5 Ways to Keep a Personal Connection to Students Online

As many schools and institutions gear up to return to instruction for the new academic year, teachers all over the world are preparing to continue with the online teaching formats they transitioned to in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. What many teachers miss the most is building relationships with their students and getting to know them on an individual basis.

In this blog, I discuss simple ways that I have maintained a personal connection with my graduate English-language students in my online listening and speaking course. These ideas are applicable in either synchronous or asynchronous instructional settings, and they can be adapted for varying English language proficiency levels.

1. Break the Ice With Introductory Videos

Creating a short video is a fun and engaging way for students to introduce themselves to their peers at the beginning of the semester. They could be prompted to answer questions (e.g., discuss your hometown, hobbies, and goals for the semester), or they could choose their own topics.

There are different options for sharing these informative videos. First, students could post their videos in a discussion board forum, which is a common feature of most learning management systems. Another site that can be used for this activity is Padlet, which is a web-based bulletin board that allows users to create short posts that can include text, images, videos, and audio files, among others. You can customize the layout of the board by arranging how students’ input is arranged (e.g., in a top to bottom feed), and there is an option for students to comment on each other’s posts. Most important, I participate in these icebreakers by creating my own introductory video so students get to know a little more about my own interests and see a sample video.

2. Give Weekly Updates

At the beginning of each week, I share a short video (i.e., 1–2 minutes) with students in which I provide a recap of the previous week and discuss what we will cover in the current week. To create videos, I often use Screencast-O-Matic, which allows users to record up to 15 minutes of video for free. Options for recording include only webcam, webcam and screen, or only screen with an audio voiceover. In these videos, I

  • highlight the strengths of the class from the week before,
  • identify areas that students need to continue working on,
  • discuss the learning objectives for the week, and
  • remind students about upcoming deadlines.

I upload this video in the week’s content folder in our learning management system and ask students to watch it before beginning any other assignments.

3. Take the Temperature of the Class Each Week

At the start of each week, I ask students to fill out a Google form that includes two to three short questions. These questions may vary week to week, but they often focus on students’ reflections on their learning, any challenges they have faced, and how I can better help them. Here are some example questions:

  • Take a look at your recent assignment grade and my feedback. If you could do this assignment again, how would you do it differently?
  • What did you learn last week about academic presentations that you didn’t know before?
  • Use one adjective to describe how you are feeling today. In 2–3 sentences, please explain why you chose this adjective.
  • Do you have everything you need to complete your work? Why or why not?
  • Feel free to use this blank space to leave any questions or comments for me.

With Google Forms, it is possible to include a range of question types (e.g., short answer or multiple-choice), shuffle questions, limit responses to one person, make answers on particular questions mandatory, and customize color themes. I post the form’s link in our learning management system, but the link could also be emailed to students. Their responses provide valuable feedback that I use for planning instruction and making adjustments to the course if needed.

4. Create Your Own Content

In my listening and speaking course, content primarily includes listening skills (e.g., identifying signposts), academic presentation skills (e.g., creating effective slides), and pronunciation skills (e.g., vowels, consonants, and prosody). Many teaching materials on these topics already exist, but I prefer creating my own video lectures when possible so I can customize the content to students’ language levels and make the learning experience more personal.

For instance, I recently created a video to demonstrate how English consonants are pronounced and included multiple-choice quizzes and listen-then-repeat exercises for students to do as they watch. I also included a short preview of a speaking assignment due that week to model what students needed to do. I ensure that the video length is no longer than 10 minutes so students remain engaged, and I discuss one major topic in each video.

5. Connect With Students Individually

I hold virtual conferences after providing feedback on assignment drafts so I can meet with students individually, ensuring that they have enough time to review my comments and bring any questions to the conference. At the beginning of the semester, I also let students know how long it will typically take me to reply and how best to reach me (e.g., availability during holidays and weekends, how to reach me outside of office hours). Finally, I try to turn assignments around quickly so students can maintain momentum in the course, and, when possible, I provide audio feedback on their work so they can hear my voice.

When teaching online, there are many things that we can do to be present and show students that we remain active participants in the course and in their learning. If you have found other ways to stay connected to your students, please share them in the comments below.

About Ilka Kostka

Ilka Kostka
Ilka Kostka is an associate teaching professor in the Global Pathways and NU Immerse programs at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. She teaches and coordinates English language courses for graduate international students. Her scholarly interests include computer-assisted language learning and the potential of flipped learning for teaching academic English. She recently joined the Membership Professional Council of TESOL International Association.
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10 Responses to
5 Ways to Keep a Personal Connection to Students Online

  1. Belinda Martin says:

    Thank you, this is very helpful to me right now!
    It probably takes a lot of time to make videos and other materials, but it’s definitely worth it because it shows your involvement and allows you to include more individual details in the lesson. I’m not great at making videos, but I want to give it a try.

    • Ilka Kostka Ilka Kostka says:

      Thanks for your comments, Belinda. Using the program I mentioned above is very easy. I prepare some talking points for guidance then use my laptop camera to record myself. I try to speak as naturally as possible and without a formal prepared script. The more videos you make, the faster the process will be and the more comfortable you’ll feel. I hope you give it a try. Good luck!

  2. I appreciate your very helpful and concrete offerings to support students in their learning journey. One additional thought is the importance of developing curriculum with different learning styles in mind. Education today is such a dynamic system needing to be agile for varying English language proficiency levels, along with visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic learners. Best wishes!

  3. Anna Coutsomitelli says:

    Great Ideas
    I have to say this though
    It is a hundred times more difficult and time consuming for us to come up with ideas design programs sessions and the lot
    Would you like to tell us how it is done in a fast and efficient way?


    • Ilka Kostka Ilka Kostka says:

      Thank you, Anna. Would you mind saying a little more about the ideas, design, and program sessions you mentioned? Are you referring to video content or lessons?

  4. Gerardo Delgado says:

    Thank you forma sharing these valuable advises. I believe that they can be used for high school teaching, not only English, but any subject.

  5. I really like whole idea of looking back and reflecting on the classes. There is so much to gain for teachers reflecting not just on their own teaching but how their learners are learning too. The same goes for learners reflecting how they are taught and the way that they are learning. So giving weekly updates and taking the temperature of the class each week is not only a great way to keep the learners engaged but also benefits the learning experience and promotes professional development for the teacher.

    I also wonder if it would be possible to promote some further collaborative learning and learner autonomy by asking learners to create videos and share among themselves. Maybe they can discuss topics they would like to base classes on for the future for example.

    Thanks for sharing, I have a lot to learn about online teaching and I found this really helpful.

    • Ilka Kostka Ilka Kostka says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Robert. Students can certainly create videos to share. Check out FlipGrid and Padlet. They are excellent tools that you can use for this very purpose. Best of luck to you!

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