Developing Rapport With Students Online
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Building Strong Academic Relationships

It's no secret that online learning is now more prevalent than ever. School systems and higher education alike have opted to move to online learning to stave off the spread of COVID-19. This leaves personal contact and communication at a minimum and raises a couple of important questions. How do you best communicate with your students when they aren’t with you? How do you know when to help if you can’t see the development of a concept coming together or the quizzical looks on students' faces when it just isn’t making sense? Answers to these questions become more obvious when an instructor develops a strong academic rapport in the online learning environment—getting to know your students well enough to read their engagement and their understanding through a personal connection. This article will give you strategies to help you to develop that rapport with students online.

A Sense Of Belonging

Developing rapport with each student through quality and healthy communication is essential to online learning success. But, how can an instructor create an environment online that makes students feel like they are in a community, that they belong? It’s first vital to create an area where the students and instructor can introduce themselves. Keeping in mind FERPA regulations with regard to appropriate directory information, you can ask students simple questions like:

  • Where are you from?
  • What is your educational/occupational background?
  • Share any interesting personal information the student may want to share.

The idea is to find areas of commonality or mutual interest. You can start to form rapport by addressing these areas of commonality. Ask the students follow-up questions related to their answers, show interest in where they are from or the work that they do. Breaking the ice in this way allows students to feel free to share information with you and with the other students in the course.

Student Participation

Participation in the course is essential to the continued development of rapport. Sometimes the online setting can set the stage for “present but disinterested” learning. Students can often hide in the shadows while online, checking their phones, doing other work, or watching other things while on the screen. Ensure that you are engaging students during class:

  • Ask students to answer questions
  • Participate in polls
  • Offer their input

Your personal response to the students is critical to the development of rapport. When students realize that you are paying attention, carefully reading or listening to what they are offering, they will begin to recognize that online learning has more similarities than differences to in-person learning situations. And when their input and work are valued, the quality of the interaction and work will improve.

Show Respect

Rapport is something that is established, it’s a mutual connection and something that needs work from both student and instructor. A guiding principle for instructors should be: If the students show you respect, you will treat them like adults and show them respect as well. This is just a common courtesy but often overlooked in an online environment.

Respect within an online courseroom might mean using the “raise hand” option rather than speaking over other students; writing assignments or discussion board entries with appropriate academic language, not text-speaking or using colloquial language. It is also a matter of respect to realize, from both a student and an instructor's perspective, when a situation belongs in a course discussion or requires a private message. When these terms are clearly outlined and an atmosphere of respect is created, the students will come to trust that your interactions are genuine and sincere. This is essential to developing a solid working rapport with students.

Offer Consistent Feedback

Rapport is well established when students and instructors maintain a consistent level of productive feedback. This works in both directions: feedback from students in the form of evaluations, courseroom discussions, and emails helps an instructor better develop content and delivery of materials to their students, and students receiving feedback via comments/corrections on assignments, during courseroom discussions or by email understand clearly what they need to do to successfully master the materials. Instructors who are proactive in both contacting and providing critical feedback to students—especially struggling students—offer their students a lifeline to success in their course.

Overall Outcome Of Establishing Online Rapport

Setting the stage for the development of positive rapport with students engaged in online learning cannot be overstated. Make the student feel welcome; speak with them frequently, offer both critique and positive feedback; let them know that they are valued and are being heard. Building these strong academic relationships will produce substantial benefits for online learning. Mercy is also essential as everyone adjusts to these new online learning situations. Remember to be kind to your students and keep expectations reasonable. Also, be kind to yourself; establish office hours that are manageable and set times for instructing, grading, and responding to students. A happy student will make the teaching environment more pleasant for the instructor and vice versa.

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