Connecting with students in an online class has a huge impact on creating an inclusive learning environment.

Here are 6 ways you can improve your connection with students in your online course:

  1. Using inclusive language
  2. Applying emotional intelligence
  3. Making yourself human
  4. Encouraging open communication
  5. Being consistent
  6. Using practical surveys to gather feedback and information

Using inclusive language

Consider how you use inclusive language in all communications of the online course. Whether it’s during a live discussion, making test questions, and even syllabus language – be inclusive at all times.

  • Don’t use stereotypes and don’t make assumptions. 
  • Focus on their strengths and abilities instead of aspects that are perceivable negatives.
  • Be sensitive to their backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences.
  • Stay up to date on acceptable inclusive terminology and avoid using slang.
    • While some people use slang with innocent intentions, they may not realize that the root meaning of the expression is offensive to others. You’ve probably heard the two slang expressions below, but they’re rooted in racism and mockery of marginalized groups:
      • “Peanut gallery”  
      • “Long time no see” 
  • Avoid generalizing
    • Don’t use: “You guys should complete the exam by Thursday.”
    •  Use: “Everyone should complete the exam by Thursday.”


Applying emotional intelligence 

Emotional intelligence is essential for faculty to use in online classes because it can help improve communication, build interpersonal relationships, and manage conflict. And while many believe that it’s something you just have or don’t have, emotional intelligence can be learned and developed over time.

Here are 5 ways you can improve emotional intelligence in online class:

  1. Be aware of your emotions and how you respond
  2. Embrace healthy conflict
  3. Use clear communication and active listening
  4. Put yourself in their shoes
  5. Practice it and accept that you’ll make mistakes


Making yourself human

Knowing your audience

Truly connecting with students in an online class involves understanding who they are.

(In the last section of this article, we provide a list of sample questions you can ask your students in an introduction survey)

Using their preferred name

Learning a student’s preferred name isn’t just a generic icebreaker at the start of the course; it’s an opportunity to start building a genuine connection and trust.

At the start of the online course, ask students to send you their preferred name and how to pronounce it along with their pronoun. There are several ways to collect this such as general open discussions during class, low-stakes quiz questions, surveys, chat, and forums in the LMS.

Learning their background

Show your students that you’re interested in learning about them and what makes them who they are.

Ask questions about their background, experiences, hobbies, perspectives, interests, and learning styles. This can even help students find commonalities with one another – and even yourself.

Telling them about yourself

It’s important for you to know your students and they should know about you. By telling them about yourself, you can further establish credibility and build trust, and better create an inclusive learning environment.

When you’re telling them about yourself, be genuine and don’t overthink it. Tell them about you and keep it simple. Talk about your interests, hobbies, background, education, and even an impactful or funny story that makes you who you are.

“I’ve been involved in the Special Olympics for the majority of my life and I always want the athletes to know why I’m in this and what it means to me. Having a family member with special needs was my initial driver because I saw the impact that a program like this makes on their life. Sharing a bit about myself helps the athletes and parents understand my perspective and how I can relate to them.” – Patrick DeLapp, VA Special Olympics Board Member and Coach

Understanding student expectations

Just like you have expectations for your students in your online course, they have the same for you. Be sure to spend time asking questions and understanding their expectations of the course. It’s also important that you actually apply efforts to meet their expectations.


Encouraging open communication 

Regardless of their communication style, you want them to feel comfortable and they need to know that they’ll be heard if they decide to interactYour students need to know that they have a voice in your online classroom and that they belong. It’s your job to create an inclusive online learning environment that encourages open communication from your students. 

Students need to feel comfortable and know that they’re being heard when answering questions, engaging in class discussions, asking for help, and providing feedback. 

However, participating in a class discussion or asking questions comes naturally for some students but it can be uncomfortable and intimidating for others. So, expect some students to not participate. 

“Some love to interact during our online meetings and practices but others prefer to just listen. Regardless of their communication style, you want them to feel comfortable and they need to know that they’ll be heard if they decide to interact,” DeLapp explained.

Whether it’s a student asking a question or emailing for help – treat each interaction with sensitivity and thoughtfulness to show your students that you care and you’re there to support them.

Being consistent

From creating accessible course content and using inclusive language to virtual office hours and gathering feedback  – be consistent. While your online courses may change, it’s important that you consistently provide students with what they need to feel included and supported in your class.

Gathering feedback and information

Use surveys or quizzes to gather student feedback and to learn about your students.  

You can provide things like an introduction survey at the beginning of the online class and anonymous surveys to monitor student progress and gather feedback on areas you improve.

Example introduction survey questions:

  • What’s your name? (Course roster name)
    • What name do you prefer I call you? (If it’s different from course roster name)
  • What are your pronouns? 
  • What are three activities, hobbies, or interests that you enjoy?
  • What’s one interesting fact about you?
  • How do you prefer communicating?
      • Multiple choice: Phone, email, video calls, text message, other (fill in).
  • How do you learn best?
      • Multiple choice: Live lectures, recorded lectures, group work, individual work, written assignments, other (fill in)
  • What are you looking forward to learning in this class?
  • What virtual office hours would work best for your schedule?
    • Multiple choice: Morning (9 – 12), Afternoon (12 – 3), Evening (4-7)

Example feedback survey questions:

  • What are three things you’ve learned in the class so far?
  • What is helping you learn in this class?
  • What can I do to improve your learning experience?

After you’ve gathered student responses, look at the bigger picture of their feedback:

  • Are there any common themes? 
  • What can you improve on immediately? 
  • Are there any follow-up questions to their responses?

The strategies provided in this article aren’t necessarily complex, but they’re effective and they can help you better connect with your students and improve their online learning experience.

Submit your email below to download our 5-part DEI eBook
The eBook covers everything you need to know about establishing and using diversity, equity, and inclusion in your online classes.

Part 1: Addressing the need for DEI in online education

Part 2: Strategies to develop diverse, equitable, and inclusive online courses

Part 3: How to create accessible online courses (with real examples)

Part 4: Tips to improve your connection with students in an online learning environment

Part 5: How to use educational technology to create a fair testing environment