July 9th, 2009

Tips for Establishing a Rapport with Online Students


“There is no personal interaction between student and teacher…the spontaneity of teaching is lost…the only rapport exists in exchanging bits and bytes of info.”

Perhaps you’ve heard someone make this objection to online learning? Or even uttered it yourself?

My answer to this is very simple: hogwash.

What do I mean? Beyond the giving and taking of stats, facts, ideas, etc., injecting ourselves into the teaching experience AND getting our students actively involved (beyond merely responding to what we ask or require) can quickly translate into one really dynamic and exciting “learning event”!

Here are a few tips for engaging online students:

Be organized. The “absent-minded professor” is not, unfortunately, an urban legend! Look at any list of student complaints about their instructors—online or otherwise—and being disorganized always shows up.

Start your course or program with a welcoming e-mail. This helps set the tone for the entire semester or session and lets the students know you are more than merely R2D2; you are instead a human who looks forward to working with the class, who welcomes their feedback and questions, and who is very excited about the upcoming course.

Keep all due dates and promises: Students who take courses online rely exclusively on what they read online in terms of due dates for readings, assignments, quizzes, etc., as well as any promises you make (e.g., “I will have the draft of your first paper returned by X date”) and virtual office hours. It is EXTREMELY important that you adhere to the dates and promises given. Students respect for you as their teacher will plummet if they find you can’t be relied on.

Follow up on all e-mail received—and promptly. E-mail is the students’ lifeline that allows for specific questions to be answered, confusions to be cleared up, and uncertainties to be quantified. Respond to all e-mail—if only an acknowledgement that you received it—and in a timely manner.

Use chat rooms, threaded discussions, journals, etc. These allow for spontaneity, for student involvement, for personal commentary by students—all items that make for more ownership of the course on their part. And by meeting with students in chat rooms and responding to journal entries, they not only get to see a more personal (read: real) side to you but also can readily see you are sincerely interested in each one of them—so important in establishing a strong teacher–student rapport.

Send general e-mails throughout the course—and post them. I call this my “glue.” I have included compliments on an overall class, “well done!” on a certain paper, wishes for a happy holiday or semester break, an offering of some additional clarification on an item I find many students are having difficulty with, a change in an initial due date, clarification on an assignment, or an attachment of an additional reading.

Be a motivator. Give students—both as a class and individually—compliments on their work, insights, extra efforts, an outstanding project or paper, etc. They are so used to being told what they got wrong or didn’t complete that positives are a nice change—and extremely important in motivating them to do better.

Do not use stuffy, formal language. I’m not suggesting you use “corner lingo” or the like, but a nice mix of conversational language with a formal way of writing will equal the students feeling as if they are reading something written by a real person—not someone who thinks that he/she is better and above the students.

Do occasional “just-for-fun” things. In my occasional, general e-mails I might end with a puzzle, a joke, a (what I call) “cool website,” an interesting item that happened on the date of the e-mail I’m sending. And I’ve also invited students to send me their “cool websites,” which I then will organize and send out to all in a master list—a really nice way (for both the students and me!) to have a bit of fun with the class while getting more involved.

REMEMBER: The effective online instructor will wear a combination of a fuzzy down comforter; a black leather jacket; and formal wear—these translate into the perfect teaching personality “attire.”

Excerpted from Teaching Online With Errol: Establishing a Solid Rapport with Online Students, Online Classroom, Jan. 2006.