Online teaching has become more popular and accessible for students. As such, more instructors are teaching online courses. Asynchronous online courses can create barriers for instructors to connect with students, but instructors can implement small and significant changes to their online courses that can help build community, connection, and relationships. Ideas for manageable connection principles include getting to know each other, empathy, communication, and feedback.
Getting to know you
An important part of creating connection and community with your students is getting to know them and allowing them to get to know you. In-person classes often have this built into the first week of classes and instructors and professors share information about themselves. However, this can be challenging in asynchronous online classes, which do not have meeting times. To help address this, instructors can create a page on their online course called, Get to Know Your Instructor.
On this page, instructors can include the following:
- Picture or a video of self
- Title, preferred name, and pronouns
- Professional summary—including education, employment, areas of interest, research, and specializations
- Personal summary—hobbies, family, and interests
This helps students see you as a real person with a life outside of class.
For the students, courses can have a required Get to Know You survey. The following questions are recommended:
- What is your preferred name? What are your pronouns?
- What are your personal and/or career goals?
- What do you hope for out of your college education?
- Why did you take this course?
- What are you looking forward to most in this course?
- What do you do for fun?
In this survey, instructors also give their answers after the students have completed the survey. Instructors then comment or respond to at least one thing to help students know that their responses are read and recognized.
Taking online classes can be challenging and isolating for many students. It is important to have empathy embedded throughout the course. This starts with giving good organization to your online course. The use of modules, a course outline with links to assignments and material, and a clear and simple syllabus help make the class organized and accessible. In the syllabus, clearly state what you expect from students and what students can expect from you. Predictability allows for decreased stress and anxiety.
Throughout the course, make it clear that you want students to reach out to you with any questions or concerns. This can be included in the syllabus, emails, assignments, and feedback.
In my course, I choose to open all of the material at once except for exams that are open for a week. This is to allow students the flexibility and opportunity to work ahead if they know they have something going on in the semester or upcoming travel/obligations.
Including an empathy statement on the course homepage and in the syllabus also helps students know that the instructor cares about them. Empathy statements allow instructors to express that they understand life can become busy and unpredictable and that the instructor is supportive throughout the class. The following are statements that can be put into your course empathy statement.
- I am here for you.
- My goal is for you to learn and understand the material and see how it applies to your life.
- I am here to support you.
- Stay connected with me throughout the course.
- If you have difficulty, reach out at any time.
- This helps students know they can reach out before an assignment is due if they are struggling, or after an assignment has been completed and they realize they did not complete it correctly.
- I want you to succeed and have a wonderful experience.
Communication with students is important in any class and learning environment. However, in online classes, it is even more important to be responsive to students’ comments and emails. Quick response times for students can help students feel cared for. When responding to student emails, thank them for reaching out and for their questions. This helps students feel appreciated and know that their instructor genuinely values them.
Asynchronous online courses can require more monitoring of the students. This includes checking on the frequency of students accessing the course and the completion of assignments. If a student has not completed two assignments in a row, contact them to see how they are doing. Reach out to students when they receive less than 50% on an assignment or exam. In synchronous courses, instructors can check in with students during class time; asynchronous courses don’t have that possibility. Instructors can send short check-in emails, thus communicating to the students that their instructor is aware of them and that they care about their well-being and their success in the course.
While asynchronous courses do not have a set course time, having student hours via Zoom can help provide a space to connect with students and answer their questions. Some students prefer this to email when discussing things like feedback, assignments, or personal difficulties.
In asynchronous courses, instructors need to have frequent and regular contact with their students. Weekly emails are a powerful way to stay connected and keep students on task. Weekly emails may include: things to do for the week including topics covered, due dates, links to assignments, and upcoming assignments. The key is to make it easy and accessible for students to allow for predictability and organization. I like to add aspects of my personality into these emails and make them entertaining. I start weekly emails by calling my students something new every week. For example, “Good morning, beautiful butterflies.” Additional phrases my students have enjoyed are “darling daffodils,” “fighting frogs,” “sunshine beams,” and “brave bunnies.” This helps my students feel connected while also seeing parts of my personality in the course.
Feedback is such a vital way of connecting with our students. In online classes, it is important that every assignment is followed with feedback and an explanation of their score. For high scores, statements such as, “Great job on your thoroughness and conciseness of your writing. You answered each of the questions and showed a great demonstration of your learning,” are helpful for students to continue to do well. For a lower score, give specific details on what they missed and why. Then give an example of what you were looking for from them. For example, “I would like to see you state the theory, describe and explain the theory thoroughly, and then connect it to the example in multiple ways. The connection is the important part. You will do this again on the next assignment.” In all of the feedback, try to comment on something specific that the student said to show the feedback is individualized.
Feedback is a simple and valuable tool to show students you care about their success and what they say and think. In synchronous classes, instructors can comment on students’ comments and have a dialog with them to show that connection. Asynchronous instructors can apply that same concept through the feedback and comments given to students on their assignments.
Connecting with online students can be difficult. There are increased barriers to connecting in online classes that we can work to overcome. These principles can help to eliminate some of those barriers.
After using these principles, students have remarked that they feel that I, as an instructor, genuinely care about them and their success. They mention feeling connected and valued. Students say they feel supported in class and their learning. We can put an increased effort into helping our students feel connected and less isolated in their online courses and learning through these small and simple course adjustments.
Lindsay Howard is a doctoral student in the couple and family therapy program at Kansas State University. Howard works as a graduate teaching assistant at Kansas State University, where she teaches undergraduate online classes. She has also been a co-instructor for several graduate classes at Kansas State University. Her research areas include parenting, parent-child relationships, and child therapy outcomes. Howard is also a child and family therapist who hopes to teach future therapists.