Faculty Focus


Creating a Sense of Belonging through Instructor Social Presence

Friendly woman waving at computer screen

For students, taking an online course can feel like being the only student in the class—isolated and lonely at times, and connected to the outside world through just a computer screen.  Such feelings have been shown to affect student retention and success in their coursework (Gordon, 2017, 100-101; Kaufmann & Vallede, 2022, 1794-1808). In a face-to-face class, students see the instructor and other students and, even if not interacting with them directly, know they are not alone.  To offset students’ feelings of being “the only one” and to help develop feelings of connection, instructors in online courses may make use of strategies such as personal online introductions by faculty and students, discussion assignments, group projects, occasional video lectures, and Zoom office hours.    

But asynchronous courses, and especially asynchronous independent study courses, present a different scenario with challenges for both instructors and students. Asynchronous online courses that follow the academic schedule for beginning and ending of the course and are structured with firm due dates for assignments, tests, and course activities may or may not offer students opportunities to connect with others taking the course at the same time. Additionally, independent online courses might allow students to register and enter a course at any time, turn in assignments to fit their own schedules, and extend the deadline for completing the course if extra time is needed to finish.  Thus, students are working on their own with no idea of who might also be taking the course. 

Social presence

Loneliness can be countered by feelings of social presence, broadly defined as the “’realness’ of other persons” in online interactions (Gordon, 2017, 100; Kreijns, Xu and Weidlich, 2021, 139-170). The Community of Inquiry model of online teaching and learning (https://www.thecommunityofinquiry.org/coi) distinguishes three areas of presence in online courses—social, cognitive, and teaching.  While instructors play large roles in the cognitive and teaching arenas—through choice and presentation of content, assignments, directions, and feedback, for example—they also play a role in creating personal connections or social presence in the course (Dunlap and Lowenthal, 2014; Martin, 2019; Richardson and Lowenthal, 2017). There are numerous articles that offer ways instructors can develop social presence, whether in synchronous or asynchronous courses. The following selected strategies are presented below organized by potential student concerns as they work through an online course.

“Who is my instructor?”

In a face-to-face course or an online course that makes use of Zoom, video lectures, online office hours, or other visual/auditory experiences, students can develop conceptions of their instructor’s presence through seeing facial expressions and hearing stories and side comments related to the topic of the day.  In online asynchronous courses, although visual forms of electronic communication are possible, they are not the only ways to connect with students.

Some ways to add personal information to teaching content and build social presence for the instructor throughout the course include the following (Gordon, 2017; Oyarzun, Barreto, and Conklin, 2018; Scollins-Mantha, 2008):

  • Include information from the instructor’s expertise, individual experience, and approach to topics in an introduction to the course and/or within individual units within the course. 
  • Use examples from the instructor’s experience to illustrate directions for assignments.
  • Create a conversational atmosphere inside the course by using second person language where appropriate—e.g., “you will see,” “you may wonder,” “you may feel,” and/or including instructor anecdotes of experiences within introductions to units or modules.
  • If videos are not practical to use throughout the course, adding voice-overs to PowerPoint presentations can add the personal touch of the instructor’s voice while allowing illustrations of the topic to extend beyond the information printed on the slides.

“Is anyone there?”

While useful feedback on their work is an expectation that students bring to their classes, how instructors use channels for communication within the asynchronous course can add to their social presence and provide students a feeling of belonging, being part of a community, and being seen as an individual.  Scollins-Mantha (2008, 3) stresses the importance of tone in written responses to students.  Swan (2002) offers examples of two types of responses that might be particularly useful in independent study courses—affective (e.g., value, humor) and interactive evidence the other is attending (e.g., acknowledgement, approval).  Richardson and Lowenthal (2008) and Gordon (2017) suggest the use of paralanguage, defined by Gordon (2017, 105) as “nonlexical components of oral or written language, such as emoticons, emojis, or onomatopoeic utterances.”

