Online classes are no longer nice-to-haves: they’ve become a necessity due to a pandemic that shows no sign of slowing down. Public health concerns have caused schools like the University of Southern California and Hampton University to pivot to online course delivery after announcing they would go fully face-to-face for the fall semester. Others like Harvard University have maintained that they will provide an online-only course solution for the upcoming term.

Though there will likely be few in-person interactions in the upcoming semester, it’s still possible to maintain communication online in a manner that matches (or even exceeds) that of your face-to-face course. Considering ways to leverage platforms and tools to reduce student anxiety around the first week of class is a must—and doing so will help strengthen feedback loops via formal and informal channels.

Get to know academic and non-academic backgrounds

The fall semester is likely the first time that many—returning and new students—will begin learning online. For incoming freshmen, the transition from high school to university may be even more daunting without seeing peers or faculty face to face. Our recent student survey results illustrate how students gave low grades to their experience with online courses from the spring: 86 percent miss socializing with other students and 53 percent no longer had regular access to faculty. The following are some tactics to help you get to know your students’ histories and educational journeys in formal and informal ways.

1. Learning names upfront leaves a good first impression

Names are the foundation of our identities. Especially with blended and online classes set to characterize the upcoming school year, it’s essential to spend time prior to the first day of class learning as many names as possible. In a study of a large undergraduate biology class, it was found that instructors’ ability to remember and call students by their names led to students feeling more valued, more invested in the course and helped them feel more comfortable seeking help from their professor. Most importantly, the findings showed that students felt as if their instructor truly cared for them—an empathetic mindset that needs to characterize the fall semester.

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Learning names in a large introductory course can be a struggle—but photos can help put a face to a name. Ask students to upload a photo of themselves to your learning management system (LMS) such as Canvas or a teaching platform like Google Classroom before the first day of class, if they are comfortable doing so. From here, spend some time reviewing your course roster before and after class. Learning names and prioritizing class introductions are even more important for teaching assistants (TAs) who are around students in smaller, more manageable group sizes of 20–30.

2. Building rapport with students starts with icebreakers

Once you learn most students’ names—and after a self-introduction—consider facilitating icebreaker activities to help you, your TAs and your students get to know one another’s interests and life experiences. Icebreakers can help new students feel comfortable participating in your class later on and can be the first step in identifying common themes among learners.

As the start of a new class approaches, prepare these fun activities to help new students acclimate to your hybrid or online course. Some sample icebreaker activities include having students list their greatest hopes and fears for the upcoming school year or having students describe a recent photo in their camera roll and the story behind it. Both icebreakers work well through your LMS or a discussion board where students can post media and text on their own time.

3. Diagnostic assessments personalize your classroom environment

Diagnostic exercises are usually administered at the beginning of a new unit and indicate students’ pre-existing knowledge of a topic. These activities highlight comprehension gaps and provide a roadmap for how you may want to approach your lesson and online course moving forward. Diagnostics can also help you understand what your students want to get out of your course. Surveys or quizzes administered online or in-person provide a feasible way to collect students’ responses. Regardless of the medium you choose, you can easily gauge their level of interest, expectations, current knowledge and what areas of the subject they previously struggled with through a few simple questions.

Ensure students can access formal 1:1 support

You are likely one of the biggest academic support systems for students. Without face-to-face classes, students are missing out on valuable interactions—and the statistics show for it. Our student survey found that 85 percent miss face-to-face interaction with faculty and in turn, 76 percent of these students saw online instruction as worse than in-person classes. Office hours and effective use of your LMS can provide an outlet for students to voice their concerns around course content and requirements in a one-to-one setting.

1. Office hours allow for personalized support

With heightened responsibilities around home life, employment and caretaking—not to mention school work—students will appreciate having a space for them to talk to you about academic or personal information. For a synchronous class, consider a 1:1 Zoom meeting or live streamed office hours in Top Hat. In advance of your virtual office hours, you can start a discussion thread in Top Hat and invite students to input questions. When you start the live video conference, launch your discussion forum, which will aggregate all questions into a list (more information can be found here). It’s equally important to consider that not all students will be able to make your live streamed office hours due to additional commitments with work and home life. Keep in mind asynchronous workarounds such as email or a private discussion board in order to be mindful of students’ lives outside of your classroom environment.

2. Announcements in your LMS help

Your LMS likely houses administrative data and important announcements around due dates, upcoming assignments and more. Consider leveraging the announcements feature of your LMS to share important academic information and resources to help set students up for success. Those who weren’t able to attend a live class will also benefit from additional course information stored in a place they are likely familiar with and use on a daily basis. Sync your LMS with Top Hat to house all performance metrics—which provide valuable student insights—under one roof. Learn how Christina Alevras, Biology Instructor at the University of Saint Joseph, helped boost students’ knowledge retention by using Top Hat on top of her LMS.

Adopt communication channels that allow for informal conversations

Informal channels can act as familiar communication infrastructure for students and may incentivize them to share what’s on their minds in an environment that is second nature to them. Sometimes the best conversations are spontaneous. Social media and Top Hat can help facilitate those informal, spur-of-the-moment interactions between you and your students.

1. Social media is familiar ground for most

Social media is now a normal part of life for today’s Generation Z learners—especially in the classroom. Strategic social media use helps turn a notorious distraction into an engaging learning experience through active learning methods. Consider having TAs set up a Twitter hashtag for your course and reward students for responding to course questions and/or replying to one another. This practice incentivizes students to contribute to class discussions in exchange for participation points while shy students are given an opportunity to excel as well.

2. Top Hat’s discussions lead to personalized student insights

Discussion forums allow students to seek clarification on course material anytime during and outside of class. In Top Hat, live lectures may be complemented with discussion questions to test students’ comprehension throughout. Those who weren’t able to attend class can also participate in discussion questions after the fact—ensuring the learning experience for students is accessible regardless of outside commitments. Students are rewarded with points for participating, motivating them to digest and apply content in each class. A Weekly Course Report, delivered to your inbox each week, pinpoints the students who struggled and excelled that particular week. From here, you are given an opportunity to email those in need of help, ensuring you set them up for success and ultimately, strengthening your connection with at-risk students.