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Instructor Relationships with Students in Online Courses

written by: James Ballou•edited by: Heather Marie Kosur•updated: 9/10/2010

Online teaching is never more rewarding than when a student succeeds in part due to the work an instructor has done with the student. Such results are not uncommon but do require a relationship. Building relationships when teaching an online course pays significant dividends.

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    Relationships Are Not Taboo

    One of the aspects of online teaching that makes it rewarding is also an important factor in making online instruction effective: relationships. The students with whom I have forged important relationships have not always earned the highest academic scores but have learned to apply the information in a meaningful way. These students have also gained an understanding of the importance of developing collegial relationships and the effect that these affiliations can have. Some instructors reflexively recoil from the idea of developing relationships citing the importance of impartiality and fraternization but those are not the types of relationships that I mean. The bonds that I am talking about are primarily academic though there are some personal traits that facilitate the teaching of an online course. Building relationships when teaching an online course is an important part of being an online instructor.

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    Take an Interest

    Instructors should take an interest in whether their students pass or fail the course. As a part of this relationship, the instructor should take note of students that are no longer participating, when attendance decreases, or when a student’s performance has declined. Instructors will find that asking about a student’s well being and taking a bit of interest in students in these situations will result in the development of a relationship. In some cases, students will open up and tell the instructor about a number of problems that the instructor can do nothing about. That’s okay.

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    Sharing Experiences

    When instructors share their own experiences, it also helps to strengthen the association. Instructors should help students understand that the experiences of the student are not all that different from what the instructor went through. I find that self-deprecating humor is often very effective and helps put my students at ease. When they see my weaknesses and failings, they can feel buoyed up and gain confidence that they can do what I did.

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    Instructor Traits

    Interacting with students should be authentic. Sometimes instructors make the mistake of trying to be what an instructor should be. There is no definition other than the instructor should be who he or she is. Share your background and experience but don’t try to impress your students. When instructors go out of their way to share all of their qualifications, it seems odd and students can generally tell. Your bio should be brief enough to give your students confidence but brief enough to allow you to discuss additional experience during the class.

    Additional traits that help in building relationships when teaching an online course include being personable and approachable. When students contact you for help, thank them for taking the time to ask questions. Help the students feel that the issues they bring to your attention are important because it helps to assure that students will ask more questions. As you formulate your responses for questions and for assignment feedback, remember to be careful with your wording. It is very easy for a misunderstanding to occur with the written word, so take some time to assure that your words will have the desired effect.

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    Make the Effort

    Making a conscious effort to be a good instructor is often a simple matter of applying the golden rule. However, when teaching an online class the application of that rule must be proactive. Think about how you would want to be treated and what information you would like to get from your instructor. Above all, work to cultivate real relationships, and you will see an improvement in student performance. Thus, building relationships when teaching an online course is beneficial for both teacher and student.