfortable showing their faces during synchronous delivery experiences, but you can help improve their comfort level by breaking them up into smaller groups, and sharing things about yourself, starting on the first day.  Within boundaries that you establish for yourself, tell them about your interests or hobbies, what you do outside of work, and share something about your family, if you feel up to it.  By initiating this exchange about yourself, and by encouraging students to also share things about themselves, if they would like to, you have begun to develop the relationships, upon which trust and respect can be founded.  Relationships established in this way, I have learned, can dramatically impact a student’s learning and experience at university, and in life in general.

4. Use engagement activities

The results of a recent study in large classes at the University of Windsor has shown that students generally feel more engaged, perceive that they understand more from the material, and prefer when short engagement activities are utilized during classes (compared to just lecturing alone).  If you are using a platform such as Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, you can set up small break-out groups and randomize who goes into them so that students can introduce themselves to different class mates every time you meet as a group.  Have students discuss something during the break-out groups and report back afterwards to share what they experienced.  Try to incorporate some variety in the activities you present to students, as it keeps you and students interested. Many students appreciate engaging with technology (e.g., digital polling, using their mobile phones to search online), but simple, low-tech activities that require students to talk and problem solve can also be very effective.  Sometimes a bit of entertainment (or “edutainment”) can help to get students to tune in, but engaging students does not have to be entertaining.  Real-world, relevant material authentically delivered with enthusiasm goes a long way to keeping students coming to class, even if they already have a full set of notes in hand.  What you say and what you do provide context and meaning to the material, which excites and motivates students to learn.

5. Use humour

The strategic use of humour as a teacher can engage students, connect people, and create a welcoming environment.  It is understood that sense of humour varies between people, and some of us are funnier than others.  Play to your strengths in this regard.  You do not need to tell elaborate jokes; sometimes the subtle and understated use of humour can be more effective and still very much appreciated, depending on your audience.  For example, I have learned that telling students awkward and self-deprecating things about myself makes them feel more at ease with me and encourages some of them to relay things about themselves.  In the large first-year course I teach every Fall, it is a tradition that I share one of my favourite dad jokes every day.  I show them pictures of cute animals and they respond by proudly sending me pictures of their pets to share with everyone in future classes.  On occasion I sing songs to them, and I send them funny poems every week to let them know that their test marks have been uploaded to the course website.  I also create test questions that feature goofy characters in strange circumstances to cut the tension and make them laugh at a time when many students are anxious.  By using humour in all of these ways, I am telling them that it is okay to have fun and learn at the same time, and showing them that I am as quirky and nerdy as many of them feel.  Humour can make you relatable, approachable, and intimately part of the community you are trying to build.

In closing,I have found that there is one thing I can do that incorporates all five of the practices listed above into a single activity – schedule time in every class to tell them a story.  Tell them an amusing anecdote about a past experience you have had, or about something in current events that you would like them to react to.  If the story has a moral that is relevant to the class, even better, as they will learn something about you and the material at the same time.  Tell them serious stories and funny stories and stories that give them a glimpse of how you feel and what your life has been like.  And if you are worried about having enough time to tell a short story because of the need to deliver content, consider flipping your classroom so that the content is delivered to them in advance (e.g., in recorded lectures) and you use the time together in a synchronous online space to be present with them, to enhance learning through rich discussions that connect the material to the real world, and to build the relationships that are so important for developing meaningful learning experiences.  Consider too that what students remember most about their classes is not necessarily the material that you covered, but rather how they felt about the experience you made possible by your teaching practices.

A professor in Kinesiology at the University of Windsor, Dave Andrews teaches introductory and senior undergraduate, and graduate courses within the areas of human anatomy, biomechanics, human factors, and ergonomics. His disciplinary research in biomechanics and ergonomics focuses on injury prevention and assessing physical demands on, and injury risk to people in sport and occupational settings. His teaching and learning interests and research span peer observation of teaching, early and mid-career mentoring, educational leadership, and student engagement in large classes. Dr. Andrews is a 3M National Teaching Fellow, Past President of the Canadian Society for Biomechanics, former Research and Teaching Leadership Chairs for the Faculty of Human Kinetics, and former Head of the Department of Kinesiology, all at UWindsor. He is a member of several national and international societies in biomechanics, ergonomics, and teaching and learning, and he serves on the editorial boards for two scientific journals.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing these great tips Dave!

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