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Blog post Part of special issue: Uncharted terrain: Teaching and learning in higher education for times of uncertainty

Reflections on building rapport with university students in an online context

Deirdre McKenna, Lecturer at University of Leeds

As with other educators, the rapid shift to online delivery during lockdown has led to self-reflection on my teaching skills, how they transfer online, and my ability to use online tools effectively. The most recent example has been in my role as a study skills tutor, working with British students on a foundation year (FY) course. FY teaching can involve particular challenges, such as lack of student engagement, attendance issues, and supporting individuals who have struggled in the school system due to mental health issues. So, it requires tutors to pay particular attention to building positive relationships. Thomas (2012, cited in Ashwin et al., 2015, p. 95) has found relationships with teachers to be central for higher education students in developing a ‘sense of belonging’, a crucial element to retention and academic success, which seems pertinent for FY cohorts. As with many others, my end of term work with these students was conducted online due to the pandemic, including individual feedback on essay drafts through annotation tools, voice recordings, emails and Zoom calls, as well as offering support through discussion boards. Although I initially viewed the end of term as relatively successful in navigating new tools and engaging around half of the students in online communication, the fact is that these activities had been preceded by almost a year of face-to-face seminars and tutorials – the relationship-building groundwork had been made in person. I therefore question how meeting students online would affect the ability to develop rapport and establish effective relationships.

Looking ahead, it is important to consider our ideas of the learner in the new paradigm of online delivery. The profile of the online learner has traditionally been different to those who study in person, such as being older, having work or family commitments, or preferring the flexibility of learning remotely (Glazier, 2016, p. 439). However, the impact of the pandemic means that many students now study online due to a lack of alternative. As well as this, they are likely to be taught by practitioners who are experts in classroom delivery, but not necessarily in online teaching. Altogether, the move online is necessitated rather than chosen, and possibly not ideal for all concerned.

‘The impact of the pandemic means that many students now study online due to a lack of alternative. … the move online is necessitated rather than chosen, and possibly not ideal for all concerned.’

The literature, though predating Covid-19, offers insights into the challenges of online teaching, including substantially lower retention rates. Glazier (2016) suggests that one reason is the difficulty in establishing rapport in an online environment, which can lead to student disengagement and poor performance, proposing that building rapport effectively can positively impact student success levels. Rapport has been defined by ‘mutuality’ and ‘harmony’ yet dyadic in nature in other contexts. As such, in distance education the responsibility for rapport-building falls more on the teacher. Glazier (2016) outlines techniques that positively impact student success levels centred on building rapport online, which include presenting oneself as approachable and ‘human’ through video recordings; providing individualised feedback on assignments through Adobe Acrobat Pro annotations; and making personal contact through discussion boards, ensuring the students’ names are used and that this use is recognised as effortful by students. Therefore, the tools currently available to educators in higher education can clearly be used in rapport-building efforts.

However, beyond the focus on tools and techniques, a more important factor needs consideration in building rapport online: namely, behaviours. As Morris and Stommel (2018) assert: ‘Far too much work in educational technology starts with tools, when what we need to start with is humans.’ A pivotal concept is that of ‘caring’ behaviours, rather than a focus on any given tool. Examples of these behaviours may include: availability, timely communication, developing personal connections, providing positive feedback, and being approachable, understanding and empathetic. Given the current and possibly ongoing circumstances, empathy plays a greater role now more than ever. Ultimately, instead of focusing on my knowledge of tools and techniques when I meet my next group of students, I will place greater emphasis upon the behaviours which demonstrate caring in the new online context and other emergency teaching situations that may occur in future years.


Ashwin, P., Boud, D., Coate, K., Hallett, F., Keane, E., Krause, K. L., Leibowitz, B., MacLaren, I., McArthur, J., McCune, V., & Tooher, M. (2015). Reflective teaching in higher education. London: Bloomsbury.

Glazier, R. A. (2016). Building rapport to improve retention and success in online classes. Journal of Political Science Education, 12(4), 437–456.

Morris, S. M., & Stommel, J. (2018). Critical digital pedagogy: A definition. In S. M. Morris & J. Stommel (Eds.), An urgency of teachers: The work of critical digital pedagogy. Retrieved from: