By Dr. Kathleen Lucas, Contract Instructor, Department of Neuroscience

This is the first of a four-part series by Neuroscience instructors on their experiences with the sudden and rapid transition to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Creating a connection with students is one of the key components that makes teaching a joy for instructors. In an exclusively online world, that ability to connect with students has changed drastically, which impacts the student-teacher dynamic and creates a hurdle for students to stay on top of course content and manage their learning. In managing around 400 students during the early summer term in two asynchronous Carleton Online courses, finding multiple effective ways to communicate with students became crucial to creating and fostering a positive online learning environment.

Setting expectations…for everyone

In biology, we define communication as having both a sender and a receiver; communication doesn’t actually occur if both parties are not participating. I found it was more important than ever to clearly define what students could expect from me, and what I expected of them.

This summer, I learned that I didn’t emphasize this enough – in the upcoming academic year, I will establish a clear set of rules, perhaps even accompanied by a quiz, to confirm student understanding of course expectations from both parties.

Multiple channels for communication

Just as students learn in different ways, they also prefer different modes of communication. I found a combination of communication channels, each fulfilling a different function, was an effective way of staying in contact with students and helped to create a sense of community within the class.

o   Announcements: I didn’t truly appreciate this function until this summer! Posting an announcement both sends an email to everyone in the course (and they can’t unsubscribe), and saves that message on the front page of the course website. That way, even if some students don’t read their email, all announcements are always available to them online.

o   Weekly update: Without the bi-weekly check-ins at the start of a lecture to help keep students on track, every Sunday evening I sent out a weekly update to the students. Available as both a slideshow PDF and a video, I would outline exactly what they needed to accomplish that week to stay on top of everything. Details included were what lectures to watch this week, what assignments to complete, and what to study for. Students appreciated having either option to access the information, and it was a nice way to check in and give study tips as well. Another approach is to create a Google Calendar that is shared among all students, allowing the instructor to actively update students on upcoming tasks and deadlines.

o   Student Discussion Group: This Forum in cuLearn encourages students to post if they have any questions for their fellow students and TAs. Students used this forum more frequently this summer than I’ve seen in previous years, asking each other general questions about the course, primarily about course content. I actually found that students would respond to questions faster than I could, making it a valuable resource for all of us.

o   Ask the Instructor: Set up as a Database in cuLearn, this allowed students to ask questions about the course without having their name posted on the course webpage. This provided students with a pressure-free opportunity to ask a question, which I could answer and then display anonymously.

o   Social Café: Yet another use of the Forum function, the Social Café was reserved for discussion of non-course related topics (and inspired by Dr. Kim Hellemans). I would aim to post a weekly topic on which students could comment and share. Some examples included, “What is something new you’ve been doing in quarantine?” or “What have you been watching?” It was a nice way to connect with students and help students connect with each other.

Let’s face it: even in a traditional classroom setting, most of our positive student interactions occur in person (e.g. before and after class, office hours, social events outside of the classroom), while most of the negative student interactions (e.g. complaints, extension requests, issues with grades) occur via email. When moving to an online classroom, we may lose most (or all) of the face-to-face interactions, which can leave us feeling like all of our student interactions are of the negative variety. Having other outlets to interact with students allows us to engage with them regularly in positive ways, and helps immensely to remind us of the joys of teaching in a format where a lot of the incoming emails are “bad news.”

Interested in contributing to our blog? Please email to find out how.