Making Connections 

As many of us learned this spring, the human(e) dimension of teaching is even more challenging when we lose our physical proximity to our students. We can’t rely as much on tone of voice and eye contact to provide immediacy, or facial expressions (ours and our students’) to convey concern or disengagement. Instead, we have to make concrete plans for connecting with students and for connecting them with each other.

Canvas has become our virtual classroom, but students will feel alone there—and possibly also bewildered—unless we take care to build these connections. A welcoming and supportive classroom climate is essential for learning in any modality, so this week, we’d like to share a few practical strategies for warming up the online experience:   

Attending to tone.

We communicate with students in many ways: on Canvas, in the syllabus, on Zoom, in videos, in project descriptions, and in feedback on their work. Although we all likely remember to use a welcoming tone when speaking with students (e.g., on Zoom or in videos), we can also adjust our writing to sound supportive. When creating your Canvas page or other course documents, it might help to ask, what can I add or adjust to make this sound welcoming for students? How can I convey that I am glad that they are in the class, that I care about their learning, and I have confidence they can succeed?

Emphasizing introductions.

Even if you’re planning to introduce yourself and the course in a Zoom meeting, it helps to put that information in more than one place. Adding intro videos and/or paragraphs on Canvas helps to ensure that students see them even if they miss (or forget what was said in) a Zoom meeting. In addition to introducing yourself and the course, you can also introduce each module, letting students know what they will be learning that week(s) and why it matters. ODL’s module template includes a place for an introduction or overview, and you can import it into your Canvas course.

Learning about students.

There are many things we might want to learn about our students before the course begins. In any semester we might like to know about their interests, where they come from, what courses they’ve taken before, etc. This semester we need to know about their technology access. Do they have sufficient connectivity and equipment for Zoom? Can they stream video? Do they have webcams? We might also want to know if they have privacy and freedom from distraction. Students taking their courses from their parents’ kitchens may feel less comfortable in discussion, and self-conscious about participation or even about the material they study. You can use a survey, a writing prompt, or both, to elicit this information.

Helping students interact with and feel comfortable with each other.

This summer, connecting students with one another will be beneficial not only for their learning, but also potentially for their mental health, since many people have been feeling isolated. You can use breakout rooms in Zoom or groups in Canvas for small-group discussions, activities, and other work. It helps to give students a chance to bond (and perhaps share contact information) before they begin collaborating, so introducing themselves should be the first task. Providing step-by-step activity instructions in writing will make their time together go as smoothly as possible.

Helping them shift gears or focus on being fully present for class.

We all need to step out of our stressful contexts in order to concentrate on the important task of learning; many faculty find that their classes benefit from a moment of silence or meditation before they begin, or a minute or two of quiet reflective writing, to help students gather their thoughts. If you are meeting synchronously, a classroom ritual of greeting or closing can also help establish community, by giving students a shared experience. These may sound awkward to undertake by Zoom, but students appreciate being together even when they’re apart.

Checking in often.

Students are grateful (and dismayingly startled) when we ask them how they’re doing and demonstrate simple interest in their well-being. You can ask in discussion, in a survey or clicker question, on the discussion board, by email, or any way that works for you. A quick check-in might even become your classroom ritual. Checking in doesn’t mean becoming your students’ counselor, of course—but if you identify students in distress you can refer them to the services they need.

If you’d like support as you plan to attend to the human dimension of teaching online, or if you’d like some feedback as you draft introductions, instructions, or other course materials, please get in touch at We look forward to working with you!