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Get to Know your Students

Online instructors are often concerned about the lack of personal connections they make with students enrolled in their online courses. After all, this connection is often what keeps us motivated to continue teaching. In-class discussions can be very rewarding for both students and instructors. But have you ever seen the movie You’ve Got Mail, or know people who met on a dating website? Are there politicians, celebrities, or famous athletes you feel like you know on a personal level, despite never having met them? These connections happen all around us in an online world, so why is it so difficult to make them in an online educational setting? The answer is that it is not difficult or impossible, we just have to strategically incorporate opportunities to get to know our students.


Those meaningful connections we make in our face-to-face classes can still happen in an online class, just in a different way or in a different place. Think about where you get to know your students. Is it during class? Before or after class? During office hours? Knowing where these meaningful connections are happening in your traditional courses can help you determine how to create that same space or opportunity within your online course.


Online courses are organized according to outcome or purpose within the class, whereas in traditional courses everything happens within the lecture period. If you want to create those valuable interactions with your students, you need to create a space for them to happen in an online course.


There are many ways you can get to know your online students’ personalities and use Canvas to build in personal interactions. The five strategies listed below are a good place for you to start getting to know your students.

1. Know Their Names

Dr. Brad Bays from the Department of Geography recently wrote a blog called Little Things Like Knowing Names, which also includes tips for remembering names. Martha Halihan from the Department of Chemistry memorizes over a hundred names each semester, which may be a reason why she received the Award for Excellence in General Education Teaching in 2018.


Something as simple as starting an email with a student’s first name can make all the difference to whether that student feels like part of a community or one in thousands. Encourage your students to upload profile pictures of themselves, so you can put a face to their name. Recognize your students by name for success or good ideas. If your student, Jenny, catches an error in the first quiz, write an email to the whole class and give your thanks to Jenny for catching the mistake. If someone has a question and posts it in the discussion board, mention that another student in the class, John, has a great answer to the question.


2. Surveys and Polls

Dr. Ranjith Ramanathan from Animal & Food Sciences surveys his students at the beginning of each semester to get to know them better. He collects information on their favorite food and songs, which he uses throughout the semester to connect with them. Dr. Ramanathan also has an average attrition rate of less than three percent in a class averaging 120 students.


When you poll your class, you get a better idea of the group of students you are currently teaching, both in an overall sense and individually. Ask your students how their classes are going or poll their stress levels. You can ask if they are struggling with the content or not. Small groups can be polled through Poll Everywhere for free. You could also use a free survey tool like SurveyMonkey.


I also encourage faculty to create their own survey regarding how the structure of the class is working for the students. The Student Survey of Instruction may not give you the detailed feedback you are looking for and a survey you create might work out well. Dr. Thad Leffingwell in the department of Psychology issues his own survey at the end of the semester (and encourages completion of the Student Survey of Instruction) and uses the feedback to make enhancements to his course each semester.


3. Video Assignments

Brief (1.5 minute) casual videos allow me to see my students personalities. I can hear their voice inflections and get a sense of what concepts they struggle with consistently. By about week 5, I know all of my students names and faces and would be able to identify them on campus, should I happen to run into them (which is always such a treat!).


I have a small class sizes, and I recognize that it is difficult to grade 300 video assignments each week. I offer two strategies, (1) weekly video reflections/discussions as I mentioned, or (2) assign required video assignments to a different section or group of students each week. This way, small groups of students are submitting the videos on different weeks. You can then grade a small portion of videos as opposed to all student videos each week. You can read more about various types of video assignments here


4. Icebreakers

Wait! Don’t roll your eyes yet! I say this because many instructors I speak to just cringe at the thought of forcing their students to participate in a cheesy game. But icebreakers can be very valuable in an online course. You are certainly welcome to incorporate games if you like, but icebreakers are essentially just way for you to get to know your students and for them to get to know each other. Remember, you may have students that will never step foot on campus. They might want the opportunity to get to know other students in the class or within their majors. Video or PowerPoint introductions with images seem to be the most popular in online courses. And do not forget, instructors need to participate, too.


5. Encourage Discussion

Canvas provides a variety of ways for students to have discussions, both synchronously and asynchronously (please contact me if you would like to discuss the possibilities). Student discussions might be one of the best strategies for getting your students involved and engaged in the course content. But even the most well-thought discussion prompts can fail if they are not part of the course grade. Students prioritize their time based on what is essential to succeed in the course and place optional items last on the list. Encourage your students to participate by making these discussions part of a grade in the course. I know grading discussions can be tedious and time consuming. Consider making the discussion part of a participation grade, which is a meaningful portion of the overall course grade.


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