Personal Connections Matter!
By Linda Yarrow, Kansas State University
Figure 1: Being Present and Connecting Are Important to Teaching and Learning
I first began teaching online courses for Kansas State University in 2003 while pursuing my Ph.D. and working as a GRA (graduate research assistant). My BS was in education, and I was used to face-to-face classrooms, so I found the online courses to be challenging in a positive way...challenging because I am an extrovert and forming personal relationships with my students is important to me. So now the challenge that presented itself was how to do that in an online format. I have now been teaching online courses for 15 years, and I still look forward to finding ways to connect with my students. But before I talk about how to make personal connections, let’s first explore why it matters.
It starts with rapport. As defined by the dictionary, rapport is “a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other's feelings or ideas and communicate well.” Numerous educational websites and articles identify "rapport" as one of the most important features of a successful educator. A critical component of a successful online educational program is strong student-instructor rapport (Sull, 2009). Benson and Cohen (2005) reported that student-instructor rapport motivated students to engage in proacademic behaviors. When you have students from all over the world representing a variety of age groups and backgrounds, developing rapport can be challenging for instructors.
Ways to Develop Rapport
Figure 2: Connecting Brings Positive Learning Outcomes
Research by Granizt, et al. supports that establishing rapport results in positive outcomes for students to include: 1) a higher motivation to learn which leads to students participating more fully in the course; 2) increased student comfort which results in students asking open, candid, and honest questions; 3) increased student perception of academic quality and increased satisfaction with academic programs; 4) enhanced communication leading to enhanced learning; and 5) trust which allows students to connect and relate to their instructor and other students in a positive manner (2009).
Granitz, et. al also identified five primary ways to develop rapport: 1) demonstrate respect for students’ backgrounds and learning styles, 2) be approachable – make it clear when you are available to work with students, 3) communicate openly– what you say and what you do should match up, 4) demonstrate a caring attitude – show you care for the student and how much they learn, and 5) demonstrate a positive attitude that can be expressed through the use of humor and an open mind to all viewpoints (2009).
Creating Rapport in Online Ecosystems
Figure 3: Building Rapport to an Online Environment
So, how do we develop rapport and personal connections in an online environment? After 15 years of online teaching, I have tried multiple techniques and will describe some of the practices that have been the most effective for me. My overall goals are to show my students that I am genuinely interested in their lives and that I care deeply about how well they learn in my class.
My first priority is to establish personal introductions. I do this a variety of ways. One week before the class starts, I send an introductory email to all students. It’s brief and simply states who I am and let’s them know I am excited to get to know them and to work with them in the course. I also record a short introductory video posted on the course homepage that tells them about my background and experiences, describes the course content, and describes how the course can help them professionally. Lastly, I have an “Introduce Yourself” message board. I set the example by giving personal/professional information about myself to include my education and work history, my family, my pets, my hobbies, and my obsessions (Lord of the Rings and Star Trek!). I also post a family picture and I encourage students to post pictures of their families, pets, favorite vacation spot, etc. This also serves as an icebreaker for the class.
Another way for students to develop rapport and personal connections in the class is through shared leadership. Shared leadership creates a sense of belonging. I do this by having student groups moderate weekly discussion posts. They also have other group assignments that require them to share responsibilities. And on the “Ask A Question” board, when students get comfortable with each other, they will answer each other’s questions, which is a subtle way of sharing leadership and creating interconnectivity.
Finally, a more recent strategy I employ has been my most effective way to develop rapport and strong personal connections with my students. My students refer to it as “Social Hour.” Whenever I have ZoomTM sessions, I always log in 5-10 minutes before our official start time. I use that time to learn where my students are from, what their backgrounds are, what’s the weather like, etc. It’s very general conversation but it helps get them comfortable interacting with me. At the end of each ZoomTM session, we have our social hour. I call on each student one by one and ask him or her to tell me about his or her week. They can share something that happened in the past week or something that will happen in the upcoming week. Initially, students share experiences related to their hobbies or their children’s successes or they share about stress related to upcoming assignment/exams. As we get to know each other, they share about very personal experiences such as a child or parent dealing with an illness or disease. One student shared about the pain and guilt she felt while putting her mother in a nursing home. Another student shared about admitting her daughter for inpatient treatment for an eating disorder, and another student shared about her son being in a coma from a car accident. As the shared experiences take on very personal and emotional aspects, they reflect the trust and comfort level that students have developed with me and with each other. Students also begin to bond with each other and that connectedness promotes enhanced learning.
Building rapport will be very natural for some instructors and very challenging for others. Get creative, experiment, find what works for you and leads to rewarding personal connections with your students. An anonymous quote sums it up, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Benson, T. & Cohen, A. (2005). Rapport: its relation to student attitudes and behaviors toward teachers and classes. Faculty Forum: 32(4), 237-239.
Granitz, N., Koernig, S., & Harich, K. (2009). Now it’s personal: antecedents and outcomes of rapport between business faculty and their students. Journal of Marketing Education: 31(1), 52- 65.
Sull, E. (2009). Student engagement, motivation, and rapport. Distance Learning, 6(3), 90-94.
About the Author
Linda Yarrow, PhD, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Instructor in the department of Food, Nutrition, Dietetics & Health at Kansas State University. She teaches upper level medical nutrition therapy courses and graduate courses on campus and via distance. She taught her first online course in 2003 and for many years, taught four online classes each semester. Linda is passionate about effective and creative educational delivery. It’s not just content that has to be effective, but also presentation style and interactions with students. Linda continues to explore ways she can increase personalization in her classes in order for distance students to feel connected both personally and professionally. Linda has presented numerous times at the national, state, and local level on methods to enhance learning experiences. Linda enjoys time with her family and books. She is an avid power walker who participates in half marathons with absolutely no intention of ever competing in a full marathon. She also reminds herself to never say never.
Dr. Yarrow may be reached a email@example.com.
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