Last week, I attended the Distance Teaching and Learning (DT&L) conference in Madison, WI. I have to admit that even though I’ve been working in online education as a teacher and a researcher for over a decade, this was the first time I’ve attended the DT&L conference. It was great. I personally enjoy going to conferences that offer a balance of research and practice. While I want to pick up instructional strategies that I can include in my online classes, I also want to learn about the growing research base for online education. With the variety of sessions and presenters at the DT&L conference, my expectations were met and exceeded.
One of the best sessions I attended was led by Christine DeCarolis from Rutgers University-Camden. In the presentation, DeCarolis discussed the research behind building student rapport and outlined specific ways that she addressed these aspects in her online classes. While I’ve focused on ways to build teacher presence in my online classes, I’ve never really thought about specific strategies that could help build rapport. DeCarolis’s presentation motivated me to do a little more digging into the concept of rapport and to consider ways to foster rapport with my online students.
In a Faculty Focus article a few years ago, Maryellen Weimer outlined five factors that build student rapport. These include:
- Respect. Teachers and students must show respect for each other, for the learning process, and for the institution where it is occurring.
- Approachability. Students have to feel comfortable coming to faculty and faculty must be willing to speak with students, after class, during office hours, via email, on campus.
- Open communication. Faculty must be honest. There needs to be consistency between what faculty say and what they do.
- Caring. Faculty must care about students; they must see and respond to them as individuals. They also need to care about learning and show that they want students to learn the material.
- Positive attitude. Faculty should have a sense of humor and be open to points of view other than their own. (Weimer, 2010)
So, how do we address these factors in our online classes? Here are some ideas.
- Record faculty introductions. Video can be a powerful way for instructors communicate with students. Beyond communicating instructional content, videos can help instructors convey a positive attitude and share their personalities.
- Be available. In some online classes, students can feel isolated and confused. Instructors who offer regular online office hours communicate to students that they’re approachable. In some of my online classes, I schedule individual one-on-one meetings with students so that each student has the opportunity to meet with me.
- Provide regular feedback. In my online classes, I work to provide timely feedback on submitted material. As I provide due dates for students so they complete work on a regular schedule, I also have to respectfully model an attention to timeliness. When students go weeks and weeks without receiving feedback, they don’t feel that instructors are respecting their work or their commitment to learning.
- Address students by name. When you’re providing feedback to students, use their name. This sounds like a simple strategy but it helps to build a respectful and caring environment with students.