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Whether you’re a seasoned instructor or it’s your first time teaching, connecting with students can pose a significant challenge. Maybe it’s been years (or even decades) since you were a student yourself. You may feel disconnected from the current generation of students and struggle to find ways to build rapport with them. On the other hand, you could be a new instructor with the opposite problem: worrying that you need to keep some distance from your students to maintain classroom authority.
When I first started teaching, I certainly struggled with the latter of those two scenarios. I learned quickly that building meaningful connections with my students not only helped my students succeed, but it also made me a better instructor. Through conversations with more experienced colleagues, I learned that connecting with my students would mean more than just focusing on the start of the semester; it would require consistent effort.
Often students think of instructors as gatekeepers of their grades, not people with whom they can partner to achieve their own learning goals. However, this shift from being perceived as a gatekeeper to a partner can have a lasting impact. A handful of my own instructors understood the importance of building and maintaining connections with their students. Those are the courses–and instructors–that I remember most fondly. Those are also the experiences that I sought to replicate with my own teaching.
Building rapport with students fosters engagement in course content among students and it shows them that they are valued. It also provides instructors with insights for improving their students’ success.
Here are 10 steps to building meaningful connections with students not only on day one of class but also throughout the semester.
Connecting With Students at the Beginning of a New Term
1. Introduce yourself (honestly). Remember that feeling of running into one of your elementary school teachers outside of school—at the grocery store, in the park, or at the movies—and being stunned to find out that they were a real person outside of the classroom? While high school and college students have no doubt that you’re a real person, that same sense of disconnection can still exist. Let your students know who you are as an instructor, but also as a person. You could also share with your students an anecdote about when you took a similar class to the one they’re now in. Showing your students that you’re a real person may make them realize that they share similar interests. Possibly, they’ll even look at your experiences as a student in their shoes as inspiration to aspire to become an instructor like you someday.
2. Break the ice. It’s safe to say that there can be a lot of nerves on that first day. There certainly were for me as a first-time instructor, and there were for my students as well. An icebreaker is a great way to ease the tension and encourage participation and there are endless possibilities for icebreaker activities. You can keep it related to course content, such as asking students to think about previous knowledge they’ve gained in past courses, or you can ask students questions that are unrelated, such as sharing a fun fact about themselves or their favorite part of their summer or winter break. Get several sample icebreaker activities to use with iClicker.
3. Make yourself available (within reason). It’s important that your students know that you are a resource both during and outside of class. Arrive to class early or stay a little late, plan to hold regular office hours, either in-person or virtually, and set clear boundaries. For example, let your students know that you check your email between certain hours during the day, and if they reach out late in the evening, you may not respond until the next morning.
Connecting With Students at Mid Term
4. Create assignments and activities that let students draw on their experiences. As the term progresses, you may find that you’ll need to find new ways to capture and maintain your students’ attention. This is a good time to remind them of the applications of what they are learning in the world outside of the classroom. Ask your students to think about examples of class concepts in their daily lives.
5. Ask students about their goals for the course and follow up with them. Students appreciate regular updates on their progress and performance in class. In a large course, this can be a difficult task for an instructor, but Achieve’s Goal-setting and Reflection Surveys help make this a little easier. Students can establish their own goals and reflect on their progress throughout the term. They can share with you how they feel about their performance, which can offer a good opportunity to check in with them.
6. Use iClicker to facilitate active learning. You can use iClicker to create quizzes and polls that students can respond to during class. What are your students’ muddiest points? Find out with a poll before or during class. How confident are students in their knowledge of the day’s topic? There’s an exit poll for that. Do students truly understand the material? Create a team-based learning activity where students can work in small groups to answer questions. There’s an endless amount of ways to engage and connect with students.
7. Let your students know you’re there for them. Everyone faces unique challenges both in and out of the classroom. You can play an important role in supporting students who are facing challenges by creating a supportive learning environment, being flexible and understanding, and connecting students with resources. Be sure to emphasize the importance of asking for help and let them know when you’re available to them outside of class and how to best get in touch with you. These simple steps will show your students that you’re committed to supporting them and to their success.
Connecting With Students at the End of Term
8. Show them you’ve been listening. Your students have learned a lot this term, and so have you. Put what you’ve learned about your students to use as you prepare for the final exam or assignment. At this point in the term, you should be able to recognize your students’ strengths and weaknesses, and you can adjust your teaching during the last few class periods to focus on those weaknesses.
9. Talk to them about campus resources. At the beginning of the term, you committed to making yourself available to your students; but as more and more students need your help prepping for the end of the semester, you might realize you can’t accommodate everyone. The end of term means exams, final papers, and extracurricular commitments, which can be stressful. Make your students aware of the many additional resources your school offers, such as the writing center or tutoring.
10. Consider using the last class for review and discussion. One of the last things I wanted as a student was for my instructor to introduce new material during the penultimate or last class period. My peers and I always appreciated when an instructor would use the final class as an opportunity for students to ask anything they want about class material. If you do need to use every class to finish teaching all of the material on the syllabus, then consider offering an additional review session.
Connecting with your students isn’t easy, but it is rewarding–for both you and your students. And, it’s important to build and foster connections throughout the entire term, not only at the beginning. Do you have other steps that you use as an instructor to build and maintain connections with your students? We would like to learn from you!