When I started thinking about what I wanted to share in this blog post, I reflected on my ten-years of teaching across resident, online, and the variations in between, and asked myself what facilitated some of the best interactions and courses I had taught over the years. I readily admit I have learned more as to what does not work than I have learned about what does works. However, of all the practices that I have implemented into my classes, the one I routinely share with new faculty and discuss with graduate students teaching for the first time, is the importance of social bonding.
Who does not like to be referred to by their name? There is nothing more empowering or satisfying as to be acknowledged as a person, by name. Decades of research has demonstrated how important social bonding in the classroom can be in fostering engagement and retention. However, social bonding online can be undermined by the very medium itself. Personalizing your communications to a student is obviously an easy tactic online, their name is right there with their assignment, discussion board post, and other forms of communication. However, merely referring to them by name is not enough to foster social bonding in the online environment.
To assist me in personalizing the course for my students, and fostering social bonding, I developed a spreadsheet containing the names of each student and several columns where I place specific information about each student. Much of the information is available from the “introduce yourself” threads, where students share something about themselves, but as is often the case, students share only a bit of information that does not provide much opportunity for personalizing my responses and communications. Subsequently, this is why it is so important to not merely reply to student posts in this forum, but to ask more questions about their interests, their passion, their career goals, and what they hope to obtain from the course. Successfully learning more about students is the first technique I use to complete my spreadsheet. I also make it a point to identify areas of interest or topics that seem to really resonate with each student as I grade their discussions and writing assignments. Equipped with this information, I am then able to personalize my communications to students.
The personalization is not disingenuous; it is not a matter of cutting and pasting something from a spreadsheet. I am able to build on the discussion posts by bridging the content to them as a person, not merely as a student in a class. I recognize and value the experiences they possess, and this information enables me to engage with them. This tactic has also aided me in commenting on essays and research projects.
As I reflect on this technique, I want to offer that I do this not merely because I believe it improves engagement and retention, rather I truly do care to know my students. In all honesty, it is as much for them as it is for me because the more engaged they are in the classroom the more enjoyable the teaching experience is.
Dr. David Makin
Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology
Research Fellow, Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice Research (WS-ICJR) Division of Policing and Security
Washington State University