How to Connect with Your College Students Online – Advice from a Third Grader

Posted March 3, 2021

By Julie Lazzara


Children at a laptop computer. The boy has his arms raised in the air and the girl points at something excitedly on the computer screen

Like many others, my daughter has been attending school online since the start of the pandemic. Although it is not the ideal situation, we all try to make the best of it. I know that many have struggled with this transition, however, dare I say, my daughter loves her third-grade class. I mean, she looooooves it! She loves her teacher, and she loves her classmates. But how? It’s all online! Shout out to my daughter’s third-grade teacher! What is her secret? Could my college students ever express this exuberance for one of my classes?

I decided to investigate to find the hidden gems of what makes her class a success to apply them to my online college classroom. Sure, a nine-year-old is different from an eighteen-year-old, but human connection is universal. The following are tips that I recently learned that you can immediately implement in your online classroom.

Think about what message your homepage conveys

Just because this is college, your LMS’s homepage does not need to be stark and boring. Remember, it is called a “home” page. Make your home inviting so students will want to visit it often! Add a Bitmoji of yourself, use customized buttons and banners, or add images. I love Canva for creating my own designs. One of my students commented that she appreciated the effort I made in making the layout of the course “not boring” because it showed that I cared about my students. I recommend making a welcome video that gives students a virtual tour around the class. Loom works well for recording this, so students can see you at the same time you are capturing the screen. Show your smiling face so students can see the wizard behind the curtain.

Get personal

Make sure your students know the best way to contact you and what you prefer to be called. In interactions with your students, be sure to use their preferred name, whether in an email response or feedback from an assignment. Canvas recently made this easier by allowing students and instructors to add their preferred pronouns. Consider adding a class wall discussion where you and your students can introduce themselves through video, audio, text, or images. Make it an assignment for students to update their LMS profile with a picture of themselves or a picture representing them. Encourage creativity, so you get to know your students, even in the virtual environment.

If you teach live online, incorporate breakout rooms so students can get to know each other, and you can pop into the small groups as well. Zoom works well for facilitating this. My daughter commented that she has gotten to know her classmates better through online breakout rooms than during in-person learning. She also became friends with new students that she might not have otherwise.

Be flexible and try new things

A Bitmoji representation of the author - Julie Lazzara, appearing out of a laptop screen holding a stick with a glove on it waving
Used with the permission of the author.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try a new program or assignment. Without having the in-person environment to do hands-on activities, the course may be a bit dry. Assessment does not have to be just multiple-choice questions and essays. What are other ways to engage students while assessing their learning? I started adding Peardeck to make my Google slides more interactive in real-time. As a bonus, it takes attendance for me and ensures that students are participating. After the class, I send each student the slides with their personalized responses on them with one click. Another program that students of all ages enjoy is Kahoot, which gamifies the quiz-taking experience. There might be a bit of a learning curve at the beginning for you and your students, but the gain is usually worth the initial pain.

Think like a student

A Bitmoji representation of the author - Julie Lazzara seated at a laptop with a wrap-around caption that reads: "Learning from home"
Used with the permission of the author.

When designing your class, make sure it is easy to navigate. Have your significant other, friend, or child walk-thru your class to make sure that it makes sense to them. Trust me, your kids will find this to be a fun activity, and they have good feedback! Hide extra buttons that might make navigating your course confusing. Less is more! You can also apply this to choosing your class’s content, which is why I love Noba. I can pick and decide which modules make the most sense to include in my materials and what order they should go in. I often cut down the modules to make them shorter and more focused for my students while still meeting the course learning objectives. Keep your audience in mind for your particular course on what makes sense to be included. A textbook does not need to be 700 pages to be effective.


So, there you have it. Teaching third grade and college students online may not be that different after all. With all of the physical disconnection that the pandemic has brought, we can try to increase our online connection with each other. For some students, this may be one of the few outlets they have for connection outside their immediate family. Meeting the learning objectives for our courses is essential, but we can help students be more motivated to learn through connection. This process has also allowed me to enjoy online teaching in a new, more fulfilling way. It’s a win, win for all!


Julie Lazzara is a professor of psychology at Paradise Valley Community College, where she has taught since 2009. She teaches primarily Introduction to Psychology and Lifespan Development courses in various formats including Honors sections. She is currently a 2020-2021 OER Research Fellow for the Open Education Group and was recently a 2020 UNSDG Open Pedagogy Faculty Fellow. She participates in professional development whenever she has the opportunity, including attending and presenting at numerous teaching and psychology conferences. She has co-authored, reviewed, and edited several articles, texts, and ancillary materials. Her research interests include the scholarship of teaching and learning, open educational resources, open pedagogy, and emerging adulthood. She enjoys introducing students to the field of psychology and helping them make the connection of how they can use it in their own lives no matter what their major is.