Communicating With Students

The success and persistence of students in courses often depends on an individual sense of belonging to a group and the perception that the instructor is a real, invested, involved person. This section will examine some fundamental best practices for communicating with students and building community in your face-to-face or online classroom.



Why foster communication and community?

The dropout rate among distance education learners is an issue of particular concern among distance educators (Rovai, 2002). It is believed that the isolating factors of technology and the distances of space and time can leave learners feeling disconnected and less motivated to persist. (Rovai, 2002). To counter this, social and academic interaction with other students and faculty can play a strong role in motivating the learner to complete a course (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Tinto, 1998). As with traditional face-to-face learning situations, the learner benefits from a sense of belonging and a confidence that the instructor is truly interested in his/her individual success (Case, Bauder & Simmons, 2001; de Villiers, 2001; Garrels, 2003) Interaction, most especially with the instructor, also affects student perceptions of satisfaction with the course (Beard & Harper, 2002). Established technologies can now allow for synchronous and asynchronous communication and can simulate classroom-like environments where time and space are no longer factors separating learners from each other, the content, or the instructor (Chickering & Erhmann, 1996; de Villiers, 2001).


It may not be practical, feasible, or desirable to incorporate group or collaborative activity among students into some courses. In such a case, the learner will either need high quality interaction with you, the instructor, or access to a more robust software system that is independently interactive, such as is used with computer automated training.



Communication Tips & Techniques

Whether you choose to engage your students in synchronous (chat or instant messaging) or asynchronous (email, discussion board, bulletin board) communications with you or with other students, the quality of those communications can go a long way toward ensuring student success. This may be as simple as regular emails to ask them about how they are progressing and if they need any assistance. Such emails take only a moment or two to write, but may be received by the student as positive interest that can truly motivate or help you to catch problems early, before such problems become insurmountable challenges for the student.

Keep in mind that students may have already had access to your leadership and expertise, either through your classroom lectures and presentations or through your course materials. Online communications, such as chat sessions or discussion boards, provide the opportunity to assess student understanding and give them the occasion to ask you further questions about concepts that may be challenging to them. Working as a "guide on the side," rather than as a "sage on stage," this environment most easily affords your students a voice.

You play an important leadership role in framing and moderating communications, especially when conducting group activities among students. An opening question can be one way to both challenge students to apply concepts, extend learning and also give you insights into their understandings. Asking students to define a term or provide a correct response to a question may solicit limited responses. Consider questions that challenge and extend thinking; students often are motivated to begin engaging in challenging and enriching discussions with one another in addition to responding to instructor prompts.

Finally, be clear with students about expectations concerning electronic communication, both in terms of etiquette and participation levels. For more information about Netiquette, review the "Netiquette" section listed in this site.



Help your students get to know one another by using group activities to learn the content and allotting the first minute or two for introductions and sharing.


More information:




Deciding Which Tool to Use

Discussion board or live chat? Email or instant messaging? Here are some tips for deciding which tool will best match your needs for communicating with students.

Choose the Discussion Board if:

  • You need to be able to communicate with a group
  • You need to be able to communicate without consideration of time/schedule
  • You need to keep an archive of all communication that has transpired
  • You need to be able to search or sort messages

 Choose Live Text Chat or Video Conferencing if:

  • You need to be able to communicate with a group
  • You need to live interaction, as in a virtual classroom
  • You need to keep an archive of all communication that has transpired

 Choose Email if:

  • You need to communicate more privately with an individual
  • You need to be able to communicate without consideration of time/schedule
  • You need to distribute or share a file
  • You need to keep an archive of all communication that has transpired
  • You need to be able to search or sort messages

 Choose Instant Message or Video Conferencing if:

  • You need to communicate more privately with an individual
  • You need to have a live interaction, like virtual office hours
  • You need to distribute or share a file (Instant Messaging only)
  • Archiving is not an important factor (some systems support this, some do not)
  • You do not need to search or sort messages




Ways to Use Chat and Discussion

Chat and discussion forms can be used in both online and face-to-face classes. A short list of popular ways to implement communication tools:

Discussion Board:

  • Question of the Week/Day/Unit: A question to spark discussion about the topic. Avoid use of questions that have a "correct" answer, but rather, choose open ended questions that require debate, analysis, or opinion.
  • Frequently Asked Questions: A help or support area where the most popular or the most anticipated questions and answers are presented. This can reduce the amount of redundant communication that an instructor needs to employ; direct students to review this site before requesting assistance.
  • Student-led content areas: Assign a student or group of students to field a particular content area and use the discussion board to post information for others to review.
  • Group project planning: Create individual discussion boards for each group of students to provide them with "private" communication tools for planning and developing group assignments.

Chat or Video Conferencing:

  • Virtual Chat: Regularly scheduled virtual chat sessions can be a replacement for face-to-face class discussions or sessions. Avoid lecturing in this environment; it is the opportunity for the instructor to lead discussion and debate, and gauge student understanding.
  • Virtual Office Hours: Be available during a set time that allows students to come and go with questions. This may be especially useful for non-traditional students or those who commute to campus for classes.
  • Pre-Exam Study Sessions: Lead a review session for students preparing for a test. Preparing questions in advance to display in the discussion area in advance will be especially helpful.
  • Group project planning: Create individual chat rooms for each group of students to provide them with "private" communication tools for planning and developing group assignments.




