In the fall of 2018 in the United States, there were roughly 19,600,000 students enrolled in distance education courses (National Center for Education Statistics, 2022). Understandably, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, this figure grew astronomically. Despite the necessity, appeal, and convenience of online learning, however, retention rates continue to flag when compared to traditional in-person learning (Akers, Carter, and Coder 2021). From an instructor standpoint, two major factors to improve retention include “facilitation of student engagement and sense of belonging” (Muljana and Luo, 2019, 36). Additionally, given the dramatic unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also critical to understand how COVID-19 specifically affected online learner characteristics. Research notes that the pandemic has negatively influenced student engagement and social interaction with peers and instructors and to combat this, online learning engagement must be adjusted to improve student well-being and learner experience (Kara, 2021). In reviewing traditional academic online learning research, engagement and belonging focus on the importance of implementing early interventions, effective communication, and quality feedback (Muljana and Luo, 2019). While this list is appropriate, its precise implementation, especially regarding effective communication, can seem nebulous to many instructors. Communications regarding early interventions, outreach, and feedback can be issued, but given the unique situation of learners during this turbulent time, the importance of communicating with a sense of engagement and belonging becomes paramount.
To best engage students, prominent research on general human connection and communication was consulted. The work of leading researcher, professor, and author Brené Brown emerged as being premier research on human connection. Specifically, through her research on empathy, effective communication strategies emerge that can be used to foster enhanced online engagement with students while defusing perceived stressors from the pandemic.
Regarding empathy in her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, Brown (2010b) notes that to truly empathize and communicate effectively with others, we need to use courage, compassion, and connection. She argues that being courageous means telling “the story of who you are with your whole heart…very simply, [it means having] the courage to be imperfect.” To show empathy, we need to be able to connect with the emotion a student shares when communicating or reaching out.
Translating this need for courage to online instructors, the takeaway is that we must be willing to share our imperfect experiences with students. This humanizing act of communicating more courageously can work to establish an immediate bond with students because we expose our own vulnerability, validating their own vulnerabilities and experiences. Regarding the need for greater empathy in academia, Peña (2021) notes, “An empathetic response or approach to a situation requires recognizing and understanding the emotional states of others. Phrases like ‘I understand what you’re feeling’ validate others’ emotions and experiences” (par. 5). Clearly, when vulnerabilities are shared courageously, perceived shared stressors and weaknesses can serve to strengthen the instructor-student bond and engage students more readily and personally.
Communications to students fostering courage
- Like you, juggling work, family, and caretaking also has brought me to my knees more than once.
- COVID-19 has hit my family hard as well.
While being courageous in validating students is a step forward, compassion also should be used in communications, especially because perceived empathy and compassion are reported to be at a 30-year low among college students according to one professor at Indiana University where over 13,0000 students responded to a survey (Davis, 2017). Brown (2010a) emphasizes the importance of compassion, “When we’re looking for compassion, we need someone who is deeply rooted, able to bend, and, most of all, we need someone who embraces us for our strengths and struggles” (73). With COVID-19, students have endured isolation, death, job insecurity, severe generalized stress, and many other stressors. Therefore, approaching students with compassion becomes paramount in establishing a working relationship with students for not only educational reasons but also emotional reasons, too.
To extend compassion, be sure to acknowledge the student’s struggle while commending the student for their strength. Additionally, when communicating compassionately, further support should be extended. Students would not be seeking your attention if they were not seeking support. To understand how a student can best be supported, ask. By offering to include the student in the process of supplying support or accommodations, the student’s needs can be more readily met. Sometimes an extension is what is needed; sometimes additional insight is needed; sometimes just a word of encouragement is all that is needed. Importantly, amid disruptions such as the pandemic, with this adjusted approach in perspective-taking, the student-teacher relationship “becomes collaborative, rather than prescriptive” (Ellis 2020, par. 6). In the below additions to courageous communications, observations of strengths and offers for collaboration are modeled. In choosing to compassionately relate to students, instructors personalize learning and enhance engagement.
