Here we are at the end of Spring 2020 semester. In September, I attended a FFYE Forum on Fostering Connection and Building a Culture of Care, which prompted me to reflect on student connection, and how to encourage a culture of care in both face-to-face and remote teaching (given I am teaching in both environments this semester).

In my experience, when students feel connected amongst themselves and with me as the teacher, with a culture of care embodied within the classroom, student engagement is higher and active learning is present. The overall teaching and learning experience is positive, as this article discusses. Students respond best when they feel connected to their teacher, and there is great benefit in building connections both directly (eg. emails) and indirectly (eg. pre-recorded content).

So what helps build these connections? Here’s what works for me:

A warm, personable kick-off each week really sets the scene for connection

In my tutorial classes, I begin by checking in on students and ask how they are. I also share how I am. This helps us connect on a human level and remind all of us that we are all experiencing similar concerns and circumstances. This check-in also helps to build upon a culture of care in the classroom: between myself and students by genuinely asking how they are; and amongst students, as it tends to then prompt them to check in on each other.

An ice-breaker is a great way to get to know each other and connect on a human level

From the remote learning experience and attending the FFYE forum, I realised that planning regular ice-breakers or sharing a story (eg. a play activity such as a quick scavenger hunt within the students’ surroundings) throughout the semester, rather than just at the start, can be very powerful. Regular ice-breakers can help students come back to connecting on a human level, and perhaps offer a reminder that we are more than just a face (or a name) on a screen, for my online classes. I think constantly offering students the chance to connect through short activities, not related to the learning material, builds upon that culture of care and connection, and encourages it to become the norm within the classroom.

Setting the scene at the start of each class is key

This includes the learning activities for the week, when I will be coming around and visiting each group (on-campus or virtually, via Zoom Breakout Rooms), time for discussions on group work and so forth. A consistent process seems to help students establish expectations and helps them feel at ease, which in turn seems to encourage students to reach out with questions, request feedback and so forth. This then seems to encourage connection between myself and the students, and amongst students.

Consistent groups each week gives students a sense of familiarity and comfort

By students being in the same group each week, they tend to find their role within their group and connect, getting to know each other and connecting not only about the subject content, but actually genuinely checking in on each other. Retaining the same groups weekly also helps build student confidence to then contribute back to the larger group. When regularly dropping into Zoom Breakout Rooms or walking by groups in the classroom, I often hear conversations amongst students on how they are coping with learning online, struggles they are facing and what they’re up to in their personal lives, as well as active problem-solving for the various learning activities. I observe a genuine culture of care and connection amongst the students, which strengthens throughout the semester, by being with familiar people each week.

Guiding students on ways to connect outside of the classroom also builds on connection

I remind students to post their question in the MS Teams class channel, or to contact me via email or MS Teams message. Again, this reminder of the channels of communication and that they are always open (regardless of if we are meeting in person or remotely) seems to help encourage students to connect with me, and supports a culture of care within my classroom and throughout the semester. Students know they can reach out and get in touch, even if they are in an online class and can’t speak with me before or after class like they can in the face-to-face environment.

Frequently reminding students of the support services available to them is important

Many students are not aware of the various support services available, so reminding students in class and via emails, regularly, helps remind students that there are many support avenues out there for them, and also builds upon that broader culture of care within UTS.

Through my three years of teaching I’ve learnt that building connections plays an important part of the overall student experience. This is how I do it. What was your experience with connection and cultivating a culture of care this semester?

Katherine Newton is a Casual Academic at the UTS Business School and UTS School of Communication. Katherine has written recent blogs ‘Two months in – the pivot to remote tutorials’ and ‘Providing feedback to students in the online learning environment’.  

Main image by Andy Roberts

  • This is a great article thanks Katherine. I totally agree with all the points. One suggestion I would add is that using icebreakers that are not relevant to learning after the first week or so can sometimes not be appreciated by students. The way around it is that you link the icebreaker to the learning that week. This could be as simple as:
    1. In groups, what are 3 things you found tricky this week?
    2. In groups, write a limerick about the course content so far
    3. In groups, write an exam question on what you’ve learnt so far

    What do you think? How do your students take regular icebreakers?

    • Thanks very much Georgina. I really like the idea of ice breakers linked to learning material. Will be sure to trial next semester!

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