Groups & Collaborative Learning

Links to resources for conducting and assessing group assignments and activities.





Netiquette is a term for etiquette used in email or online. An old adage says that when it comes to online communication, "be as soft as silk when interpreting the words of others, and as hard as bamboo in editing your own words." Lacking the usual physical cues such as tone of voice, facial expression and posture, miscommunication is an easier feat online than off. Setting a few rules of conduct for your students can go a long way towards avoiding miss-steps.

  • Netiquette Home Page ( A good, established source of Netiquette information. One of the oldest netiquette sites on the Internet.

The most appropriate etiquette for online communication in educational settings is similar to that of written communication in general; when communicating, consider both the intent of the message and the potential received meaning. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and conduct communication as if it were to occur in a face-to-face setting, in the presence of others. Remember also, that spelling and grammar count; the quality of the message reflects upon the author. The more clearly the message is drafted, the more likely the intended meaning is received. Nonetheless, in live online (synchronous) communications, some time saving shortcuts have developed. Some commonly accepted shortcuts are listed here.


Text Shortcuts and Corresponding Definitions
afk"Away from keyboard" - used to explain a lag in communication
LOL"Laugh out loud" - a reaction to something that is very funny
brb"Be right back" - use if you must step away from the keyboard for a moment
L8r"Later" - a very informal good bye
ttyl"Talk to you later" - an informal good bye
wb"Welcome back" - used to greet someone who has returned to a chat session after being "brb" or "afk"
ty"Thank you"

"In my humble opinion" - precedes a statement of strong opinion


To replace the emotions that are normally conveyed in personal conversation, emoticons or emojis may be used. Emoticons are type-written approximations of facial expressions and emojis are visual symbols of facial expressions, hand gestures, objects, and other signs.  Both emoticons and emojis can help restore some of the emotional intent of the message. Emoticons and emojis are not recommended in formal communication.


Emoticons and Corresponding Definitions
:-DBig grin
;)Smile with a wink
:-*A kiss
:-PSticking tongue out
:-OWow! or I'm surprised!
:~Also crying
:-|Grim or not sure how to react
:-))Really happy
:-Perplexed or confused
:">Embarrassed or blushing
:-xAlso a kiss



Sometimes the communication in an online environment can become very heated and even abusive. This is called a flame war. As an instructor, you serve a key role in mitigating and monitoring the communication environment of your course. Some great tips on how to spot and handle communication issues online are available in this article, Online education horror stories worthy of Halloween: A short list of problems and solutions in online instruction (Hailey, Grant-Davie & Hult, 2001).



Special Populations

Here are a few resource links and videos for communicating with students who have different abilities and backgrounds.


Video Resources

Cultivating A Resilient Campus Together

During this presentation, you will explore ways to foster resiliency in students, colleagues, and themselves to create a more resilient campus. Learn ways you can help cultivate resiliency on campus.

Watch the Video >>

How to Implement Trauma Informed Practices (TiP)

Gain awareness of trauma in postsecondary education institutions. Understand how trauma affects learning and development. Learn strategies for how to work effectively with college students who have been exposed to trauma.

Watch the Video >>

Negotiating Language Diversity in our Classrooms

Learn about the concepts of linguistic diversity and language bias, how they affect interactions with and assessment of students, and inclusive teaching practices to negotiate linguistic diversity in the classroom.

Watch the Video >>

Supporting Students in the Pandemic of Grief

Provides teachers with some rudimentary background information about grief, how it manifests in students, and how they can respond to promote resiliency and healing.

Watch the Video >>

Teaching Adult Learners in Challenging Times: Helpful Strategies

If you teach traditional or non-traditional adult learners, learn basic principles of adult learning theory and how to apply them in your teaching practice to create effective and meaningful learning experiences for your students. 

Watch the Video >>

Teaching with Empathy (Not Sympathy) For Inclusion and Equity

Learn about strategies you can use to incorporate empathy into your courses (even after the pandemic). Dr. Angela Hodgson offers three ways to add more empathy to increase inclusion and equity in your course.

Watch the Video >>



Referenced Works

Case, D., Bauder, D.K., & Simmons, T.J. (2001). Decision making in the development of web-based instruction. Education at a Distance, 15(50).

Chickering, A.W. & Erhmann, S.C. (1996). Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as a Lever. AAHE Bulletin, October 1996, 3 - 6.

Chickering, A.W. & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, October 1996.

de Villiers, G. J. (2001). Asynchronous web-based technologies to support learning. Master's Thesis, Department of Information Science, University of Pretoria.

Rovai, A. (2002). Building Sense of Community at a DistanceInternational Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1), April 2002.

Tinto, V. (1998). Colleges as Communities: Taking Research on Student Persistence SeriouslyThe Review of Higher Education, 21(2), 167-177.





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