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Building and Maintaining Strong Student Relationships Remotely, Part I

Kristin Van Gompel, Ed.D. in Learning Technologies
Dr. Kristin Van Gompel, Ed.D. in Learning Technologies
Senior Instructional Innovations Specialist, Turnitin






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It’s no surprise to those who work in education that student success is more than achieved grades. Research suggests that social-emotional factors, such as student relationships with teachers and peers, impact learning (Becker & Luthar, 2002; Durlak, 2015; Osher et al. 2008). Establishing connectedness and positive perceptions towards school through relationship-building is already a practice for many educators. We’ve perfected “beginning of the year” assignments, mastered body language, and cultivated strategies for communicating with students. While these tools work well in an in-person classroom setting, diverse learning environments, such as hybrid (in-person and online) or fully online, require a different approach.

Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, educators around the world are preparing to teach in new learning environments. Many educators will be teaching outside of their classroom walls in technology-enabled settings, hybrid or online, to adhere to social distancing requirements. In the midst of all the changes and unknowns associated with preparing a classroom during this challenging time, it’s critical to focus on the social and emotional needs of our students.

As someone who’s taught and learned in remote (and hybrid) environments, I acknowledge the challenge ahead, especially for educators who are meeting their students for the first time from a distance. However, with slight modifications to our teaching toolbox, we can develop new ways to reach our students. Here are some strategies for building and maintaining strong student relationships in remote learning environments:

Tips for Remotely Building Relationships with Students Offer opportunities for students to share about themselves

Consider the activities you typically implement this time of the year and reflect on how you can accomplish them remotely. Now more than ever, the “getting to know you” activities are critical for building successful relationships with students. Offer several opportunities for students to share about themselves. Ask students to create a short introduction video, post a paragraph and photo in a discussion forum, add to an “About the class” wiki page, or choose another participatory media for the task. Look for opportunities for students to personalize their technology presence, such as designing an avatar or creating a custom background for video conferencing. React to what students share and emphasize community by allowing student peers to engage with each other. Not only will students feel more connected, but you will also gain a better understanding of your students’ backgrounds and interests.

Show your face and share your stories

Let students get to know you by seeing you and sharing your stories. A remote learning environment can feel isolating without seeing or hearing the educator. Let students see your face by communicating via live video streaming, photos, or recorded videos. If you aren’t meeting live every day/week, consider recording a video of yourself explaining the daily/weekly activities. Look for opportunities to replace (or add to) textual feedback on assignments with video or audio. Additionally, participate in the “getting to know you” activities and share some personal (and appropriate) stories. Storytelling is always a helpful method for humanizing educators for students, but even more so in a remote setting. It can be as simple as sharing about your beloved pet Fido, talking about your love for skiing, or making personal connections to writing assignments as examples. Students will feel more engaged and invested in school, the more they get to see, hear, and know you.

Turnitin Feedback Studio users, consider using voice comments as a method for leaving feedback on student assignments. Voice comments is a powerful medium, allowing students to hear personalized feedback from their teacher.

Build a virtual classroom “space”

Whether it’s a classroom website, Learning Management System (LMS), or Google Classroom, choose a “space” to build a virtual classroom. Classroom space is a central hub for students to visit, learn, access, and post information related to the class. There are many free and paid-for services available to educators. Look for features like file sharing, discussions, messaging, or blogs to help establish a classroom community feel. Students will develop a sense of belonging when engaging in opportunities that contribute to the space. Break down formal communication barriers by interacting with students regularly using the available features. Use the virtual space as a communication tool that students can rely on as a classroom home base.

Turnitin Feedback Studio users, take advantage of the class calendar or discussion board as methods for communicating with students in a virtual space.

Have a presence and establish a routine

In a time of uncertainty and inconsistency, school, even in a remote setting, can be a safe space for students. Establish a feeling of normalcy by operating a routine that becomes familiar with students. Share your schedule and stick to it as best as you can. Developing routines around a schedule will ease students as they learn what to expect each week. Start each day with a morning video message, pose lunchtime questions, or send daily emails. Try your best to respond to questions and provide feedback swiftly. In whatever format possible, build a presence into daily routines to let students know you’re there.

Tips for Remotely Maintaining Relationships with Students Host informal meet-ups with students

Organize periodic meet-ups that aren’t focused on academics. Informal virtual gatherings will open the door to maintaining strong relationships by hearing what’s going on with your students in a comfortable setting. Consider hosting virtual lunches, lounge hours, or spirit days. Any chance for students to just talk is time well spent.

Check in with students frequently

Schedule opportunities to individually check-in with students. Conduct monthly classroom “temperature” surveys by using a free tool, such as Google Forms, to ask students how they’re doing. In addition, set aside time to meet with students one-on-one via video or phone. Make this task doable by chunking meetings to a few students per month. Perhaps Thursday afternoons become your reserved time for one-on-one meetings! Choose a medium that works best for you and your students.

Consistently connect with students via feedback

Your method for providing feedback, and how often you give it, is critical to maintaining relationships with students. It’s possible to provide consistent feedback on student work remotely with the right tools. Look for educational technology tools that allow you to easily annotate assignments and share them with your students. With the right tools in place, you’ll be able to provide more feedback on a regular basis.

For Turnitin Feedback Studio users, consider using QuickMark comments as a time-saving method for leaving consistent, targeted feedback on student assignments. Be sure to also check out Turnitin’s downloadable rubrics to support your instructional goals.

In all that you do, show that you care

An underlying theme for relationship-building with students is ensuring their social and emotional well-being. While you embark on preparing your classroom for the school year, set an intention: be a human first to show your students that you care and that their learning matters. Sure, school may look a little different this year, but, with the right tools and the right mindset, this goal can be achieved in a remote setting.


Becker, B. E., & Luthar, S. S. (2002). Social-emotional factors affecting achievement outcomes among disadvantaged students: Closing the achievement gap. Educational psychologist, 37(4), 197-214.

Durlak, J. A. (Ed.). (2015). Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice. Guilford Publications.

Osher, D., Sprague, J., Weissberg, R. P., Axelrod, J., Keenan, S., Kendziora, K., & Zins, J. E. (2008). A comprehensive approach to promoting social, emotional, and academic growth in contemporary schools. Best practices in school psychology, 4, 1263-1278.

Interested in hearing strategies from experienced educators? Sign-up for our free webinar focused on building and maintaining strong student relationships remotely.

Need more resources on remote learning? Visit Turnitin’s remote learning page for a collection of dynamic videos, downloadable resources, and best practices to help make remote learning engaging and effective.