By: Professor Julie Prosser, Psychology Department, Colorado State University
Teaching Psychology on campus—with large lecture halls full of students eager to learn and connect with their peers—was invigorating before 2020. I was excited about teaching each class and proud of the relationships I was forming. I was so engaged and present with my students. Then I had to learn how to connect with students online.
When classes transitioned online during the second half of spring semester, I grew frustrated with technology and less comfortable in my work environment. Because I was pre-recording lectures and playing them “live” for those who logged in during class, I was putting more effort into making sure students could find my lecture videos than in personally connecting with them.
I wanted the connection back. As a Psychology Instructor, I knew just how crucial these relationships were for student learning and engagement.
Going into the Fall 2020 semester, I decided the best way to connect with students was to deliver a live lecture via the online platform, record each session, and post them so students could access them afterward—giving them the option between synchronous and asynchronous.
Three Strategies to Help You Connect with Students Online
Here are a few strategies that I have implemented this semester in my virtual PSY100 course, and have found to be successful:
To be authentic is something I strive for, even for in-person classes. However, in an online learning environment, being your authentic self is more important than ever.
Students are struggling to navigate their online classes and assignments, and it’s important to remind them that even their instructors struggle too. It helps the students humanize the instructor, and the instructor to humanize the students. Being authentic can build empathy and understanding.
Sometimes I do this by taking time before class starts to simply check in with my students, and actually allow them a chance to be real with me about what they are going through. Sometimes I share my own struggles in return.
I show them that it is okay to feel overwhelmed and that we really are all in this together. Additionally, talking about student struggles and coping strategies becomes especially relevant when discussing the Stress, Illness, Health, and Happiness lectures!
Not everyone is funny, so if incorporating humor into your lectures doesn’t feel comfortable, there’s no need to attempt this—hence the previous strategy.
Using humor in your lecture content can help keep students focused and present while reducing their anxiety—and at the same time, reduce instructor anxiety, enabling you to be more effective in your delivery.
When you laugh with your students, it helps connect you through that shared experience, even when the experience is virtual. It also reinforces your authenticity as you show you have a sense of humor. Incorporating humor often encourages students to continue “showing up” to class, allowing more opportunities to connect with them.
I incorporate humor through pop-culture references, using clips of The Office and other relevant television shows, like the Big Bang Theory, when Sheldon uses operant conditioning to shape Penny’s behavior. I also use memes and gifs to demonstrate various psychological concepts.
Lastly, I use funny personal anecdotes that connect to content that students will hopefully remember as they attempt to come up with their own personal examples as they study.
When students cannot see their instructor face-to-face, it may take longer for them to open up and ask for help when needed. As instructors, we can’t help if we are unaware of students struggling.
The best we can do is create as many opportunities as possible to make students feel comfortable reaching out. By creating opportunities to help, we are also creating opportunities to connect.
I’ve made myself more accessible this semester by continuously sending reminder announcements about when my virtual office hours are, by emailing students back more quickly, and even by providing my personal cell phone number to my current 280 Psychology students.
I’ve also devoted more time to monitoring individual student progress on one of the major projects I assign and have emailed them all directly with gentle reminders and offers of assistance. It takes some extra time, but the hope is to let students know I’m still devoted to their success even if I don’t physically see them during class all the time.
The little things matter, and they all add up. We can all take small steps to increase our connection to students and show we care.
Questions to Consider
Each class and group of students has its own unique needs. Before you make the leap to facilitate student connections in an online learning environment, ask these questions to best tailor your strategy.
- If you are teaching 100% asynchronously, what barriers to connection do you face?
- How can you incorporate the suggested strategies into asynchronous delivery?
- Would you consider incorporating a synchronous component, and do you think it would help foster better connections?
- What barriers to effective teaching do you anticipate facing by incorporating a synchronous component?
- How are you already presenting your most authentic self? What is at least one more way you can show your authenticity?
- In what ways are you currently communicating with your students?
- What is one more mode/instance of communication that you can add to be more accessible and to connect with students throughout the semester?
Want more ways to take teaching to the next level? Discover resources for various course formats and other ways to gain professional development in today’s higher-education landscape.