Three strategies for building healthy student relationships online

Icebreakers and peer-to-peer support are just some of the ways to cultivate a friendly online learning environment where connections between students can flourish

Becca Edwards's avatar
24 Nov 2023
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Students building relationships

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University of Colorado Boulder

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While it’s important for instructors to build relationships with their students, rapport among students can be just as valuable, leading to increased classroom engagement and academic success. The following list aims to support teaching faculty to create a warm and communal online learning environment, reducing students’ feelings of isolation and increasing their motivation to learn.

1. Icebreaker activities

Two-minute talks: ask students to write down questions they’d like to discuss as a group in a chat window or on a Google Doc. These can be prompts like “Which restaurant serves the best pizza in town?” or “Would you rather _____ or _____?” You can set aside two minutes at the beginning or end of class and select students to lead these discussions twice a week.

Student introductions: ask students to introduce themselves at the beginning of a session using the “rename” function in Zoom. Encourage students to add identifiers such as how to pronounce their names phonetically or what pronouns they use or to add a word/phrase that indicates an interest (movie, book, show and so on). You can also do five-minute “fast chat” breakout rooms in small groups with prompts such as:

  • What are three interesting things about yourself that you’d like to share?
  • Locate and share three to five images (photos, drawings and so on) that reflect who you are.
  • What is one thing that you love to do and would like to be able to do better?

Class playlist: have students write their favourite music artists or song titles in the chat or on a separate Google Doc or explore Google’s Jamboard using the recommendations to make a playlist. This brainstorming session can start conversations between students as they share their tastes and suggest music for others. Creating a playlist together is a fun bonding activity and students can assemble it using apps such as Spotify, Amazon Music or YouTube.

2. Content-related activities

Assigning roles in groups: when designing a group activity, you can assign roles to each student to encourage full participation in breakout rooms. Roles could include spokesperson, manager, technician and recorder. You can let students connect with each other while monitoring their progress on the Google Doc. For large classes, create separate Google Docs for groups of up to 50, because the interface slows when more than 50 students are working simultaneously on one document.

Think-pair-share: design a multiple-choice question that might promote dialogue between students with different views on a topic or which might surface misconceptions. Have students think about the question and vote for their answers with a poll. Then put students in breakout room pairs to discuss and debate. After the breakout room debate, give the class another chance to vote on the question. Then allow everyone to share ideas in a large group discussion. This can be very fruitful after the small discussions and debate.

The jigsaw technique: divide the class into several teams using breakout rooms, with each team preparing separate but related assignments. When all team members are prepared,  redivide the class into mixed groups with one member from each team in each group. Each person in the group can then teach the rest of the group what they know and the group finally tackles an assignment that pulls all the pieces of the puzzle together to form the full picture.

3. Creating peer-to-peer support

Study groups: consider assigning students to a study group for the first few weeks of the semester to help them feel supported on a project or homework assignment. In partnership with icebreaker activities, assigned study groups allow students to connect and get to know each other. These informal relationships that instructors facilitate initially can lead to friendships and self-organised study groups later in the semester.

Classroom assistance: faculty can engage learning assistants or technology copilots to help build relationships between the students. Some students might be more willing to work with a peer than to reach out to the professor. These assistants can use Slack, GroupMe, a Google Doc or another platform to manage a side channel of communication that connects students for study groups and can facilitate connections with students who are unresponsive in class or falling behind with coursework.

Building strong connections between peers takes time, so plan on using these practices regularly. Consider giving a rationale for including these activities on the syllabus to indicate a commitment to creating a community in your classroom. Remember to take time at the beginning of the term to provide written and oral instructions for these activities, to ensure that all students can fully participate. Faculty have reported that these kinds of online group activities can increase student participation during other parts of class, which can also reduce a sense of isolation for the instructor. Developing a strong communal learning environment can benefit everyone involved.

Becca Edwards is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

This article originally appeared on Colorado Boulder’s Center for Teaching and Learning website.

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