Much like in campus settings, you can make connections with students in virtual classes to elevate their learning. In this article, Luke Cable, Senior Learning Designer at Wiley University Services, shares four strategies that enable you to engage students for a deeper, more personal educational experience.
Wiley has analyzed years of feedback from online learners, and our findings likely align with what your experience as an instructor has taught you: The ways you engage with students can make or break their learning experience. After all, you are the most valuable asset in their learning. That’s why it’s essential to connect with your students, regardless of your teaching modality.
Connecting with students in a physical classroom likely comes naturally to you. Although your role in the virtual classroom isn’t entirely different, the way you connect with students—as well as teach and motivate them—does feel different online. Even so, there are steps you can take to establish your presence in the virtual classroom. Here are four strategies to add to your virtual educator toolbox.
Strategy 1. Proactively Communicate
The best way to connect with your students is through purposeful, proactive engagement. Even if you regularly meet with your class in real-time via a video platform, students may feel isolated and disconnected between sessions. To fill these interaction gaps, you can:
Send class-wide communications once or twice a week. This outreach assures students that they can depend on you to make regular contact. Use these messages to remind students about due dates, offer help with challenging concepts, share resources, and answer common questions from the class.
Send One-on-One Emails to Students
Don’t underestimate the power of proactive one-on-one communication. By contacting students individually to say hello, welcome them to a course, and get acquainted, you establish your presence as more than the instructor—you are their instructor. This approach can make all the difference in their learning.
During challenging times, it’s also important to check in with students about their well-being. For instance, you can ask if current events are impacting their work/life balance, child care needs, or other factors you can seek to accommodate through the virtual class.
Mix Regularity With Spontaneity
Regular communication is an essential component of engagement. But spontaneous communication is what makes each course a unique experience. Grab your class’ attention by mixing spontaneous outreach in with the regular announcements and emails that students expect. Through these messages, you can highlight standout student contributions and assist with difficult study topics.
Strategy 2. Make Yourself Known
In a physical classroom, natural transition times occur at the beginnings and ends of classes. During these transitions, your students can get to know each other—and you—by making small talk about the weather, weekend plans, and current events. To create similar opportunities for personal engagement in virtual classes, you can:
Post a Welcome Video
Videos are wonderful because they can convey many forms of information (verbal, tone, visual) all at once. Creating and posting a welcome video provides an immediate medium for sharing who you are with students in a short timeframe. Compelling welcome videos go beyond your personal details by engaging students in thought-provoking ways. For instance, you could pose a question for students to consider or connect your course to real-world issues. Keep in mind that you can use welcome videos for more than introducing a course. These videos can also frame significant topics and new situations.
Add Video and Audio to Announcements
Consider creating class announcements as short videos or audio recordings. This approach provides additional opportunities for students to see your face and hear your voice. Be sure to pair audio announcements with text for students with accessibility needs.
Personalize as Much as Possible
Seek opportunities to individualize course materials and communicate your style and personality. You can personalize all communications by using images, video, audio, and anecdotes that reveal who you are. These anecdotes may provide small, classroom-friendly glimpses of your daily life:
- “When I was walking the dog this morning, I was reminded . . .”
- “After listening to a podcast last night . . .”
- “This week’s topic happened to come up with my acapella group . . .”
Strategy 3. Participate in Discussions
Well-crafted asynchronous online discussions allow students to connect with each other, bring personal knowledge into the class, and think critically about discussion topics. What’s more, online discussions offer chances for you to interact with students in ways that go beyond announcements and other general communications. Check out Wiley’s article, 9 Student Engagement Strategies for Online Discussion Forums, to learn ideas for bringing your presence into forums. You’ll also explore ways to connect with students without hindering the organic nature of a discussion.
Strategy 4. Host Office Hours Online
As you know, holding office hours on campus provides students with one-on-one help. When teaching virtually, that student need still exists. Host regular, synchronous office hours online to strengthen your connection with students. It’s best to meet with students using the video-conference software used for classroom sessions. To make these meetings beneficial, be sure to:
Start with the logistics. Set a schedule for your office hours, along with instructions for how students can join a session. You can simplify the process for joining meetings by using a shared link that works for all students. Then set the ground rules. Ask students to come to sessions with specific questions or areas of confusion to clear up, not vague requests to review a lecture. You can also use a video platform to personalize the experience.
Let Students Do Most of the Talking
During office hour sessions, your tendency may be to lead the discussion. But these sessions are students’ time to direct the conversation. Suggest that they share their screen to show assignments, readings, and other digital materials that tie to their questions.
Share Your Feedback and Expertise
Don’t forget that your expertise is the reason students want to meet during office hours. While students should choose the topic of discussion, give yourself time to provide input and advice.
In Teaching to Change Lives, Dr. Howard Hendricks wrote, “No one cares what you know until they know you care.” That sentiment applies to virtual engagement with students. And students will care more about the class after they get to know you. By taking the time to connect with students using the strategies shared here, you lay the foundation for a rich learning experience.
Explore our Virtual Resource Center for more articles and guidance that can empower you to thrive in virtual education.