Nine easy-to-implement ways to help your now-online students belong

Look at any college recruitment materials and you’ll see a lot about “belonging” — encouraging students at their chosen school to go all-in through clubs, study groups and volunteer opportunities as a way to feel more connected to their classmates. It’s challenging enough when you have a physical campus with dorms and libraries and recreational space to bring people together. But with coronavirus and the need for classes to suddenly go online, the need is even greater — and more challenging.

Here are nine tips to help your on-campus students belong in their new online world:

1.   Normalize the new normal

When they sat together in your class each week, students were more or less on equal footing. Now that they’re living and attending class in different parts of the country, inequalities can quickly become apparent. Some students may be home with younger siblings or other family members who create distractions during online class time. Others may have trouble with spotty or limited internet connections. Some students may be attending class poolside or in a gourmet kitchen, while others are holed up in a hastily converted closet or downstairs corner. Take a few minutes to talk about this new normal and make everyone feel at ease, regardless of their situation and surroundings. Make it clear that regardless of their physical location, the classroom is still the classroom and everyone’s input, insight and opinions are not only welcomed, but encouraged.

2.   Make time for frequent check-ins

Asking your students how they’re doing — inside and outside of school — is crucial right now. Aside from the massive upheaval of leaving school and taking classes online, students may also be dealing with sick family members, job loss (their own or a loved one), food insecurity and so on. Not to mention the overall unease and uncertainty from this situation. Checking in with everyone — either as a group or one-on-one — can make a world of difference and make it easier for students to breathe and focus on the coursework at hand.

3.   Be available

Set up regular “office hours” where students know they can talk with you one-on-one via video. Ask open-ended questions and give your students the space to discuss their challenges and questions. If a student is struggling with navigating this abrupt change in their education, share a story about your struggles to help normalize the situation and let them know that everyone is in the same boat.

4.   Establish ground rules for your new online classroom

There’s a big difference between 25 students sitting together in a classroom and 25 students each logging in on a computer screen from different settings. It’s important to remember that for many students (and many professors), using an online meeting service like Zoom will be a new experience and getting the rhythm and flow of a virtual classroom takes time. Establishing rules can help. Should students “raise their hand” in chat or just come off mute to talk? Is there a format  or time limit for discussion? What about questions — address them as they come up or answer them at the end of the class? If you have a few rules you’re firm on, start there. To get buy-in, encourage the students to be part of the process and add a few class rules of their own.

5.   Provide encouragement

In this new way of holding class remotely, encouragement can go a long way toward helping students feel connected. This extends beyond feedback on tests and coursework, into direct text and email messages as well as one-on-one conversations. With video, it can be difficult to see everyone’s faces and subtleties can get lost. Remember that your facial expression and body language send a message. And something as simple as a shout-out or thumbs-up let students know their thoughts are appreciated — and helps keep them connected.

6.   Expect the unexpected

Instead of having your undivided attention in a classroom setting, students are now surrounded with crying babies, barking dogs, people walking by, cats who like computer keyboards and doorbells signaling deliveries. That’s OK. Letting your class know this is OK will lighten the stress and make their ad-hoc classroom seem safe. A reminder to put yourself on mute when not speaking will help minimize the distractions. 

7.   Maximize the tools you have

For classes on Zoom where it makes sense, use the breakout rooms feature to divide students into smaller groups. Create a Slack channel for each class where students can ask questions, post information and chat with one another (and you) in real time. Give students a voice by using Slack polls to gather feedback — with questions like what’s the best time for a study session this week or which topics are most important to review before our midterm exam? And Google Docs can provide a place to write down upcoming discussion topics, assignments, projects and tests with a built-in mechanism for students to ask questions directly on the document. 

8.   Embrace — and acknowledge — student differences

Different students learn in different ways. Some may be quick to go off mute and speak up in a class discussion, while others may be more quiet or unsure. That’s OK. For those who have trouble jumping in, consider asking specific students for input throughout the conversation. Setting up a class blog or Google Doc can also provide an outlet for discourse. The more each student is engaged, the likelier they are to succeed in your class. And to lessen the distance in distance learning, encourage students to connect outside of class too. Since there’s no dining hall, campus quad or rec center to gather in, encourage students to tap into networking sites, like Facebook, Google Hangouts and Skype. Students supporting one another is another critical layer in giving everyone a sense of belonging. 

9.   Remain positive

Navigating the unknown with a smile on your face and a positive attitude is no small task. But it can immediately put your students at ease and show them that even though everything is different, everything will be OK. Students will take their cue from you. 

Looking for additional help? Our student support resource page has an entire section dedicated to helping students forced online.

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