Communications to students fostering compassion
- Juggling work, family, and caretaking all at once also has brought me to my knees more than once, and I certainly understand your mental and emotional exhaustion and recognize your dedication to doing the best you can. What can I do to support you in balancing everything?
- COVID-19 has hit my family hard as well, and I am sorry it has also caused you so much hardship while I also commend you for sticking with this program. How can I help you succeed?
Finally, after communicating courageously and compassionately, connection is the final component to capitalize upon when communicating with students. Brown (2010a) notes, “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship” (19). Students feel valued when supported in personalized ways.
To authentically connect with students, consider offering university resources, additional instructional support, or personal outreach. Regarding the need for greater empathy, Peña (2021) notes, “In virtual learning environments, we need to use language that very clearly communicates our investment in students” (par. 8). In offering such resources and time, instructors supply sustenance and strength to the relationship.
Communications to students fostering connections
- Juggling work, family, and caretaking all at once also has brought me to my knees more than once, and I certainly understand your mental and emotional exhaustion and recognize your dedication to doing the best you can. What would be helpful for me to do to help you find a way to balance everything? To get you started, here is video tutorial to help you better complete this week’s assignment. I also can be called or texted at (123) 456-7890 or reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you!
- COVID-19 has hit my family hard as well, and I am sorry it has also caused you so much hardship while I also commend you for sticking with this program. How can I help you succeed? Here is a link to University Resources (insert link to your university resources) on this topic, and here is a Chrome extension worth checking out for further support. Furthermore, I want to hear from you, and I can be called or texted at (123) 456-7890 or reached by email at email@example.com. You’ve got this!
Our word choice matters when communicating with students during these turbulent times. In using courage, compassion, and connection when communicating with students, it reduces perceived stress and enhances the student experience while also improving the teacher-student relationship. By adding real value to communications, as instructors we are in the powerful position to retain more students, inspire further learning, motivate greater achievement, and ingratiate our students more fully into a world embracing empathy.
Amy Winger is an online instructor for the University of Phoenix. She holds a BA in English from the University of Iowa and an MEd in English education from the University of Minnesota. For over 16 years, she has taught English and general education college courses and enjoys pioneering the use of tech tools. Prior to that, she taught English at the secondary level. Her academic research primarily focuses on multimedia, hypermedia, and social media implementation in the online classroom. She also is a freelance fiction writer.
Akers, Richards, John Carter, and Dawn Coder. 2021. “Academic Advising at a Distance: Proactive Programming to Assist with Student Success.” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 24 (2): 1–10. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=eue&AN=151015807&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Brown, Brené. Gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are. Hazelden Information & Educational Services, 2010a.
—. “The power of vulnerability.” Filmed in June 2010b in Houston, Texas. TED Video, 20:03. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability?language=en
Ellis, William. “It’s compassion, not capitulation, to ask less of students amid disruption.” Inside Higher Ed. August 19, 2020. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/08/19/it%E2%80%99s-compassion-not-capitulation-ask-less-students-amid-disruption-opinion
Kara, Mehmet. (2021). “Revisiting online learner engagement: Exploring the role of learner characteristics in an emergency period,” Journal of Research on Technology in Education (2021) 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/15391523.2021.1891997
Muljana, Pauline and Tian Luo. “Factors Contributing to Student Retention in Online Learning and Recommended Strategies for Improvement: A Systematic Literature Review.” US Official News, April 2, 2019. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=edsgin&AN=edsgcl.581363427&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Peña, Jesús. “The Value of Empathy in Academia: Why You Should Care.” American Society of Microbiology. March 3, 2021. https://asm.org/Articles/2021/March/The-Value-of-Empathy-in-Academia-Why-You-Should-Ca
National Center for Education Statistics. “Distance Learning.” 2019. Accessed March 11, 2022. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80