Fostering Personal Connections for a Better Online Learning Environment

Before her online courses begin, Susanne Chuku, assistant professor of economics at Westfield State University, sends each of her students a personal welcome email. “I like to write their names so they know that I took the time to email them personally rather than send a single email addressed to all of them.” It sets a welcoming tone in which students—typically half of them—feel comfortable enough to share additional information about themselves, including, often their struggles with the subject matter. “This is my first step in getting to know them. It's the first opportunity they have to talk to me, and I feel it lowers the barrier between the instructor and the students.

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Before her online courses begin, Susanne Chuku, assistant professor of economics at Westfield State University, sends each of her students a personal welcome email. “I like to write their names so they know that I took the time to email them personally rather than send a single email addressed to all of them.” It sets a welcoming tone in which students—typically half of them—feel comfortable enough to share additional information about themselves, including, often their struggles with the subject matter. “This is my first step in getting to know them. It's the first opportunity they have to talk to me, and I feel it lowers the barrier between the instructor and the students.”

The welcome email is part of a strategy to get students to share with her, and ultimately with each other, to create a more engaging and successful learning environment. Throughout the course, Chuku takes note of the information that her students share in the course in order to strengthen the relationship and make the learning relevant.

Discussion feedback
Chuku generally does not participate in weekly discussions, but she does provide feedback at the end of the week, explaining why each student received the number of points they did. “I relate my feedback to what I know about them. … I let them know I understand where they're coming from and maybe even find similarities between the student and me because whenever you have similarities with another person you feel more connected,” Chuku says.

To that end, Chuku maintains an Excel spreadsheet to have a handy source of information about her students. She refers to the spreadsheet whenever she provides feedback (or at least in the beginning when she is still learning about her students.) This approach is manageable in Chuku's courses—her principles of macroeconomics and principles of microeconomics courses typically has 20 to 25 students each.

During the first two weeks of discussion, students typically do not engage in very meaningful ways because they have yet to develop trust. They often state that they agree with each other and typically don't share personal information with each other. Then after a while they get more comfortable with each other and with relating the content to their lives.

To help facilitate these meaningful exchanges, in her weekly feedback to individual students, Chuku encourages students to disagree with each other, reminding them to be respectful and professional.

Chuku is careful to not be too harsh in her discussion board grading and feedback so she doesn't discourage participation. “Obviously, students cannot write complete nonsense, but the discussions for me are more of an encouragement to get students to talk to each other,” she says.

In addition, Chuku views the discussion board as a means of understanding her students' perspectives and to gain insights into how well they understand the content without the fear of losing a significant number of points.  “If I grade them harshly, I believe they will hold back and not be as open as they otherwise would be,” she says.

Check in
After each exam, Chuku calculates each student's overall grade and provides individual feedback and encouragement via email. “That particular email has really made a difference because students now ask, ‘What can I do to improve my score?' or say, ‘Thank you. I have done this because you recommended it, and I'm doing better now.' This really has led to better student outcomes,” she says.

In her larger classes, Chuku typically writes two or three sentences in each of these check in emails and typically provides more detailed feedback in smaller classes. “I want students to know it's personalized feedback, not just feedback that I copy and paste to everyone,” she says. “I check my Excel spreadsheet and try to make connections. It sounds like a lot of work, but once you get used to it, I think it's doable.”