Connect with Your Students

“To fulfill [their] mission, my teachers made sure they ‘knew’ us. They knew our parents, our economic status, where we worshiped, what our homes were like, and how we were treated in the family.” bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

In findings that other researchers have confirmed, Astin (1993, pp. 381-84) identified student-faculty interactions as being essential to student development in a range of areas from academic success to personal growth to career choice. Pascarelle and Ternzini, in their comprehensive review of research on how college affects student learning, summarize the research as follows: students “thrive in college environments that emphasize close relationships and frequent interaction between faculty and students as well as faculty concern about student growth and development” (2005, Vol 2, 600).

Essential strategies

  • Know your students. Before the semester begins, review your roster and study student profiles. Get a sense of who is in your class. Review information about Montclair students more broadly.
  • Learn–and use–students’ names and pronouns. This is an easy way to build rapport and to let students feel seen as individuals.
    • If you have a large class, name tents will help you use names. You will need to remind and require students to bring them and put them out every day.
    • Require students to update their Canvas image and then review your roster to help you connect faces to names.
    • Create an informal seating chart.
    • Play the name game: The first student states their name; then the second student state’s the first student’s name and their own, then the third person states the first person’s name, the second person’s name, and then their own.  And so on. (Morris & Fritz 2000)
    • Take attendance. As you read names off, look up from your roster and directly at each student, repeating the names as you look at the student. It’s okay for students to see that it takes time for you to learn names.
    • Learn name pronunciations. Have students complete a low/no-stakes assignment that asks them to record their preferred name and pronunciation, or use a free pronunciation tool such as Name Coach. See a sample assignment  from Milton Fuentes (requires log in to Canvas).
  • Help students connect with you: use your own name badge and ensure students understand what they should call you, so students are comfortable addressing you.
  • Hold student hours – rather than office hours.
  • Develop an introductory assignment that invites students to show themselves and not assume a “generic student” posture. Ask students to complete an early assignment introducing themselves to you, conveying relevant past experiences with learning, and indicating any anxieties or concerns going into the course. Offer light feedback that shows you’ve read their work and understand any concerns.
  • Use student surveys throughout the semester to check in with students and get feedback on the course. For our survey suggestions you have a few options:
  • Use icebreakers or other activities so that you get to know your students and they get to know each other.
  • Share about your own identity, and how aspects of your identity influence your learning, your understanding of the subject of your course, etc.
  • Encourage introspection and sharing about individual perspectives and how they are shaped by culture and upbringing: “Why do you think you think what you think?”

Communicating with students is essential to supportive pedagogy. Communication includes clear instructions on assignments, timely feedback, office/student hours, and emails to students who have missed class or assignments. Regardless of your course modality, you can use Canvas announcements to provide students with important information and also to connect personally. Simply expressing that you understand that students struggled with a recent lesson and that you have faith they will succeed if they persevere can increase students’ sense of possibility.

Develop a Strong Instructor Presence

Instructor presence is critical to ANY course, no matter what the modality.

For in-person classes, consider how you use the space of the classroom: move around, come out from behind the podium, look at students and not just your notes or computer. You do not need to be a performer, but you do need to smile and be enthusiastic about your subject matter. Let students know that you enjoy being in the class with them.

For online classes, and for asynchronous classes especially, be sure students know that you are there online with them, available to answer questions. Check in on them and let them know that you care about their success.

  • Online does not mean students are prepared to work fully independently. Scaffold assignments and provide clear tasks and strategies to help students become more independent.
  • Establish and promote clear communication channels, such as regular office/student hours, your participation in discussion boards, and regular and formative feedback on students’ progress.
  • Consider using short videos or podcasts to respond to students’ work so they get to know your voice and maybe your face, so there is more connection with you and the class. Using audio or video feedback or other content provides students with tone and nuance that could otherwise be lost or misinterpreted in text.
  • Get feedback: Use mid-term or intermediate anonymous surveys to get feedback on the class and make changes if necessary. You might also directly ask students to discuss how the class is going (comfortably!). You could interview your students (3-5 minutes) and give each student extra points for participating (meeting with professor).

Use Time Before Class Starts

Sometimes classroom scheduling makes it impossible to get to class more than a few minutes early, but James Lang argues for the value of even a couple of minutes. Rather than spending the time quietly setting up, engage in small talk with students or otherwise check in with them. Consider standing at the doorway to greet students, looking at each student directly, if only briefly. Begin class by sharing the plan for the day’s work.

Use the First Day of Class Well

Build Community and Foster Belonging with Ice Breakers

Use the Last Day of Class Well

Resources and References

Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, E. T., and Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How College Affects Students, Volume 2: A Third Decade of Research. Jossey-Bass.

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For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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