Week 2: Connect with your learners

Objective: Decide how you will “build rapport” with your distance learners.

You don’t teach a class. You teach a student.

Connecting to students and  “building rapport” is a crucial element of teaching for the best online teachers. Highly effective online teachers have a strong trust in students. They believe students want to learn and know they can learn until proven otherwise.

In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain (2004) discusses some of the major ways that teachers can connect with students through the practices of effective teaching. Below is a list of suggestions to help you connect with your students.

  • Spend time online with students to nurture their learning.
  • Invest in your students by not fostering a feeling of power over them.
  • Have the attitude that, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.”
  • Create an online environment where everyone can contribute and each contribution is unique.
  • Foster the feeling that teachers are fellow students and human beings struggling with mysteries of the universe.
  • Provide task praise (you did that well) and avoid person praise (you are so smart.)
  • Give students as much control as possible over their learning.
  • Provide lots of non-judgmental feedback.
  • Encourage collaboration and cooperation.
  • Provide many opportunities to revise and improve work.
  • Avoid language of demands and promises.
  • Make a promise to your students that you will try to help each one achieve as much as possible.
  • Understand your students’ ambitions.

So how do teachers close the “distance” gap and build rapport?

Rapport in Distance Education provides insights into the importance of rapport in DE as well as challenges to and indicators of rapport-building in DE. The study relied on interviews with 42 Canadian high school DE teachers. The authors  identified six categories of rapport-building in DE.  Please click on each links below for a list of indicators.

In the paper What the Best Online Teachers Should Do the authors discuss some of the major ways that the practices of effective teaching can be applied to online teaching. When you connect with your students and establish rapport, you will be able to get to know them in ways that will make it easier for you to gather information about your students in a variety of ways that may help you with their success throughout the course.

  • During the first week create activities to get to know student by having them tell a little about themselves.This could include;
    • Pretest about the student and course,
    • an introductory discussion,
    • an introductory survey,
    • a course overview that identified several questions that the course would help them answer.

It is not sufficient for teachers to get to know their students without letting them get to know their teachers as well. Here are a few ideas to  help your students get to know you.

  • During the introductory activities tell students a little about yourself.
  • Post your teaching philosophy.
  • create a “getting started” course module
  • Use video to introduce yourself.
  • share your thoughts and stories about yourself.
  • Participating in introductory class discussions

Throughout the course consider using the following to connect with your students.

  • Keep written records of communication (emails) that include relevant information to make personal connections.
  • Connect with learners who have extenuating circumstances, are “missing” from the online class, or are experiencing a life event where celebration is in order.
  • Students may reveal past difficulties with the subject matter, personal issues that may affect their performance, or job and family obligations that can vary from week to week.
  • Deadlines and due dates may need to be extended
  • Timely feedback on assignments is extremely important.
  • Tell your students you believe they are capable of doing the work and you  are willing to help them.
  • Personalize your emails,provide encouraging words, and encourage them to strive for higher grades.
  • Be clear to your students that all information you get is to help them not judge them.

Facilitating interpersonal connections and creating a social presence of your identity is essential.  Self-disclosure, through sharing personal stories and experiences, can promote bonding. The use of humor can be an effective strategy to convey openness or to establish a level of comfort that nurtures the learning process. It is clearly not simply a question of whether or not teachers do these things. Rather, it is how and why teachers create presence and build rapport with their online students.

Five factors for building rapport

The researchers in this article asked business faculty about their perceptions of what teachers must do to establish rapport and connect with students. These Five factors appeared almost twice as often as others.

    1. Respect. Teachers and students must show respect for each other, for the learning process, and for the institution where it is occurring.
    2. Approachability. Students have to feel comfortable coming to faculty and faculty must be willing to speak with students, after class, during office hours, via email, on campus.
    3. Open communication. Faculty must be honest. There needs to be consistency between what faculty say and what they do.
    4. Caring. Faculty must care about students; they must see and respond to them as individuals. They also need to care about learning and show that they want students to learn the material.
    5. Positive attitude. Faculty should have a sense of humor and be open to points of view other than their own.

In summary, when it comes to connecting with learners, the best online teachers understand the characteristics of their students and adapt accordingly. Learners differ in their ability to adjust to college, the level of guidance and support they need, the amount of experience they have with online learning and the course management system, and many other characteristics.

One of the most important elements of connecting with students and building rapport is to be  flexible. Be flexible when you are getting to know their students, when they are getting students to know you, working with deadlines, and when you are creating an atmosphere that enhances learning.


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