For the modern student, there are no shortage of responsibilities to juggle: academic, professional, personal and social concerns can all be top of mind during college. Instructors can help by creating a classroom environment where all students can thrive. But how will you get to know your students? How will you create personal connections with them? How will you ensure your course is tailored to their needs? Here are 11 ways to get started.

1. Start every class with an icebreaker or informal check-in: As students enter the classroom, consider displaying a slide with a personal question: “What is your favorite class you’ve taken so far?” or “What’s one question you have for me today?” This is a great way to build more casual connections and get students interacting before the lesson begins. Michelle Miller, professor of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University, encourages students to doodle on their virtual whiteboards together.

2. Play music as students arrive: Playing music adds levity, particularly during midterms or finals. It also gives students a sense of who you are outside of academic life. Take it a step further by asking for song suggestions for your next class.

3. Give students insights into what makes you tick: Sharing short stories about your family, hobbies or weekend experiences, or showing photos of your pet on-screen, helps students feel more comfortable. It can also make students more likely to reach out when they need help.

4. Make sure your students understand the standards of your course: Maintaining high standards for your students helps encourage active engagement. While it’s important to be flexible while teaching to appeal to the needs of all learners, course standards can be empathetic while still maintaining academic rigor.

5. Put time into thoughtful feedback: Giving personalized feedback beyond a letter grade can help build rapport. Results from our new student survey (view the full report here) show that 72 percent of students who agree with the statement, “My instructors provide me with timely, helpful feedback to ensure I am successful academically,” also agree that they’re more engaged and motivated in their coursework in and out of class.

6. Ensure assignment instructions are clear: Walk through assignment details, how to submit assignments, when they’re due and what resources are available to ensure successful completion. You could also share the criteria or rubric that will be used to assess student work.

7. Provide multiple means of engagement: Some students love a good debate. Others prefer to share their thoughts through online discussions. Offering more than one option ensures all students feel engaged in your course. Take it a step further by asking students to co-design assessments and for input on learning activities. You can also encourage individuals to take the lead in a group discussion to build a sense of ownership over their own learning.

8. Share additional resources: Share real-world case studies, short videos and other support materials to add variety and reinforce learning outside of class. It helps students relate course material to what’s happening around them and has the potential to make them more engaged by connecting it to their interests outside of class.

9. Be inclusive of different circumstances and abilities: Accommodate all learners by offering synchronous and asynchronous assignments and activities to give them the flexibility they need. Consider providing closed captions of lecture recordings and verbal descriptions of any images, charts or visuals to lower obstacles to learning.

Thoughtful course design can help students who come from different cultures or socio-economic backgrounds feel equally included. When running collaborative activities, be sure to assign students from all backgrounds to different groups to ensure no one gets left out. Consider setting aside a portion of your lecture or tutorial time for group work, being mindful of students’ caretaking, employment or connectivity concerns outside of the classroom.

10. Create a syllabus that is as diverse as the students in your classroom: Discussions and activities should reflect the makeup of students in your classroom. Consider diversifying your syllabus or asking students to share resources they find online that connect with course content. 

The purpose of a syllabus is to give students a roadmap of what will be expected of them in your course, where to seek support and what students should learn by the end of your course. Our downloadable simple syllabus template includes these sections and information—which will make your course syllabus easier to read.

11. Acknowledge barriers to inclusion: Not all students have access to reliable Internet or quiet study spaces. Try offering flexible alternatives for students to access materials online, like sharing PDFs instead of videos that require more bandwidth.

When building a teaching and learning community, maintaining feelings of community and connection set the foundation for effective learning. Creating flexible and empathetic learning environments help to set students up for academic success. While the definition of success looks different for every student, feeling part of a vibrant community will help them get there.

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