Building relationships with online students can be challenging for many reasons. Aside from the lack of face-to-face interaction, faculty and advisors may already have multiple responsibilities and roles within an institution, limiting the time they can invest in relationship-building. Moreover, cultural differences in communication styles influence how rapport is developed and adapting to them can be challenging. Still, some students may not realize the extent to which they must be self-directed in the learning process, which can fuel negative feelings when expectations are not aligned with reality. In person, faculty and advisors use body language to develop rapport (e.g. smile, eye contact, handshake). In online learning, however, that direct contact doesn’t exist. So how can we compensate for the distance that separates us from our students? What exactly must we do to build relationships at a distance?

In my experience as a distance advisor, I have noticed 5 considerations that are particularly important to interacting with students at a distance. Here are some factors worthy of consideration:

1. Word Choice – Words are the building blocks of communication. The importance of constructing clear and unambiguous messages (verbal and written) goes without saying; however, words also have a suggestive element to them: connotation. Replacing words like confused, frustrated, and angry with words like curious, concerned, and passionate transforms negative connotation into positive connotation. When used consistently, we can formulate statements that accentuate students’ positive intentions, which helps to build rapport and to empathize with students rather than blame or criticize them. Additionally, we can avoid using punitive language by replacing it with positive language. For example, instead of saying “If you do not turn your assignment on time, you will lose points” we can say “Full credit will be given to assignments that are submitted on time” – when these messages are communicated regularly, they convey a helping attitude rather than a punitive one.

2. Vocal QualitiesHow we say something can be more important than what we say. When communicating over the phone, vocal qualities are analogous to body language; they can communicate more information than your words. The tone, rate, pitch, and volume of one’s statements influence how one interprets the message. Although written communication does not involve vocalizations, it certainly has tone. In my experience, connotation and emoticons 🙂 influence the tone of written communication.

3. Sequence – The order in which you attend to concerns is another important element to communicating at a distance. When emotions are running high, attend to the feelings behind the words first, the content of one’s words second. For example, let’s say a discouraged student contacts you after receiving a non-passing grade and says

I tried my hardest but failed. HOW WILL THIS AFFECT ME!!!? 🙁

What kind of emotions do you think this written message contains? How might this sound if the student vocalized this over the phone? Prior to informing the student of the consequences and options, acknowledge the student’s emotion and offer a message that conveys a positive connotation (e.g. You seem very nervous. I can tell your education is very important to you)

4. Humor – When we use humor, we create a casual conversation style, which can make students feel like they are speaking with a friend rather than a stranger.  Also, using humor is a sign that individuals can be themselves; they can be genuine.  Sharing a laugh with someone can build rapport and promote connection.

5. Observation – Astute observation skills are essential for interpersonal communication. We can learn a lot about building relationships when we pay attention to students’ word choice, vocal qualities, sequence, and use of humor to determine how we can respond in the most helpful manner. For example, student’s words may demonstrate negative or positive connotation; their vocal qualities may suggest anxiety, anger, or excitement; students may break the typical sequence of a conversation, choosing to bypass customary greetings in order to jump right into their concerns;  students may be “all business” as they speak with you or they may be willing to laugh or share a humorous story with you. Observe what students do, and you will learn their communication style so that you can adapt yours to mirror the students’ preferences and needs. That is of course, if you care to…some will not.

Perhaps the most important tip is to be genuine; be yourself. Your students will feel connected to the institution when they feel connected to you. Building strong working relationships with students is an important part of a fulfilling educational experience.