Creating Engaging Relationships with Students Online

Elise Ince

University of South Carolina

E-teaching requires learning new online skills: how to administer an exam from a distance, how to share documents, hold office hours, use Zoom, and poll students. To help teachers in this matter, one can count on your administration to provide a plethora of guidance, how to videos, and other “important information” documents. However, one basic aspect of e-teaching is often left aside: how do you develop a relationship with students and keep them engaged during e-learning?

When face-to-face, a teacher can easily connect with students by looking straight in their eyes. This is not possible on camera, so no student will feel I am talking to him or her personally. Zoom etiquette documents are readily available and provide the basis for a civilized class (find a clean, quiet space, be on time, don’t walk around or start conversations with household members, etc.) Yet, following this etiquette dutifully can’t ensure engagement with an on-screen 2D stamp-size teacher.

Consciously Connecting with Students

What can I do, as a teacher, not to appear too distant and detached from my students? Connecting with them is essential for learning to occur. Connecting with students requires skill and constant effort on my part when they are in a classroom, let alone through distance learning. I decided it was fundamental to start creating ties with students before classes even began.

Creating a Video

I created a short introductory video using the free platform describing who I am, where I come from, where I studied, and where I have worked. I shared the video with the students ahead of the first class. By sharing my background, I hoped to appear less of a unidimensional figure. I did not want students to feel intimidated. Although I am the least intimidating person you can imagine, unless you have seen me move, enter or leave a room, you can’t understand or guess my personality. I showed a picture of my family, my pets, mentioned my hobbies, and even showed what my office looks like this semester. I was honest. I let my students know this is my first experience teaching online, and with COVID nothing is what it used to be. But I wanted them to know I was ready to start this new adventure with them!

Setting up Moments of Interaction

By making it explicit that e-learning is new for all of us, I hoped to decrease the power distance. My first goal was to appear accessible, and my second was for us to get to know each other. To that end, I asked students to create a short video on the free platform Flipgrid (  before the first class meeting. I asked students to introduce themselves briefly, then play “Two Truths and a Lie.” Each student was asked to present three statements. Everyone had to guess which statement was false, and type it in the video comment section. This also helped me monitor that I had engaged each student and connected him or her with others. A lot of fun was had by everyone trying to guess the lie while learning interesting facts about one another. Students then revealed during the first class which statement was false and which ones were true.

Embracing Pets

Part of the challenge with any new situation is to embrace the positive. From day one, I noticed that pets were all over the screen: curious, loving, and wanting to participate. I noticed how whenever we would mention pets, students would welcome the break and connect with each other. I decided to include pets formally in my class by asking students to email me a picture of their pets. I make sure in each lecture to randomly place these pictures and let the owner present his or her pets for a couple of minutes. I believe it provides a welcome break, helps students connect, adds warmth to a format that is painfully dry and cold, and helps spread positive affect to the rest of the lecture. In that same vein, I encourage students to share their personal experiences (e.g., “What is the weirdest food that you have ever eaten?”). I ask them to fill out an information card at the start of class. I take note of interesting facts or experiences (semester abroad, fluency in another language, specific hobby, etc.) and refer to these whenever appropriate. It is important to highlight the human dimension, which we tend to forget when we look at a screen.

Engaging with Short Response Questions

I make sure to provide very detailed slides, more detailed than if I were in a classroom. This way if a student is momentarily distracted, he or she can easily catch up and will not feel lost or helpless. I also plan regular breaks within the 75-minute long class. An easy way to re-engage students is to ask them questions via polls. I have begun using “polleverywhere”  (, a free platform for educators), because it allows for more dynamic visuals. For instance, when I ask students to define a concept in five words, I can use the option “word cloud” or “open-ended” to show students’ responses which appear on the screen in real time and in an organized fashion (e.g., same words will have a bigger font). Students are often curious to see their answers compared to others.

Prompting Student Thinking

Throughout the lecture, I often ask questions, limit cold calls which I find intrusive, and make sure I allow plenty of time for students to answer open-ended questions. I often show short videos, but I always give them a task while watching (e.g., report any details that you thought are worth mentioning) to share with me. This way students are warned that they should watch the video actively and not passively. I show pictures or graphs related to my lesson and ask students to comment on those. I also use popcorn questions, which should be answered with one word only. Finally, I strongly encourage, but do not require, students to have their cameras on.

There is a fine line between preserving student privacy and making sure they stay engaged. I encourage “cameras on” by saying hello to students with cameras on individually as they enter the virtual room. I remind them often to feel free to let me know if they can’t have their camera on. Many of my students warn me in advance if they cannot turn on a camera and explain their situation. High expectations combined with compassion and understanding have led to a limited number of black screens. The changes I have made in my courses for e-teaching have also led me to have a different perspective about my students lives. Thinking back on these changes, I told my students that I might keep the pet picture idea, even when we are back in the classroom. It does me as much good as it does them.

The author

Dr. Elise Chandon Ince is an associate professor in the Department of Marketing at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. Her research examines how consumers process marketing material and marketing claims in the area of linguistics (language structure, meaning, phonetics and fluency). Her research has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing Research. She serves as a reviewer for several journals and is on the editorial review board of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.






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