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5 ways to build positive relationships in the online classroom

5 ways to build positive relationships in the online classroom

by Maggie Broderick
December 10, 2015

With online learning proliferating in the 21st century, how can instructors and students create and maintain positive relationships that will enrich the online learning experience for everyone involved?

Check out these 5 helpful tips for both instructors and students to create a snowball effect of engaging and motivating online classroom interactions.


Online learning has taken off in the past decade, with enrollments surging at all levels and in all areas of instruction. Gone are the days when instructors and students would only conduct class at a scheduled time and in person at the local university. Today’s instructors and students are connected world-wide, with 24/7 access to the online classroom. Some students are enrolled in blended/hybrid courses, while others engage with the coursework 100% online. The incredibly convenient and ground-breaking technological advances of the online classroom have emerged along with a paradigm shift in how we all communicate and build relationships. We can engage at the click of a button from almost any place and at any time of day. No matter what type of classroom one finds oneself in, building positive and ongoing relationships between instructors and students is key. These positive relationships spark student interest, keep the momentum going during the course, and can foster long-term networking possibilities.

In the face-to-face classrooms that were the only option in the past, teachers and students could rely on various interpersonal skills to build positive relationships in the classroom. For example, a student with a question about the course could approach the instructor personally immediately after class and receive helpful advice. Instructors could check for understanding and overall classroom climate by using natural non-verbal cues, such as students’ body language, facial expressions, and so forth. Planning some engaging opening activities for each lesson could serve to draw in students and motivate them to connect with the course content and with each other. Face-to-face office hours for instructors were also commonplace, and students could network with their peers to form study groups and work collaboratively.

The online environment is a bit different. Even when multimedia is used, today’s online learning experiences are mostly text-based and asynchronous. The non-verbal cues and natural ways of establishing community that humans have relied on for millennia are not present. Instead, instructors and students must work in new ways to establish those all-important positive relationships. Here are a few tips for both instructors and students:

  1. Instructors can set a positive and engaging tone by posting fun and informative ice-breakers and “starters.” Set up a specific area of the course for these types of activities, and post a few fun topics every now and then. For example, you might ask the students which historical figure they would most like to have dinner with or where they would most like to travel in the world.
  2. Students can engage with both instructors and their peers via friendly and informative emails. As an instructor, I am always delighted when a student discovers something interesting that is related to our course content and sends me an email about it. This shows initiative, builds relationships, and keeps the momentum going for both instructor and student.
  3. Both instructors and students can find common ground by taking a few extra moments at the beginning of the course to truly get to know one another. This is sometimes extremely easy and natural to do. For example, when my students post about hobbies that we happen to share in their introductions, I always engage with them excitedly about that. When that connection between the instructor and the student isn’t as obvious, we can be a bit creative in building the relationship. For example, perhaps my husband or my brother-in-law shares the student’s hobby or interest. Simply noting that in a positive and engaging way can go a long way to finding common ground.
  4. Both instructors and students should take the time to engage regularly within the course, ideally almost daily. Instead of completing all discussion board posts in one day, try spreading the initial posts and replies out throughout the entire week. This helps with the continuity, natural exchange, and relationship building that would exist in an in-person conversation.
  5. Students can continue networking beyond the course with both the instructor and their fellow students. Some of my students have set up their own message boards or email lists in which they collaborate both during and after the course. Many students have continued to keep in touch with me after the course is over, both as a professional reference and mentor. One nice way to continue networking beyond the course is on LinkedIn.

Just trying out a few of these tips can get the ball rolling and truly create a snowball effect in the online classroom.

Once those positive interactions and relationships begin to take shape, they continue to grow, with more and more classroom participants adding to that overall positive and engaging feel. Even students who might have felt like outsiders at the beginning of the course are often drawn in once that positive environment starts to take shape.

You can make the online learning experience come to life for both instructors and students by trying out a few of these tips and then keep that momentum going throughout the online course and beyond!