10 Ways to Build a Relationship with Your Students in a Virtual Learning Environment

Jun 27, 2023

By: Heather Hall, Teacher-Tutor at TbT

The exchange and interconnections that occur within a traditional classroom setting play a vital role in the educational journey of students, and these principles remain relevant even in virtual settings. Educators are essential in inspiring and motivating students to surpass their limits, providing individual attention and extra time to ensure each student’s success. They also instill a sense of responsibility and proper etiquette, teaching valuable lessons in accountability, conduct, and punctuality. 

As an educator in a virtual environment, it is crucial to establish connections and nurture relationships with students. Building positive relationships is key to fostering support and encouraging active participation – leading to improved academic performance – and can effectively address behavioral issues. To achieve this, here are 10 effective strategies for building strong relationships in the virtual classroom.

1. Establish Solid Academic Connections

With the rise of online learning, educators face the challenge of effectively communicating with physically distant students. How can they provide assistance when they can’t observe the development of concepts or detect perplexed expressions?

2. Creating a Sense of Belonging

Fostering a sense of community and belonging in online learning requires instructors to establish meaningful and healthy communication with each student. It is essential to provide a platform where students and instructors can introduce themselves while adhering to appropriate information disclosure guidelines outlined by FERPA.

Instructors can initiate rapport-building conversations by asking students simple questions that aim at identifying commonalities or shared interests among students, such as:

  • Where do you come from?
  • What are some fun activities you enjoy?
  • Do you have any pets?

By delving into these areas and asking follow-up questions related to their responses, instructors express genuine interest in their students’ backgrounds. This approach breaks the ice and encourages students to freely share information with both their peers and the instructor.

3. Encouraging Student Participation

Active student participation is crucial for establishing and nurturing rapport throughout the course. In an online setting, students may sometimes exhibit a passive and disinterested attitude, hiding in the virtual shadows as they check their phones, multitask, or get distracted by other things.

To address this, instructors should strive to engage students during class, such as:

  • Positively encouraging students to answer questions
  • Conducting polls to gather their input
  • Urging them to share their thoughts and perspectives

The personal response from instructors to students’ contributions plays a pivotal role in building rapport. When students see that their instructor is attentive and genuinely considers their input, they begin to realize that online learning can mirror in-person learning environments. Feeling that their contributions and efforts are valued, students improve the quality of their interactions and work.

4. Demonstrating Respect

Building rapport requires effort from both instructors and students, and a fundamental principle for instructors is to treat students with respect, just as they expect respect in return. This involves practicing basic courtesies that are sometimes overlooked in the online setting.

In an online class, respect can be demonstrated by utilizing the “raise hand” option on conferencing platforms instead of interrupting others, using appropriate academic language in written assignments or discussion board entries rather than informal or colloquial language. It is also important for both students and instructors to recognize when a topic is suitable for course discussions or requires a private message.

By clearly defining these boundaries and fostering an atmosphere of respect, students will trust that their interactions are genuine and sincere. This trust is crucial for establishing a strong working rapport.

5. Providing Consistent Feedback

Maintaining a consistent level of constructive feedback is essential for nurturing rapport between students and instructors. Feedback should flow in both directions:

  • Students provide evaluations, actively participate in class discussions, and send emails to help instructors enhance content delivery, and
  • Instructors offer feedback through comments, corrections, and discussions to guide students’ comprehension and mastery of the materials.

Instructors who proactively reach out to students, particularly those who may be struggling, and provide constructive feedback, offer valuable support for success in the course.

6. The Overall Impact of Establishing Online Rapport

The significance of fostering positive rapport with students engaged in online learning cannot be overstated. Creating an environment where students feel welcomed and valued is crucial. Regular communication that encompasses both constructive criticism and positive feedback helps students understand that their voices are heard.

By cultivating strong academic relationships, significant benefits can be achieved in the realm of online learning. Additionally, practicing compassion becomes essential as everyone adapts to the challenges of remote education. It is important to show kindness to students and maintain reasonable expectations. Equally important is extending kindness to oneself by establishing manageable office hours and allocating specific times for instruction, grading, and student interaction. Nurturing a happy student contributes to a more pleasant teaching environment for instructors, creating a mutually beneficial dynamic.

