Communicating to Build Rapport with Online Students

Rebecca A. Glazier, political science professor in the School of Public Affairs, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Teaching and learning online is hard. There is an inherent distance to the medium that makes it difficult to connect and establish meaningful human relationships. In my own research, I have found that building rapport with online students—making real human connections that help students feel like their success matters to their professors—makes students more likely to do well in a class and stay enrolled (Glazier 2016, see also Jaggars and Xu 2016). When we are in face-to-face classes, building rapport comes more naturally, as we can chat with students before and after class, make eye contact, and ask how they are doing. In online classes, we have to be more intentional.

How can we build rapport with our online students?

The key to building rapport with our students is letting them know that we care about their success and that we are here to help. We want our students to feel like we are on their side. To do so, we need to communicate with them. In today’s connected world, we have many options when it comes to communicating with students in our online classes. My research and experience have led me to recommend a few helpful tips:

  1. Show your face. In an online class, many students may not have had the chance to meet you in person before. If you can include a profile picture in your email and in the course, along with a short video or two, it will help the students see you as a real person, and not just a grade-generating robot in cyberspace. Any efforts you make to “humanize” yourself in an online class help to build rapport with your students (Pacansky-Brock, Smedshammer, and Vincent-Layton 2020).
  2. Pick a communication method and stick with it. If you are sending out information through different communication platforms—via email, announcements in the Learning Management System (LMS), posts on message boards, embedded in lectures, through videos, and through the internal course communication system—students are sure to miss something. It is just fine to repeat information across different platforms, but if you have something important to tell students, make sure it always goes out in a consistent way. I like to use email (I even disable the internal LMS communication system) because it is more convenient for me and I am less likely to miss student responses that way. Keep in mind that students likely have multiple online classes they are juggling and they can get overwhelmed by too many messages.
  3. Make your communication with students personal whenever possible. In an APSA Educate resource linked here, I describe how to use “mail merge” to send personal emails to students with minimal effort. A variety of email templates are included so you can try it out in your own classes. When students get a message addressed to them personally, with their own grades, and comments about their performance in the class, they also get a message that their success matters and their professor cares about them. Personal emails are a fantastic tool for building rapport with students.
  4. Reach out to struggling students. In face-to-face classes, it is easier for students to catch us after class to ask a question or see if they can get a deadline extension. And it is easier for us to notice when someone has been absent for a few days. In online classes, we have to be more proactive. Self-regulation and organization are important skills in online classes and when students get behind, they can get discouraged and stop trying (Lee, Choi, and Kim 2013, Gaytan 2013). If we reach out to them early on, we can help them get back on track and make it through the class successfully. This APSA Educate resource has email templates for reaching out to students who haven’t been active in the class or who have performed poorly on assignments.

Making a little extra effort

Communicating with online students takes a little more effort than communicating with students in our face-to-face classes. Research shows that writing clear assignments and communicating well is much more important to students in online classes, compared to face-to-face classes, likely because these written forms of communication are how students most often interact with faculty in online classes (Glazier and Skurat Harris 2020).

Making a little extra effort to reach out to online students and build rapport with them can have a big payoff. In teaching experiments I’ve conducted, retention in high-rapport classes increases 13%, completely eliminating the retention gap between online and face-to-face classes (Glazier 2016). As we are teaching more of our classes online—as a result of a pandemic or in the longer term because of student demand—we need to think proactively about how to reach and retain these students. Building rapport through communication is one key to doing so.

References

Gaytan, Jorge. 2013. “Factors affecting student retention in online courses: Overcoming this critical problem.” Career and Technical Education Research 38 (2):145-155.

Glazier, Rebecca A. 2016. “Building rapport to improve retention and success in online classes.” Journal of Political Science Education 12 (4):437-456.

Glazier, Rebecca A., and Heidi Skurat Harris. 2020. “Common Traits of the Best Online and Face-to-face Classes: Evidence from Student Surveys.” American Political Science Association Teaching and Learning Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico, February 7-9.

Jaggars, Shanna Smith, and Di Xu. 2016. “How Do Online Course Design Features Influence Student Performance?” Computers & Education 95 (April):270-284.

Lee, Youngju, Jaeho Choi, and Taehyun Kim. 2013. “Discriminating factors between completers of and dropouts from online learning courses.” British Journal of Educational Technology 44 (2):328-337. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2012.01306.x.

Pacansky-Brock, Michelle, Michael Smedshammer, and Kim Vincent-Layton. 2020. “Humanizing Online Teaching to Equitize Higher Education.” Current Issues in Education 12 (2).


Rebecca A. Glazier (@rebeccaglazier) is a political science professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. In addition to her research on religion and community engagement, she studies the scholarship of teaching and learning and is passionate about improving the quality of online education. Her research, videos, and public engagement on online education are available on her website, along with information about webinars and consulting: http://www.rebeccaglazier.net/.

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