By: Parker Nicholls, Master’s Student (Music & Culture)

 Students and teachers in higher education have been required to transition from face-to-face learning to online learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic and active quarantine measures. With little time to prepare and properly transition their pedagogies and learning outcomes to the online environment, teachers are struggling to provide an efficient, meaningful, and engaging higher education for incoming university students (Güner 2021). Teachers require reliable support from their institutions, an abundance of technical resources, and time for collaboration with colleagues in order to deliver a sufficient learning experience for their students (Cutri et al 2020; Kang & Zhang 2020). The overarching stress of a global health crisis, combined with social distancing and online education, causes students to feel anxious, sad, bitter, and ultimately disengaged and unmotivated during the first year of their university education (Güner 2021, 155-156; Naylor & Nyanjom 2020, 8).

To counter the negative effects of online higher education in a time of crisis, professors and teaching assistants must reorient their pedagogies around care and patience to foster a sense of belonging for first-year students in the virtual classroom.

For first-year students especially, motivation and engagement are the two crucial factors that determine how well students are able to learn and find meaning in their educational development (Kang & Zhang 2020, 1-2). Despite the technological learning potential and creative teaching opportunities that online higher education has to offer, the significant lack of interaction between students and teachers is detrimental (Greenhow & Galvin 2020, 514). I contend that to feel motivated and thus properly engage in their higher education, first-year students must possess a sense of meaning that can only be acquired by feeling as if they belong in the classroom. Fostering a sense of belonging and creating chances for meaningful interaction is difficult for teachers who generally feel unprepared for online teaching (Scherer et al 2021, 1).

In addition, it is important to note that online higher education during a global health crisis is markedly different from “conventional online course transitioning and teaching” (Cutri et al 2020, 524). A recent study found that there was a significant correlation between teacher readiness and support from their institutions during the transition from face-to-face to online teaching (Naylor & Nyanjom 2020, 7). Institutional support includes time for preplanning synchronous classes, reliable and easily accessible technical support, mentoring, and training for the required software and hardware (4). Of course, a teacher’s access to reliable support is determined by the budget, willingness, and effort of their respective institution. A lack of institutional support and the related feelings of unpreparedness results in teachers feeling disempowered, isolated, vulnerable, ashamed, stressed, and frustrated (8-12). Such negative emotions are visible to students and affect their ability to learn, potentially reinforcing bad academic practices such as procrastination and even plagiarism (Kang & Zhang 2020, 2).

The student participants in a recent study done by Anderson et al acknowledged that “teachers communicate their feelings about teaching in different ways” and that an enthusiastic attitude for learning is a marker of good teaching (2020, 5-7). Establishing a casual, more personal online teaching environment where students are exposed to the humanity of their teacher can help foster their growth as learners (8-9). Caring is a reflexive exercise for teachers. During times of crisis and uncertainty, it is imperative that educators take the time to temporarily dismantle the height of their authority status.

For example, using Zoom’s audio-share function I played some music from my Spotify playlist while students slowly entered the virtual workshop I was hosting. In doing so, I exposed my personality by sharing the privacy of my music taste as I attempted to form a comfortable, ambient atmosphere with my music selection (see: Toop 2019). Without undermining my own authority in the classroom, I was able to communicate my passion for the course material to students in an entertaining yet authentic manner (Anderson et al 2020, 6). Exposing one’s humanity in a position of authority is a vulnerable activity and practicing a teaching method that gravitates towards such a non-hierarchical classroom structure is not ideal for many teachers. Therefore, a caring and enthusiastic pedagogy requires patience, commitment, effective communication, and clarity (McDowell 2012). As teachers compete with the cacophony of social media notifications and digital distractions, it is essential that they implement the appropriate strategies to ensure that students are engaged, motivated, and feel a sense of belonging in the virtual classroom.

Attempting to replicate the “superior and preferred mode” of face-to-face teaching is simply not possible with online higher education and can result in a cycle of frustration for teachers and students if engagement is low (Naylor & Nyanjom 2020, 9). Three alternate strategies that help to foster a sense of belonging for students include: Implementing a recurring, forum-based online discussion assignment (Kang & Zhang 2020); Establishing a backchannel for casual interaction via academic social media (Greenhow & Galvin 2020); and offering personalized feedback on assignments instead of standardized, ready-made comments and rubrics. Forum-based online discussion assignments follow the necessary trend of ‘equalizing’ students and teachers because the exercise is more student-centered than teacher-centered (Kang & Zhang 2020, 9). Researchers found that this approach improved presentation and other academic skills, promoted initiative with positive peer pressure and competition, and helped to disperse the weight of course grades based on student responses (1-3). Using academic social media platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Slack helps students connect to their teachers and one another in a familiar social space consisting of personalized profiles, the sharing of interests and hobbies, and collaborative content creation that relates to the course (Greenhow & Galvin 2020, 517-519). Finally, by providing thoughtful and constructive feedback on assignments, teachers communicate a meaningful sense of personalized care and attention to the student (Anderson et al 2020, 7-8).

In conclusion, virtual classrooms that promote interaction through discussion forums and social media help keep students engaged and motivated in their learning. Furthermore, by practicing care, patience, and enthusiasm teachers have the potential to inspire positive emotions in their students and foster a sense of belonging during a challenging, socially distant time.


Anderson, Vivienne, Rafaela Rabello, Rob Wass, Clinton Golding, Ana Rangi, & Esmay Eteuati. 2020. “Good teaching as care in higher education.” Higher Education 79, no. 1 (January): 1-15.

Cutri, Ramona M., Juanjo Mena, & Erin Feinauer Whiting. 2020. “Faculty readiness for online teaching: transitioning to online teaching during COVID-19 pandemic.” European Journal of Teacher Education 43, no. 4 (August): 523-541. .

Greenhow, Christine, & Sarah Galvin. 2020. “Teaching with social media: evidence-based strategies for making remote higher education less remote.” Information and Learning Sciences 121, no. 7/8 (May): 513-524. .

Güner, Halim. 2021. “Examining of the Emotional Mood about Their Online Education of First-Year Students Beginning Their University Education with Distance Education Because of COVID-19.” Higher Education Studies 11, no. 1 (February): 148-159. .


Kang, Xiaowei, & Wen Zhang. 2020. “An experimental case study on forum-based online teaching to improve student’s engagement and motivation in higher education.” Interactive Learning Environments (August): 1-12. .


McDowell, Liz. 2012. “Non-hierarchical structurers: could it work for you?” The Guardian, July 2, 2012.


Naylor, Dawn, & Julie Nyanjom. 2020. “Educator’s emotions involved in the transition to online teaching in higher education.” Higher Education Research & Development (September): 1-14. .


Scherer, Ronny, Sarah K. Howard, Jo Tondeur, & Fazilat Siddiq. 2021. “Profiling teachers’ readiness for online teaching and learning in higher education: Who’s ready?” Computers in Human Behaviour 118, no. 1 (May): 1-16. .


Toop, David. 2019. “How Much World Do You Want? Ambient Listening and its Questions.” In Music beyond Airports, edited by Monty Adkins and Simon Cummings, 1-19. Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield Press. .