  • Use “friendly language” in comments.  For example, rather than “well-organized” say something like, “This provides a clear explanation of your thinking” or “I like the way you put this—very clear and easy to follow.”
  • Instead of a general comment like, “More detail needed,” phrase feedback as a question—e.g., “What might have you added to take this idea further?”
  • Make use of personal reactions as well as assignment feedback—e.g., “This experience had to be exciting!” “I had a similar reaction the first time I ran across this concept.” Paralanguage can be added to such comments, e.g., 😊, 😔,😉, Wheew, Yowie!
  • Brief emails or additions to comments on returned assignments can provide a student with information that might be of interest outside of the immediate framework of the course—e.g., web sites inside or outside of the university, information for a library contact person, the title of another class that might be of interest, suggestions for additional resources or readings (“This isn’t required but might be useful to you”).

“Where is this going?”

While the syllabus, course modules, and a course calendar can provide students with information on progress toward completion of the course, comments and messages from the instructor can demonstrate interest in the student as an individual and encourage continued involvement in the course.  The strategies suggested below may be part of individual brief emails, feedback on assignments, course content modules and documents, and the course syllabus.

  • In introductions to units or modules and/or introductions to assignments or individual emails throughout the course, identify connections or progression from concepts in previous units/modules/assignments—e.g., “So far we have focused on . . . now we’ll explore . . .”
  • In an email to an individual or with comments on an assignment, note progress on the course to date—e.g., “You’re halfway through the course now—great!  Let me know if you have any questions as you move forward.”
  • Make use of feedback/comments on completed assignments to show connections with upcoming assignments and/or modules to illustrate the flow of concepts in the course or how skills from a current assignment will be helpful in upcoming work.  For example, “The ideas you have included here will be useful as you apply concepts in Unit 3.”
  • Include statements of course outcomes with units, modules, and assignments as well providing them in the syllabus for the course as a whole.  For example, “The goals for this assignment are to provide you with some practice in . . .”

Closing thoughts

The suggestions here offer only a few strategies for creating instructor social presence.  The particular approaches an instructor uses will be shaped by the instructor’s personal style, experience, and course load; the background and experience of the students in the course; the structure and content of the course; and the possibilities and limitations of the learning management system.  But increasing instructor social presence can add to students’ enjoyment of and success in the course and add to instructors’ feelings of connections with their students and courses as well.

Donna Vinton, PhD, has worked for positions in a public high school, two K-12 state education agencies, a private college, and a public state university.  Vinton was an early adopter of LMS systems on campus, using them from the 1990’s on to support the face-to-face undergraduate and graduate courses. Currently, Vinton is teaching an asynchronous online independent study course that is part of the continuing education programs. Vinton’s undergraduate degree was in English education with a PhD in higher education administration.


Dunlap, Joanna C., and Patrick R. Lowenthal. “The power of presence: Our quest for the right mix of social presence in online courses.” Real life distance education: Case studies in practice (2014): 41-66.

Gordon, Jessica. “Creating Social Cues Through Self-Disclosures, Stories, and Paralanguage.” Social presence in online learning: Multiple perspectives on practice and research (2017): 99-112.

Kaufmann, Renee, Vallede, Jessalyn I. “Exploring Connections in the Online Learning Environment:

Student Perceptions of Rapport, Climate, and Loneliness.”  Interactive Learning Environments 30, no. 10 (2022): 1794-1808.  https://doi.org/10.1080/10494820.2020.1749670.

Kreijns, K., Xu, K., Weidlich, J. 2021. “Social Presence: Conceptualization and Measurement.“ Educational Psychology Review 34: 139–170).

Martin, Jeffrey. “Building relationships and increasing engagement in the virtual classroom: Practical tools for the online instructor.” Journal of Educators Online 16, no. 1 (2019): n1.

Oyarzun, Beth, Daisyane Barreto, and Sheri Conklin. “Instructor social presence effects on learner social presence, achievement, and satisfaction.” TechTrends 62 (2018): 625-634.

Richardson, Jennifer C. and Lowenthal, Patrick. “Instructor social presence: Learners’ needs and a neglected component of the community of inquiry framework.“ https://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/edtech.facpubs/2-0/ (2017)

Scollins-Mantha, Brandi. “Cultivating social presence in the online learning classroom: A literature review with recommendations for practice.” International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning 5, no. 3 (2008): 1-15.

Swan, Karen. “Building learning communities in online courses: The importance of interaction.” Education, Communication & Information 2, no. 1 (2002): 23-49.