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Friday, August 07, 2020

Building a Rapport With Your Students -- Preparing for Fall Teaching in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, or Remote Courses

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the other posts in the series, see here and for the  five step approach that I am using, see here.  This post and other recent posts focus on the third step—building connections and community in our physically distanced, remote, or hybrid courses.

 In my last post, I discussed this importance of building connections and community in our courses this fall.  According to the community of inquiry model, if we want to design an effective learning environment, we should consider three types of interaction—(1) how students interact with the material, (2) how they interact with us, and (3) how they interact with each other.  This post will focus on second element, or how students interact with us.  It will be an adjustment for sure, but even if our students are behind masks or a video screen, there are a number of things we can try to build meaningful connections with them. 

Welcome Videos:  Record a short video of yourself to introduce yourself to your students.  Make it fun.  Show your kids, your pets, whatever!  Let them see you as a person rather than just the teacher behind the mask at the front of the room.  You might also talk about what makes the course important/relevant/fun and how they can succeed in it.  Here’s a good example of a script for this sort of video.  You might also have students record short videos of themselves in the first week of class.  You can use your learning management system or a tool like Flipgrid to do this.  You might ask them to give their name, their hometown, and a fun fact about themselves.  Or you can tie it into the course content.  If you teach Civil Procedure, for example, you might style the welcome video as a chance for them explain their citizenship for subject-matter jurisdiction purposes.  You learn a lot about someone by hearing about where they intend to remain indefinitely and why!  Encourage the students to have fun with the videos and then make them all accessible to the whole class, so they can get to know each other a bit better.  

Learn their names quickly.  Try to learn every student’s name, ideally in the first week of class.  Your learning management system may have photographs of the students in your classes.  Our tech team here has used these photographs to create a matching game that professors can use to quiz themselves on your students’ names, but you can just study the photographs as well.  In larger in-person classes, consider having them use name tents for a few weeks.

Get to know them personally.  It will be harder to get to know students when they are behind a mask or screen, so you will have to be more deliberate about making these personal connections.  Consider setting up Zoom coffee dates with individual students in the first few weeks of the semester or with small groups of students if you are teaching larger classes.  You can also ask students to fill out a Google Form at the start of the semester that asks a whole host of information about their background, why they came to law school, and their broader interests.  In your later communications with them, try to refer back to things you know about them from these more personal meetings.  

Use Video Assignments Where Possible.  I’ve talked before about the pre-class assignments my Civil Procedure students do in Google Docs.  This semester, I’m going to make some of these assignments video assignments instead so I can see students without masks on and get to know their personalities a bit better.  My learning management system allows video assignments, but I think I’m going to use Flipgrid this fall­­—its interface is more personal and frankly fun, and it seems like a better platform if your goal is to build connections.  In these videos, you might ask them to summarize a key point of law from the assigned reading or give a hypothetical client advice based on the reading.  You might also ask for their personal views on the reading—i.e., do they think the court got it right?  why or why not?

Record periodic videos yourself.  If you get a few questions from students on the same point, you might record a brief video clarifying the point and send it out to your students.  Especially if you are teaching in a physically distanced classroom this fall, these videos could be a good opportunity for your students to see you without your mask on.  Make these videos a little more personal and engaging than you might in a normal semester. 

Make office hours more inviting.  I don’t know about you, but my office hours aren’t typically the most popular events.  I’ll sit in my office for a few hours, and maybe one or two students will stop by, at least until we get a few weeks out from exams.  This semester, I am going to work harder to get students to attend.  I’m renaming them “student hours” based on recommendations suggesting that some students (especially first-generation students) may not know the purpose of office hours, and I plan to regularly encourage students in my classes to attend.  When students do attend, I will make a special effort to get to know them personally.  Logistically, office hours are pretty easy to hold in Zoom—just enable your personal waiting room, and admit students one-by-one in the order in which they arrived in the room.  I may also hold some communal office hour sessions that function more like review sessions at the end of different units, so students can have more opportunities to interact with each other.      

Hold optional events outside of class.  A few times during the semester, you might hold an optional event related to the course.  For example, you can invite them to read a few chapters of a book related to the course or send out a shorter article or video, and then meet one evening on Zoom (or even physically distanced in your backyard or on campus) to discuss.  You might also hold an optional session to talk about course content in the news.  If you teach a business related course, you might talk about what the heck happened at WeWork.  If you teach Civil Procedure, you might talk about the oral argument in the Ford personal jurisdiction case that will be argued in October.  The goal here would be to bring together a smaller group in a less formal setting.  If you are teaching in a physically distanced class where everyone is wearing masks, you might hold these smaller sessions over Zoom so people can see each other without masks on.

Notice positive contributions.  Send students a personal email when they have a good contribution in class, a discussion board, or an assignment.  Keep track of who has received emails, and see if you can send at least one or two emails to every student during the semester. 

Humanize your tech.  We will likely be using technology a lot more this semester, but the default interfaces can feel really impersonal.  I’m going to make my Blackboard course page and my slides more human and interesting this semester.  In your learning management system, consider adding your own profile picture and/or adding images in your posts (here are directions -- go down to “add images in the editor”).  In PowerPoint, trade the black-on-white slides for slide templates that are a bit more engaging.  You might also add pictures, videos, etc. to text-filled slides.  It’s a little thing, but the world already feels impersonal enough right now without our tech choices adding to it.

Embrace imperfections.  New online teachers often have a desire to make their class sessions perfect. I was definitely guilty of this in the spring.  When I recorded asynchronous videos, for example, I would keep re-recording them until I could get a take without any stumbles or other issues.  But experts in online pedagogy say that stumbles help personalize online courses.  Students don’t necessarily want the Coursera version of a law school course.  They want to see their professor as a real person and that means seeing the version of the video where your kid interrupted your recording or where you momentarily  forgot what you were going to say.   This spring, my students had many laughs at the “cloffice” (i.e., closet/office) where I hid from my kids during our class sessions, and I think it helped bring humor to the class in a way that a perfect Zoom background would not have. 

I’d love your suggestions as well – feel free to post other ideas in the comments.  In my next post, I’ll talk about ways to connect students with each other this fall. 

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 7, 2020 at 06:45 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


These posts have been really fantastic. Thank you for taking the time to think all of these points through and for sharing them with us!

Posted by: Desiree | Aug 9, 2020 6:02:11 AM

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