Building Relationships: How to Connect from a Distance

Blocks with icons of people are all forming connections with string

“Keep teaching and learning.”

This was and is still the motto of the pandemic. Unlike spring 2020 when we shifted to remote teaching after students and faculty had the chance to know each other, this semester students will be arriving in our online classroom unfamiliar with the faculty, campus, or both. So, I expect the big challenge this fall will be building relationships with students.

Relationship building is critical to improving student learning (Webb and Barrett, 2014), yet it is hard work. Negative feelings about students may creep up from time to time, so we must start the relationship process by working on ourselves, and reflecting on our role as a teacher by examining how our personal and cultural experiences inform our teaching practices and biases of students (Patton, 2016). We must also appreciate the multiple intersecting identities students bring to the classroom and support them with a curriculum that affirms and embraces diversity (Mahiri, 2017). Concurrently, as a writing teacher, I draw from CCCC’s rationale on online writing instruction that students are motivated to learn when there’s a sense of belonging in the classroom. I also draw from faculty in SF State’s Writing Program who have researched undergraduate writers (Soliday and Trainor, 2016). Based on their research, students thrive when their writing courses maximize student engagement and agency, focus on students’ emerging identities, and provide welcoming pathways into academic communities. All of these principles underpin my teaching practice and have guided me to incorporate student connections in thoughtful ways.

What follows are three approaches for making connections to build relationships. The word “connect” means different things to different people; for me, connecting with students embodies a model of care, such as treating students with respect, making them feel welcome, and responding with compassion. When students know we care, they are more likely to reciprocate, and when they do, relationships are formed.

Three approaches for making connections

One curricular approach in helping students feel valued and develop their authorship is to offer students voice and choice in their learning. This means students can choose topics that are interesting and culturally or professionally relevant to them, can demonstrate their learning in different ways (e.g., a paper, video/visual presentation, or podcast), can choose their readings within a topic or theme, and can give input on the assessment criteria. For example, in my writing class, I want my students to feel represented in the contents of our readings, so my first writing unit invites students to choose from a selection of memoirs written by authors from different gender, racial, cultural, and educational backgrounds. I chose memoirs because they allow readers to step into someone else’s lived experiences that aren’t ours, exposing us to deeper, wider perspectives. This, in turn, provides opportunities for students to hear each other and to articulate where the other side is coming from; it also enables students to draw on their personal experiences to discuss real-time issues relevant to them. In the end, this unit culminates in a book review whereby students choose to complete the unit with a written review, slide narration, or video review and can give input on the assessment criteria. By giving voice and choice, we tap into students’ emotions—confidence, enthusiasm, satisfaction—to improve student learning. These emotions can positively impact students’ motivation, self-regulation, and academic achievement (Rienties and Rivers, 2014).

Another approach, a pedagogical one, is to incorporate small group instruction (SGI).  This type of instruction makes students feel they’re receiving personalized attention and feedback. For example, instead of holding online classes for each scheduled meeting, I save one day of the week for SGI. My groups are created based on areas of interest and vary from five to eight students. The instruction often focuses on one activity, which may include discussing a reading assignment, analyzing a model text, or workshopping a student paper.  For non-writing classes, however, the SGI could center on a specific topic, lesson, or project. Teaching small groups allows us to hear where students feel stuck and respond in ways that are not diminishing; it’s also an opportunity for students to talk to each other and exchange ideas.  Equally important, SGI gives introverts a voice and helps us better understand our students as people and learners. When students feel heard and cared for, and when we respond accordingly, emotional connections are formed.

Lastly, I take a social approach to building a trusting environment.  When we were face-to-face, our presence was immediate with organic interactions, like greetings and small chats, reacting to a phone drop, freaking out over a buzzing mosquito, or turning to a neighbor for help. We can’t recreate these moments online, but we can show our presence in other meaningful ways. For example, we can open our online class with a “question of the day” that asks students to share a piece of themselves each week—their interest, talents, pets, playlist, upbringing, friends, family, social media, identities, future goals—and by the end of the semester, we come to see each other as a whole person.  When communicating with students, we could make an effort to write and speak in a friendly tone, address students by name (including emails), check-in with each student at different points of the semester (one-to-one emails), solicit feedback on our teaching, reply promptly to emails, and give individualized feedback. These strategies are a few effective ways to enhance social presence (Dunlap and Lowenthal, 2014).

Certainly, there are other ideas not mentioned here. I especially enjoy listening to student voices. I read a Twitter posting by sociology professor Eve Ewing, in which she asked students to indicate the “most effective/memorable/helpful strategy” professors have used during remote learning in spring 2020. A great number of students acknowledged how their professors had listened to their life circumstances and responded in ways that were caring and supportive. I thought this was wonderful.

I’d like to hear what you’re doing or thinking about doing to connect with students in your online class. Share them in the comments so we can all benefit from you.

Crystal O. Wong, EdD, began her teaching career in the San Francisco Unified School District as a K-5 music, literacy, and classroom teacher before starting a second career at San Francisco State University, where she teaches in the Writing Program. Dr. Wong has won several awards, including the university-wide First-Year Teaching Award (2019) and the Liberal & Creative Arts Excellence in Teaching Award (2020). She has a passion for learning and effective teaching.


Boothe, Kathleen A., Marla J. Lohmann, Kimberly A. Donnell, and D. Dean Hall. “Applying the principles of universal design for learning (UDL) in the college classroom.” Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship 7, no. 3 (2018): n3.

Dunlap, Joanna C., and Patrick R. Lowenthal. “The power of presence: Our quest for the right mix of social presence in online courses.” Real life distance education: Case studies in practice (2014): 41-66.

Mahiri, Jabari. Deconstructing Race: Multicultural Education Beyond the Color-Blind. Teachers College Press, 2017.

Patton, Lori D. Race, equity, and the learning environment: The global relevance of critical and inclusive pedagogies in Higher Education. Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2016.

Rienties, Bart, and Bethany Alden Rivers. “Measuring and understanding learner emotions: Evidence and prospects.” Learning Analytics Review 1, no. 1 (2014): 1-27.

Soliday, Mary, and Jennifer Seibel Trainor. “Rethinking regulation in the age of the literacy machine.” College Composition and Communication (2016): 125-151.

Webb, Nathan, and Laura Obrycki Barrett. “Student views of instructor-student rapport in the college classroom.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (2014): 15-28.