Faculty Focus

HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS

Cultivating Connection in a Course Setting  

People holding pinkies together in a circle of fists

An important lesson I learned over the years while teaching in academia is that kindness and connection matter in a course. Showing up for students with kindness, compassion, and encouragement goes a long way in supporting their well-being. It helps students feel supported in their lives, make connections with the course content, and explore their educational and professional goals. Facilitating a learning environment that provides space for students to connect with themselves, explore their academic interests, and build a sense of community can happen when students feel safe, seen, and heard respectfully. This allows students to take more risks in expressing their ideas in a course and explore the course content and assignments with a lens of meaning and critical thinking. Nataly Kogan states the necessity of human connection: Every time we do something kind or are the recipients of kindness, another strand in the fabric of human connection gets woven into our lives. Not only does this bring a moment of warmth and often joy, but we are also reminded that we are not moving through life alone—and that can be an invaluable source of strength for us when we go through difficult times (Kogan, 2018).

Here are some ideas to practice significant connection in a course:

Intentional check-ins: Check-in with students before class begins to see how they are doing and encourage daily practices to fuel their physical, emotional, and mental well-being. This will be key to building rapport and trust with them. This practice of beginning class with a check-in shows students that their well-being is important and that we see them. When students feel supported in their learning environment, learning the course content can be approached with more ease and curiosity. An approachable learning environment can also help students feel more comfortable and address their concerns. This builds connection with our students. Prioritizing students’ well-being and curating a caring and safe space matters.

Class engagement: A learning environment that exudes respect, compassion, and connection can help us and our students build a positive learning community. Introducing course content and assignments that provide space for students to get acquainted and exchange different points of views while examining the course content can lead to opportunities for meaningful learning and growth. This can also lead to positive connections with their classmates and the course content in a valuable way. It also helps students examine their values and interests while connecting with others. These intentional steps help students feel more comfortable in building community and a willingness to practice engagement. Through modeling engagement in a course, we can support students to practice these skills: compassion, connection, and collaboration. A community of learners can become more cohesive through these practices. This provides students opportunities for self-growth, authentic connections with other students, and to the course content. It will also help students see the importance of linking community and course content to their educational and professional goals.

Significant course assignments

Being mindful of Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning is valuable while creating course assignments. Dr. L. Dee Fink recognizes a missing element of Bloom’s taxonomy since many people have focused on the cognitive domain. He believes there are other kinds of learning that are also important including “learning how to learn, leadership and interpersonal skills, ethics, communication skills, character, tolerance, the ability to adapt to change” (Fink, 2003, p. 2). Fink defines learning as any form of significant change in the learner (Fink, 2003, p. 3). He has designed his taxonomy around this principle. Fink believes that significant learning happens when there is a significant change in a person. Creating meaningful course assignments enables us to continue reflecting on our course goals for students and assist them in “seeing” that what they are learning has value to their lives. The most important feature of Fink’s taxonomy is how the different dimensions of learning interact and affect each other. Fink believes that significant learning can only happen when students are engaged in multiple kinds of learning. As students develop knowledge in one dimension, it can help them to better understand other dimensions. For example, if students are learning how their thinking works and they develop a better understanding of how they learn, including using successful learning strategies, it will make it easier for them to be able to learn Foundational Knowledge (Teaching Tip: The Fink Think, 2013).

Fink suggests that creating assignments with learning goals targeting different kinds of learning can help students practice these skills. It gives students opportunities to be intentional with other kinds of learning. Students that are practicing these skills will not only benefit from them in a course, but this will be necessary while pursuing their educational and professional interests. Reflective course assignments that are aligned with learning goals focusing on Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning will be beneficial in assisting students to learn more about themselves and provide opportunities to pivot. This can allow space to explore creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. Through the process of significant learning, students can gain a better understanding of themselves and how their course experience might lead them to further exploration. This can offer them valuable personal insight and provide opportunities to consider how their educational interests might also lead them to more meaningful contributions to society. These life skills are valuable and will be an asset to them while pursuing their educational and professional interests.

Intentional reflection and feedback

Revisiting our learning goals throughout the semester and hopes for students provides a space for self-reflection and feedback in a course. It provides opportunities to pivot and make necessary revisions to learning goals for students. This allows us to reexamine whether our learning goals are aligning with our hopes for them. Being mindful of the following question will be valuable to consider: Is significant learning occurring in the course?

Students consistently practicing self-reflection while engaging with the course learning goals will help them see how the learning experience is leading to significant learning and change. These might be some key questions to consider asking students:

  • What is your experience like while engaging with this particular learning goal?
  • How has this learning experience changed you after engaging with this course content, course assessment, or course assignment?

These questions can be posed at different points in the semester.  It gives students an opportunity to think about their growth in the course on a consistent basis. It is also a great way for students to share with peers about their learning experiences and foster connection and support in the course. Maintaining ongoing dialogue with students about their engagement with learning goals provides meaningful information. This can lead to more authentic connections and a more cohesive class community. It allows us to see what is effective and addresses students’ challenges that come up in the course.

Through the practice of consistent reflection, instructors and students can observe whether significant learning is taking place and what steps to take to make adjustments if needed. This helps students see the value of the process and how it is changing them. It also offers instructors opportunities to reflect on their course experience and how this process has changed them.  It can also leave students feeling empowered about their self-growth in the course and help them consider how this might impact their choices and connections in their lives. In addition to providing space for ourselves and students to practice consistent reflection, it is important to give students meaningful feedback about their growth while they engage with course content, course assessments, and course assignments. This will be key in strengthening significant learning and connections with students during the semester.


Stacy Roth has been teaching in academia for 19 years. Roth’s professional background is in counseling psychology and clinical psychology, where Roth has provided counseling in clinical and school settings, and published articles in a professional clinical magazine and a peer reviewed journal.

References:

  1. Fink, D. (2013, February 25). Teaching Tip: The Fink Think. {Blog Post}. Retrieved from https://www.vaniercollege.qc.ca/pdo/2013/02/teaching-tip-the-fink-think/
  2. Kogan, N. (2018). Happier Now. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.