As an instructor, I have always considered myself to be friendly and approachable. I assumed that students would come to me when they were experiencing difficulty with course materials or going through unexpected life events which influenced course performance. However, I have learned that many students tend to be reluctant to reach out for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are nervous about asking questions because they don’t want to be seen as a student who doesn’t understand the material. They may feel that their situation is somehow not worthy of their professor’s time. It may even be that the student is simply shy.
Student perceptions of their instructors’ attitude toward them has been shown to be a predictor of student motivation (Wilson J. H., 2006). Academic interactions between instructors and students outside of the classroom can lead to higher GPA, as well as an increase in student persistence among first year college students. In fact, the long-term impact of discussing academics with the instructor was greater than that of participating in study groups and clubs (Schudde, 2019). Data has indicated that value placed on personal faculty-student interactions by instructors is a more prevalent indicator of instructor accessibility than simply being present during regularly scheduled office hours (Wilson, Wood, & Gaff, 1974). This suggests that it is important for faculty members to be proactive in establishing relationships with students.
One of the first things we can do to start building connections with students to is to send a welcome email prior to the start of the term. This email is an opportunity to introduce yourself to your students before the class begins. You could include personal information and/or a photo, in addition to the course syllabus and other course-related information. You might also consider including a link to a welcome video introduction. This video could even include a walkthrough of the course in the LMS.
After the first day of class, I like to send out a personalized email to each student enrolled in the class including the student’s name. If they have not opened the course syllabus or were not in class on the first day, this could be addressed in the email. If a student introduced themself or shared an interesting story in that first meeting, this could also be a nice way to acknowledge that participation. You could also include reminders of any tasks or assignments that need to be completed in the first week. At any rate, this is a good way to show the students that you are there and that you are paying attention right from the start. It doesn’t take as much time as you might think. I keep a word document from which I can copy and paste various sections to create personalized emails.
My favorite way to encourage connections with students is through what I like to call a “temperature check.” This is a way for students to share their feelings about current course material in a personal and often humorous manner. Periodically, I will set up a discussion board forum in the LMS. In this forum, students are asked to post a (family friendly!) picture which describes their current feeling about the course material with no explanation. This can be a photo they’ve taken themselves or it could be something they’ve found online as long as it is properly cited. This activity gives students a chance to be creative and also stimulates conversations. I also find that it provides a starting point to initiate a conversation with a student who posts a picture indicating a struggle in the course. The same kind of activity could be used in-person.
Occasionally, I will choose three or four images and display them on the screen. Using clickers, students are asked to choose the image which best fits their understanding of current course topics. This often leads to conversation about why a particular image was selected and encourages students to bring up difficult topics or questions. This is a good way to “check the temperature” of your class and can provide future class sessions an opportunity to address any issues or time to review the material.
Finally, I like to share personal stories in class. This is something that I did not do much before the pandemic. However, while I was teaching remotely, I found it difficult to keep my home life separated. Class meetings were often interrupted by my dog barking to go outside or by my children playing or asking for a snack. Instead of being annoyed at the disruptions, this seemed to encourage my students to pay more attention. Before class time, I would often get chat messages asking about my family or asking how a certain situation played out. They would share pictures or put their pets on screen. It created a comfortable environment for making connections. Now that I am back in the classroom, I often share photos and talk about my children or talk about my weekend plans. Sharing our lives with our students emphasizes that we are human beings as well. It makes us more approachable and makes it easier to begin establishing those valuable connections with our students.
Shanda Hood is a teaching assistant professor at the University of Arkansas. She earned her PhD in Mathematics at the University of Arkansas in 2014. She currently serves as course coordinator for MATH 2043 Survey of Calculus.
Schudde, L. (2019). Short- and Long-Term Impacts of Engagement Experiences with Faculty and Peers at Community Colleges. The Review of Higher Education, 385-426.
Wilson, J. H. (2006). Predicting Student Attitudes and Grades from Perceptions of Instructos’ Attitudes. Teaching of Psychology, 33(2), 91-95.
Wilson, R. C., Wood, L., & Gaff, T. G. (1974). Social-Psychological Accessibility and Faculty-Student Interaction Beyond the Classroom. American Sociological Association, 47(1), 74-92. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/2112167