7. Highlight the Importance of Social Connections

For many students, both online and hybrid learning can present difficulties due to the lack of interaction with their peers. While older students may engage with others through social media and texting, the absence of face-to-face interaction can be challenging.

As social beings, we thrive when we have the opportunity to share our thoughts and learn with others. To create an optimal learning environment, it is crucial to incorporate practices that replicate those found in traditional classrooms, such as small group work, peer-to-peer interaction, and teacher-student engagement.

In a virtual classroom, it is important to integrate various avenues for students to communicate, such as:

  • Utilizing the chat feature
  • Raising their hand (both physically on-screen and using the “raise hand” button available in certain platforms)
  • Employing whiteboards
  • Utilizing breakout rooms

To cater to students who are accustomed to engaging with their classmates at physical tables or desk clusters, consider creating virtual tables or discussion threads with four or five students, facilitating consistent discussions, question-asking, and a sense of connection. If technological challenges arise, alternative methods like pen pals or other paper-and-pen activities can serve as valuable substitutes, fostering bonds among students.

Similarly, establishing phone pals allows students to call each other several times a week to discuss specific topics or prompts. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, prioritize social methods that engage students, enhance learning, and provide a humanizing experience.

8. Give Priority to Personal Connections

Establishing intentional connections with students outside of planned lessons and instruction may require additional effort in a virtual classroom, but the rewards are undoubtedly worthwhile. Maintaining positive connections not only helps students derive the most from distance learning but also has a lasting impact when they eventually return to school.

Ensure that your students know they are being thought of, cared for, and missed. Consider creating short daily videos to greet them, as this might be the only time a student sees you on some days. Fostering a sense of connection is crucial and can make a significant difference.

It is beneficial to connect with each student individually on a weekly basis, using a method that suits their resources and needs. In a socially distanced classroom where smiles are hidden behind masks and physical gestures like hugs, high fives, and fist bumps are limited, it is important to foster connections through rituals that honor students’ humanity and help them transition to the learning environment. Take the time to say hello and show interest in their lives beyond the classroom.

9. Ensuring Emotional Well-being: Regular Check-ins  

Children, just like their parents and teachers, face considerable stress. The challenges posed by remote learning and disruptions to their expectations of a normal school year only intensify these difficulties. Hence, it is now more important than ever to prioritize routine check-ins and ensure they receive the attention they deserve. These check-ins should be concise and straightforward, providing students with various ways to express their emotions. They can use thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down emojis in a chat stream, share selfies of their thumbs, or send an emoji that reflects their mood.

In physical classrooms, teachers can find ways to check in with students while maintaining a safe distance. For example, students can draw an emoji on a sticky note placed on their desks, use a quick gesture, or log in to a Google document to post an emoji. Some teachers also utilize dedicated forms as a quick and asynchronous method for students to share their daily emotions.

10. Fostering Gratitude: An Essential Practice

Gratitude is a powerful tool in any classroom setting. Focusing on gratitude promotes students’ social and emotional growth while cultivating satisfaction with life, school, and relationships. When teachers incorporate and encourage gratitude, they exemplify one of life’s most important lessons: maintaining a positive attitude, especially when facing challenges. There are numerous ways to integrate gratitude activities into both virtual and in-person classrooms.

One favorite idea is to ask students to submit notes expressing appreciation for their peers, then compile these notes in a slide deck or on a classroom website to share with students and parents/caregivers. Another suggestion is to introduce gratitude journals, where students write down three things they are grateful for each day and share their favorite entry at the end of the week. Additionally, allocate time after a group lesson, activity, or challenge for students to thank a peer who made a positive impact during the experience.

While the mode of building relationships may have shifted to screens, the essential elements of a good relationship, such as respect, trust, and support, remain unchanged. Educators can adapt many of the relationship-building strategies they are familiar with in face-to-face environments to the realm of virtual learning.

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Tutored by Teachers (TbT) is a public benefit company with a mission to close the opportunity gap in education by serving high-need students through virtual small group intervention and instruction, delivered by experienced teachers.