Teaching and Learning Tip #37: Connecting with Students in an Online Classroom

September 11, 2018

Tip #37: Connecting with Students in an Online Classroom

Contributed by Christine Dobrowolski, Kinesiology and Recreation

Building relationships with students will improve learning and help ensure student success. Relationship building may feel like a challenging task in an online environment when we rely on written text to interpret feelings, expressions, mood, and engagement.

Techniques for connecting with students:

  • Create a learning community. Build a community of learners on the first day of class. Start with an icebreaker discussion that allows students to introduce themselves, share their nickname, provide background information, and discuss their learning and professional goals. Encourage students to add a picture to the discussion forum and create a profile. Be active in the forum during the first week.
  • Share your story. Create a faculty information page on Canvas that includes your academic interests, your professional background and your personal interests. Students want to know who you are, as a person.
  • Adopt a personal tone. Tone is defined as a writer’s attitude toward the reader. Our readers are our students and we want to express a positive attitude in our written communication to form better connections.
  • Take notes. With more and more students in each course and class caps increasing, it may feel like an overwhelming task to get to know a new set of students every semester. Keep a spreadsheet with all student names, nicknames, interests and professional goals. When students are addressed by a preferred nickname, instead of their formal name, they feel as if their instructor made an effort to get to know them. Refer to the spreadsheet throughout the semester to address students’ professional goals as they apply to the material. Throughout the semester consider recommending books, providing links to research in a particular field of study, or to professional websites or academic leaders in a particular field as they relate to student interests.
  • Share experiences. Students assimilate new information when they can connect course content to past experiences. Ask students to share their personal and professional experiences in discussions as they relate to the course content. Engage in the discussion by sharing your own personal experiences.
  • Recognize student effort. Provide specific and unique feedback to students. Active learning involves the recognition of, and response to, student effort. Consider sending messages to students who earn the highest grades on an assignment or exam, congratulating them on the quality of their work.
  • Check-in. From time to time check in with students who might be falling behind with their work. Email, message, or call them. Some students may reach out to you, but others may only respond if the instructor initiates contact.
  • Ask for feedback. Survey students for constructive feedback about the course. If students have the opportunity to provide ongoing feedback about what they feel is working or not working, they feel like they have a say in the learning process. Anonymous feedback surveys can be valuable tools to gain student feedback.
  • Create videos. Instructor-created videos provide a more engaging learning environment and are easy-to-create with the Canvas video tool. The video tool can be found within the toolbar of the announcements or within the SpeedGrader feedback area. A video announcement that includes current events or course updates is an easy way to engage learners. Other video tools include YouTube, Camtasia, and Screencast-O-matic. Be sure your videos are captioned or have a transcript available.
  • Be responsive. Respond to student inquiries and concerns within 24 hours. Address their frustrations and concerns in a personal tone prior to providing more formal resolution advice. Students connect with instructors in different ways. Use a variety of engagement methods to encourage active learning.


Abrahamson C.E. (2011). Methodologies for motivating student learning through personal connections. Forum on Public Policy, 1-14.

Diekelmann N., & Elmora, M. (2005). Being a supportive presence in online courses: Knowing and connecting with students through writing. Journal of Nursing Education, 44(8), 344-346.

Milner, R.H. (2011). Five easy ways to connect with students. Harvard Education Letter, 27(1).

Tone in Business Writing. Purdue Online Writing Lab. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/652/1/. Last accessed April 10, 2018.