Skip to Main Content

How to Communicate with Students Online

July 06, 2021 - 3 minute read

Teacher on a virtual call

The online classroom, whether temporary or permanent, has certain characteristics that make it somewhat different from traditional face-to-face interactions. Here are my four tips, based on almost a decade of online teaching and learning.

1. Assume that Anything Written is Public

Remember how we were told to think about our audience when we write? When teachers write to their students, they are also writing to their students' parents, tutors, siblings, and their other teachers. All emails and digital feedback are permanent and shareable. As you write, consider your audience to be the community at large. Any and all stakeholders may at some time see your written or hear your recorded words. While there is great potential for personalized learning experiences using technology, there’s really no such thing as personal communication in schools. Assume that an extended deadline for one student will be shared with others. In such circumstances, consider referring to the context and your reasoning for the extension. 

2. Address the Class as a Group Regularly

I am referring to memo-style agendas or updates. In a class-wide email (be sure to use blind cc to keep emails private, if possible) set the tone first thing in the morning with a greeting, perhaps a theme, the students’ agenda and your expectations. Try to keep it as simple and brief as possible, as text can overwhelm the reader causing them to skim it or skip it all together.  

A favorite approach I take is a newsletter format with pictures and emojis to break up the text and set the emotional mood for the reader. While this may be annoying to older readers such as myself, I am talking about a high-school aged audience here. The emojis can be used as an anchor to important text and may help them to interpret the emotional content of your written word.

For my scheduled communiques I prefer a daily, Monday through Friday, dispatch, since I assume that I have students who may be struggling with motivation or isolation. Like a personal trainer, my students need daily motivation, reminders, and modeling. To aid in this task, consider using the “schedule” function in your email so that you can easily navigate those time-squeezed days. Learn how to use this function on days when you don’t need it, so that you’ll be ready when you do. Note that post-secondary may only require a weekly schedule, while elementary-aged students may need twice daily.

3. Give Feedback to Individual Students 

Useful, timely feedback is essential for student motivation and content mastery. Please do not wait for summative assessments to give feedback. Guidance is needed early on in the learning process. Like trying to steer a large ship, corrections made early on can prevent major setbacks. Foundational assignments should be given more careful feedback than later assignments. You may find later assignments will need less correction, if you’ve been clear with the earlier work. In short, pay close attention to students’ initial assignments, address misunderstandings, model expectations, and remind them of what you’re looking for to gain higher quality work. Note: This does not mean that your feedback has to be lengthy. Mention what they did well, tell them what else you are looking for, but choose what you want them to address. If a student’s work is particularly poor, prioritize the areas that they need to work on, and withhold some of that feedback for other assignments.

4. Respond to All Prompts from Individual Students (Usually Twice)

When a student has gone to the trouble to send you a question or comment be sure to respond to them directly and then address the issue for the entire class.

For example, if a student has a question about an assignment, answer their question as promptly as possible, but follow up by sending out a class-wide memo that perhaps restates the question and then answers it. In most cases, do not mention the student by name. This follow-up serves an important function that is often lacking in the online classroom: the benefit of hearing other students’ questions and their answers. If you are concerned that this follow up will take extra time, consider it as an investment of time, preventing you from having to answer that same question individually again and again.

To summarize, address the group regularly to maintain the group progress, give individual feedback on work, respond to any inquiries from students, and at all times remember that you are an agent of the school and any communications are public communications.

Linda Lopez is a high school mathematics teacher leader in the high desert and currently a student in Concordia’s Ed.D. Leadership program.

Back to top