Getting to Know Your Students in a Virtual Environment

In my last post, I wrote about active learning and engagement in a virtual environment. We know that active learning is how students make meaning with new material. It’s the act of trying to make sense of what they are learning–connecting it to what they already know, discussing it with classmates to broaden their understanding of new content, etc.–that actually leads to deeper learning. Of course, this can become challenging in a virtual environment without first building connections, trust, and relationships in the classroom (virtual or otherwise).

Many classes begin the first day with ice breakers. For years I despised these activities as I can be somewhat shy and reserved and many of the activities I have been asked to do as ice breakers seemed rather ridiculous. Why do I need to know that Bob is going on a camping trip and he is taking burgers or that Calvin is taking charcoal? Over the years, I’ve been able to identify elements from these activities that actually make them valuable to building community in the classroom… which is the purpose behind doing them in the first place. Building solid relationships with your students is probably the most important thing you can do to build trust in your classroom which in turn opens the door to remove barriers for engaged learning.

It’s been my experience that most educators value getting to know their students but few have a systematic approach to doing so. Here are my tips for gathering the information you need and getting to know your students in a way that removes barriers:

  • Use an ice breaker the first day of class that helps students get to know one another. For a fully online class, perhaps consider a Padlet ( activity that requires students to post a selfie, answer a few prompts like program of study, eye color, home town, etc. (without asking students to disclose anything too personal), and share a fun fact about themselves. Have students find at least 2 students with whom they share commonalities and have them comment back to the initial post.
  • Ask students to complete a survey that collects information you might need to know to help them get the most our of their class experience like whether or not this is their first fully online course, do they commute or live on campus, have they purchased class materials or do they need to use the library reserves or the Holman Success Center book loan program, etc. Here is a link to a Google Form survey I will be using this fall to collect this important information:
  • If you use a Google Form, all of the responses will be stored in a Google Sheet which makes it really easy to access and review. More importantly, this information becomes more valuable when you start to use it. For example, when I have a week that is particularly heavy with content or assignments, I can reach out to all of my students who have jobs to check in to make sure they are staying on top of things and to ask if they need help – “I know you are working 30 hours a week and our XYZ assignment is due next week. How are things coming along? Are you on track to finish on time?”
  • Do regular check ins throughout the semester. Oftentimes we only really check in with students at the very beginning of the term and maybe again at midterms and finals. I try to check in several times throughout the term to see how things are going, how they are managing to stay on top of their course work, if they have recommendations on how I can improve the class, etc. Most of us ask for feedback at the end of the semester so that we can evaluate and prepare or the next term. How powerful would it be if we had this kind of valuable information during the semester so that we could make meaningful adjustments mid-course or “on the fly” before the end of the term?
  • I’ve also created a “check in schedule” at the beginning of the semester that prompts me to check in directly with 5 students each week to see how they are doing and if they need anything.

Online teaching and learning does not have to be impersonal…nor should it be. It’s 2020, our students have grown up in a digital world and they are accustomed to “living” online (Instagram, Snapchat, FaceBook, Tiktok, etc). It doesn’t have to be a daunting undertaking to facilitate meaningful virtual learning experiences. You’re brilliant. You have an advanced degree. You got this!

Dr. Christine Deacons
Dr. Christine Deacons has been the Director of Academic Support Programs at Eastern Michigan University since 2013. She frequently lectures in the Department of Teacher Education and publishes her own blog about teaching and learning: "Innovation is messy - you can't be afraid to get your feet wet or your hands dirty"

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