Tips from the Pros

Cultivating Relationships Online

Faculty spend most of their training in learning their subject matter. But when 17,000 students were asked to list the qualities of an effective teacher, “respectful” and “responsive” came out above “knowledgeable.”

Knowledge of the subject matter is more of a baseline for good teaching—above a minimum, more is not better. When I ask faculty to list the qualities of their own best teachers, relationship traits such as “caring” come out at the top.

Demonstrating care for students and developing rapport with them are critical to good teaching. While it may seem that the lack of face-to-face contact inhibits efforts to cultivate rapport with online students, there is a variety of simple things that faculty can do to foster a learning relationship.


Rich media, such as video and audio, helps personalize us to others. Think about the difference between reading an author’s biography and hearing an interview with that author on the radio. Suddenly the person comes alive through their voice.

Whenever possible, online faculty should use rich media instead of text or PowerPoints to deliver content. One option is to combine images with narration in a digital storytelling format. The instructor explains a topic with his or her voice while showing images to illustrate it. A good practice is to provide a five to 10-minute video overview at the beginning of a module to explain why the topics covered are important and what students should get out of it. The video can also be used to warn students about common mistakes to avoid in their assignments. This will help capture the students’ attention and put a human face on the course. Take a look at this tutorial on how to make digital storytelling videos on WeVideo:

One important thing to remember when recording any audio is to speak naturally. We tend to stiffen up in front of a microphone and speak in a monotone. A robotic tone demonstrates to the listeners that you are just interested in pushing content out to them, not communicating, and it will quickly cause listeners to lose interest. The narration should sound like a conversation.

The best way to avoid a robotic voice is to imagine that you are speaking to a student in your office while you record. It might even help to post a picture of someone on your monitor. You should also force yourself to add voice inflections and emphases to highlight what is important about your topic. It is OK to exaggerate on recordings, as that is essentially what actors do. You are presumably interested in the material, and so you should demonstrate your excitement through your voice and students will pick up on that enthusiasm.

You can also humanize the content by adding your own experiences. If you are teaching an art in Rome course and have visited Rome, describe your feelings when walking into the places that you are discussing. You might also throw in some amusing stories, such as getting on the wrong train or ordering the wrong food, just to add some additional personalization.

Another good practice is to make a video welcome and bio to introduce your course right at the beginning. This can either be simple a webcam shot in your office or a digital storytelling narration that uses images from your past. The video establishes a relationship with students immediately, and makes them feel more comfortable to come to you when they are struggling.


Students are starved for good feedback from their instructors. They get brief comments simply meant to justify the grade, but not true feedback designed to improve their performance by explaining what they did wrong and what they can do to improve. Providing quality feedback demonstrates your interest in student learning, and students will pick up on that.

In particular, students need feedback on their ideas more than on their writing. Faculty tend to focus on writing issues because writing errors are easy to spot and tend to bother us the most. But an instructor’s primary job is to teach his or her subject matter, be it business, philosophy, physics, anthropology, etc., and so subject matter should constitute the bulk of the feedback to the student. Feedback should be thought of as an effort to cultivate student expertise in the subject matter through the instructor sharing his or her expertise. Think about the skills and knowledge that consti­tute expertise in your field, and focus first on cultivating those through your feedback. Instead of just telling a student that he or she got the procedure wrong on a physics problem, a faculty member can explain how he or she analyzes physics problems to determine the right procedure to use. Students appreciate this feedback, and need it to develop their own expertise.

Another good practice is to start a dialogue with students. You might ask a student a question on an assignment that the student replies to by email or on the next assignment. This demonstrates a genuine concern with reaching students on an intellectual level rather than just stamping a grade on their work.

The effort spent in cultivating rapport with students will be paid back in better student perfor­mance, instructor evaluations, and an interesting teaching experience.


Granitz, N.A., Koernig, S.K., and Harich, K.R. (2009). Now it’s personal: Antecedents and outcomes of rapport between business faculty and their students. Journal of Marketing Education, 31 (1), 52-65.

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