Best Practices for Communicating With Students in Online Classes

by Kristina Wilson


A recent SPS student satisfaction study asked students to identify ways their academic program could be enhanced. Numerous students suggested making improvements to instructor-student communication and engagement.

I know what you’re thinking. Communication should be easy! With digital tools to connect students and instructors, shouldn’t this come naturally?

Actually, communication with students in online classes needs to be frequent, intentional, and multifaceted. As an online instructor, you will need to actively combat distance and silence to make meaningful connections with your students.

Read on to discover tools and strategies that can make the process easier.

Make sure your contact information and availability are clear.

Provide your e-mail address in a prominent location that students can access quickly, like an About the Instructor page.

Most students will try to contact you via your Northwestern e-mail address, but if you have a personal or work e-mail address that you check more frequently, you can provide that as well. There are also ways to have your Northwestern e-mail forwarded to your personal or work address, so you’re never at risk of missing a message.

If you are co-teaching, make sure to include a note about when students should contact both of you or just one of you.

Set expectations for how quickly you will respond to e-mail. Most faculty find 48 hours (and longer on holidays) a reasonable amount of time. Others have more robust policies, such as, “I will respond to your e-mail as quickly as I am able, often within a few hours. However, please allow up to 48 hours for me to respond.”

You may also consider sharing a phone number with students. If you share your office phone number, let students know what hours you will be available. If you share your personal phone number, let students know how they can set up a phone call with you, what kind of emergency merits a text message, or other policies.

Social media is also a great way to connect with students. If you are comfortable doing so, share your Twitter handle or LinkedIn URL, along with a little context. Consider: “Follow my Twitter account for the latest news in the field,” or “I welcome connecting with students on LinkedIn after the course has ended.”

Provide opportunities for synchronous interaction.

Although it is our policy not to mandate synchronous sessions in order to meet the needs of working adults, you may find that offering a variety of different optional sessions can help increase engagement in your class. Rather than focusing on lecture delivery, try to make a connection. Using Blue Jeans, you can record your session for students who aren’t able to attend.

  • Bookend sync sessions: Many faculty wonder how to use sync sessions via Blue Jeans in their class. An introduction session in the first week is common, to answer student questions about the course structure and syllabus and to introduce yourselves. In the same category, you’ll find the course wrap-up session, where you address questions and concerns about final projects or exams.
  • Ad-hoc sync sessions: You can also hold sync sessions throughout the quarter, based on student need or interest. For example, if students are particularly interested in the week’s topic, you could hold a deep dive session to elaborate. If students appear to be struggling with the week’s topic, you could hold a pinch point session to help clarify.
  • Guest speaker: You might also decide to bring a guest speaker into your class to talk about best practices in the field or relate their professional experience. While you interview your guest, students will get to see and hear you, too!
  • Office hours: Make yourself available at a recurring time each week, when students can drop into your Blue Jeans meeting if they have a quick question. You could also use a scheduling tool like Doodle or Calendly so that students could select times.

Get active in the discussions.

There’s a good chance that you’ve got discussion boards in your class, where you prompt students to tackle ethical questions and case studies, talk through ideas for assignments, and share resources. So why not use them to get interactive?

  • Interject: Rather than let students do all of the talking, jump in! Ask guiding questions, share resources, and acknowledge excellent contributions.
  • Ongoing discussions: Add a few ongoing discussions to your class that students can use throughout the quarter. You could use a Q&A or Ask the Instructor forum to gather and respond to course questions publicly. Likewise, you could set up a Cafe or Water Cooler forum to encourage discussion that’s not strictly related to the content for each week, such as current events and job postings.
  • Bookend discussions: Don’t forget to build in discussions to start and end your course. Quality Matters requires that “Learners are asked to introduce themselves to the class,” so you should begin with an introductions discussion. Toward the end of the class, you could use a discussion forum to ask students to reflect on their experience in the class and provide feedback on resources, pacing, structure, and engagement.

Provide personal, meaningful assignment feedback.

When students turn in assignments, they expect to see more than a score or a few boxes checked on a rubric. Assignment feedback can be a great way to show your personality and your investment in your students’ progress.

  • Set clear expectations: Quality Matters asks that “the instructor’s plan for classroom response time and feedback on assignments is clearly stated.” Let students know what kind of feedback you’ll be providing and when they will hear back from you. Then deliver!
  • Robust written feedback: While it can save time to develop template for feedback, detailed, constructive feedback is key to making a connection with your students. Check out the April 2017 Online Learning Webinar for a few other feedback tips and tricks.
  • Record screencast feedback: For longer written assignments, you could try using screencasting software like Screencast-O-Matic or Camtasia to review your comments. Then students could not only hear your voice, but also hear a little bit about the thought process behind your notes.

Send regular, creative announcements.

Students will expect you to check in with the class frequently via announcements, providing reminders of upcoming activities and deadlines. But you can exceed expectations by infusing your announcements with creative content.

You could try:

  • Share current events: Did something exciting happen in the news this week, relevant to your course? Share a link to a web article or video and ask students to weigh in (optionally, of course).
  • Post job listings: There’s a good chance that your students are looking to switch careers or move up the ladder in their current field. If you see job postings that use the skills students are developing in the class, it will help students realize the value of the competencies they are building and determine what other similar skills employers are looking for.
  • Visual wrap-up: Anyone can write a summary, but you could also take the opportunity to build a visual wrap-up using graphic design software like Canva or Piktochart. Just don’t forget to provide alt-text! Check out the May 2017 Online Learning Webinar to learn more.

Develop audio or video content that shows your personality.

While it can be time-consuming to develop rich media, it can go a long way in improving your relationship with students. Hearing your voice or seeing your voice helps reinforce that, indeed, you are a real person!

Here are a few ideas for media that you can deploy in your course using just your laptop or phone’s recording capabilities.

  • Introduce yourself: Create a video or audio recording where you talk about you! Quality Matters requests that all instructors have a self-introduction (Standard 1.8), so why not talk through your credentials and experience and break the silence in Module 1?
  • Weekly wrap-up podcasts or webcam videos: What did your students work on this week? Were you impressed with their discussion? Can you provide broad feedback about how students performed on a specific assignment?
  • Professional experience: Do you have anecdotes from the field that will supplement the week’s critical resources? Why not create a short audio or video recording that shares your experience?
  • Alumni or professional interview: Can you conduct an interview with an alumni or professional in the field? In addition to being a valuable resource for your students, this can help convey your personality too.

Start a conversation around accessibility.

Make sure that your course includes an accessibility statement and uses inclusive language. If students with disabilities want to request accommodations, it should be clear that you are eager to have a conversation with them about it! Quality Matters agrees, and requires that your course “provides guidance on how to obtain accommodation.”


Are you looking to increase engagement and improve communication in your online class? If you would like additional guidance, please contact your Learning Designer or Instructional Technologist. We would be pleased to assist you!


8 responses to “Best Practices for Communicating With Students in Online Classes

  1. Students will remain engaged if Instructor makes the course material exciting and Interactive. Example lots of interactive video from EDpuzzle.

  2. Group discussions can also be carried out in order to facilitate better learning opportunity and smooth communication process with students.

  3. Students will remain engaged if they constantly feel supported by their teacher and mentored through their learning journey

  4. Students will remain engaged, if the teacher remains available and willing to mentor and assist

  5. These are some valuable tips to consider while considering online coaching, not only as a career, but also as a study aid. These small tips make various e-learning portals like transtutors , myassignmenthelp such an important websites to look for.

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