Personal Connections – The Best Way To Engage Students In Distance Learning Environment

Personal Connections - The Best Way To Engage Students In Distance Learning Environment

Knowing the material is not enough.

For student achievement, relationships are essential. In my classes, I work to nurture both my relationships with my students and with their parents. I do this because:

Students work harder if they believe that they can please the teacher. A myriad of studies demonstrate that students put more energy and time into a class if they feel like they can please the teacher. If it feels hopeless, they do not work.

Students learn more if their parents are on board. Parent involvement is one of the most important predictors of a student’s academic success, in the classroom or in an online program.

Students perform better when they have personal relationships with the teacher. Some urban schools have found that student’s grades and engagement increase simply by having the teacher and the principal greet the children, every morning. Being seen matters.

Students learn more if the material is relevant to their lives. Most material can be made relevant to students’ lives. However, making the ideas relevant is most effectively done when the student is known to the instructor.

You matter. You really matter.

There are many different educational programs floating around that do not need an engaged teacher. “Talking Textbooks” will read the information to your students and walk them through educational activities. Math programs allow kids to move at their own pace and master materials. MOOCs take on thousands of learners at one time with no individual guidance from the instructor. There are apps that teach foreign languages, math skills and grammar. They have sexy graphics and user friendly models.

Nonetheless, these programs are dead. They are static creations that respond with lifeless words. They might help students master arithmetic facts, but they are not going to inspire a child to be a mathematician. Teachers are more powerful then engaging subject matter. They are even more powerful than important ideas. Without the human connection, facts are disconnected and dull.

But how can we nurture a relationship with children and engage them in the online classroom, where we are not as able to see if a student is engaged?

6 Tips To Engage Distance Learners

With some forethought, you will be able to forge meaningful relationships with your students and their families. Here is how I do it:
1) Tell them that you care. As cheesy as it sounds, you have to let your students know that you care and that they matter. Tell them that you are looking forward to reading their papers. I frequently mention that each week, I set aside several hours to sit in my favorite coffee shop and read their work. I let them know that I am looking forward to reading their papers. I tell them that “I am here to teach. Your learning is important to me. Let me know how I can help.”

2) Create a safe, inclusive space. In my classes, I often get students from quirky or marginalized backgrounds. Many students who are gay take classes from home so that they do not need to deal with the social pressure of public schools. I often put a rainbow flag in my online classroom or I mention that all family types are safe here, so that the kids know that I am an ally. If you want to make sure that your online classroom is inclusive (to people with learning differences or alternative lifestyles) you have to make it that way. You are setting the tone for the classroom.

3) Institute a weekly time for reflection: There has to be regular communication between the students and the teachers, in addition to the exchange of work. I use WizIQ to teach my courses. The platform makes it really easy for teachers and students to interact. In most classes, my students write me a weekly letter reflecting upon their learning. I write back to them individually. This quickly creates rapport. Some of my students continue to take classes from me, so the dialogue continues across years.

4) Use the private chat option in the online classroom: Sometimes, you need to convey something to a student in private. For example, I might private message a student when I know that they are struggling with a concept and offer to stay with them after class to explain it. Sometimes, a student might say something courageous, that I want to bolster. I send them a private message thanking them for their comment and telling them how pleased I am that someone introduced that idea to the conversation.

5) Put yourself out there: You have to give your students someone to like. It takes a bit more work to let your personality be revealed online than it does in person. I make Animoto videos that convey my personality, quirks and politics and share them with my students. They need not be super fancy or professional, but how will your students know how cool you are if you do not share something with them? With the WizIQ Learning Management system, you can share the videos with your students before class.

6) Have office hours: Once each week, I have office hours, where teachers or students can stop by and ask questions or chat. I also use that as a time to connect the WizIQ staff, so to anyone having technical difficulties.

Get out there and meet your students.

They will learn more, like you more and buy more of your classes.


I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at www.onlineclassesforgroovykids.org.

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