Getting to Know Your Students (The Online Way)

By Kyla Rankin |

Full disclosure: I have never taught an online course. I’m also the kind of instructor who loves getting to know my students. I have everyone create name tags on the first day of class and only after I know everyone’s name by memory do students stop bringing their name tags. I frequently incorporate ice breakers. I share personal stories of life events (e.g., nephew winning the science fair, getting engaged, a cool hike I went on over the weekend). I understand that not everyone approaches teaching this way and to each their own. When all classes were required to transition online, however, and I could no longer see my students in person, I was honestly worried that I wouldn’t be able to connect with them the same way. In an effort to learn how I could build the same level of connection with students in unchartered territory, I scoured the internet. Whether you’re already familiar with teaching in an online format or you already have an idea of how you’re going to approach this change, here were a few unique tips I picked up.

Synchronous Teaching. Most online courses opt for asynchronous teaching, meaning that materials are prerecorded or created and provided online for students to access whenever is most convenient. Granted, this probably makes more sense if students have initially signed up for an online course. However, many of us are transitioning from an in-person class to an online class. With this in mind, I’m opting in for synchronous teaching. This means that lectures will be live and students are expected to “show up” during regularly scheduled class time (e.g., log in to a Zoom meeting). By choosing to do this, students can ask questions in real time and I can still hold class discussions, provide on-the-spot examples, get a good idea of the class’s understanding, and feel more confident about creating a sense of community.


[Image Description: A rotating image of cats sitting at computers typing with varying levels of speed.]

Pictured: All your students joining you for that synchronous session

Show up early and stay late. This is certainly something I do for in-person classes but I never would have thought to do this for an online course. Be available to your student 10-15 minutes before and after your scheduled class – be present, responsive to email, and log in and stay logged in to answer any questions. This time is valuable for me and the students. I find that my students ask most of their questions during this time than they do in class. It’s also when I feel like I get to know them a little more. I was most worried about losing this type of one-on-one interaction but, after reading this suggestion, I realized I don’t have to!


[Image Description: Conan O'Brien taps his wrist watch pointedly while smiling at the viewer.]

Pictured: You, realizing your students are waiting for you to log in to the session

Videos, videos, and more videos! How can I make sure my students see the real me? I have seen suggestions to create video content far more than I could have imagined. Here are some of the things you can do in addition to creating lecture videos - record an “about me” video for the first day of class, create an assignment where students have to submit an “about me” video to you, post weekly announcements in video format, and record while grading so students can have insight into your grading process. Infuse these videos with your personality! By doing so, I believe your students will be better able to connect with you and feel more motivated to reach out, strengthening that instructor-student connection I was afraid of losing in an online space.


[Image Description: A fluffy black and white dog with bright blue eyes smiles directly at the camera, showing all his teeth in a slightly disturbing but still cute smile.]

Pictured: You, recording your first "about me" video...they get better over time


As I am sure is true for many of you, the process of shifting instruction fully online has had a pretty steep learning curve. I am trying to remind myself of the advantages of this format (in addition to social distancing): students will most likely be more responsive to email, I can see study habits and how frequently students are accessing online material (if your institution’s Learning Management System provides those data), when students are responding to and posting on discussion boards, and no more grading scantrons! Although I will miss meeting my students in person and I have yet to determine my own personal success with the above suggestions, I’m looking forward to seeing what fits my personality and the student’s preferences.

Happy online teaching!


[Image Description: Lando Calrissian, from Star Wars, waves as he says: Good luck.]

Pictured: The force. It's with you, even online