Communicating with Students

Let your students see you as a real person

When teaching online, it’s especially important that students see you as a real person. Higher instructor presence is widely recognized as an indicator of quality in online courses and has been shown to correlate to higher student satisfaction. 

The language you use in your course – in your course outline, assignment descriptions, feedback, lectures, responses to questions, discussion board posts, and so on – all contribute to the voice of your course. Do you want that voice to be formal and reserved? Encouraging and motivating? Warm and casual? Rigorous? Do you want to use humour?

As you consider your voice, it's important to remember that online learning functions as an implied conversation between you and your learners: picture your learners sitting at their computers, listening to you through their computer. Research suggests it's best to address your online learners as you would in a conversation. Communicating in a conversational style increases learners' sense of connection with you, or a feeling of "social presence", which, in turn, increases their motivational commitment to make sense of the conversation (Mayer, 2009).

Generally speaking, it’s better to use language that is encouraging rather than coercive, inviting rather than demanding. For example, instead of saying “You must come to class fully prepared,” you might say, “We’ll have better discussions if everyone comes to class prepared, so please finish the assigned readings.” Remember to communicate your confidence that they can and will succeed, and share with them your excitement and interest in the course. 

Social Presence

Social presence refers to a feeling of positive connectedness among all the members of a course: instructors, students, and teaching assistants. When teaching online, it’s especially important that students see you as a real person. Higher instructor presence is widely recognized as an indicator of quality in online courses, and has been shown to correlate to higher student satisfaction (Jaggers & Xu, 2016). 

To foster social presence, consider doing the following: 

  • Post a short welcome video in the Announcements section of the course. 

  • Add a photo of yourself that will appear on your discussion board postings. Ask your TAs and students to do so as well. 

  • Share your personal/professional experiences with them, as appropriate, such as: 

    • “When I was first studying this, I found the material relating to X to be especially challenging.” 

    • “Over the weekend I happened to watch the third episode of The Innocence Files on Netflix, and it reminded me of some of the issues we talked about in last week’s unit on the convict labour system.” 

  • Facilitate an icebreaker: in a discussion board, invite students to introduce themselves, and to share why they are interested in the course. You might also propose a fun prompt, such as inviting them to share a favourite recipe or food, or a favourite movie or book.  

  • Ensure that students have opportunities to connect with you; for example, by email, during live online office hours, or in a discussion board devoted to student feedback. Be sure to provide students with expectations of your response time (for example, “I will aim to respond to questions within 24 hours during weekdays”).   

  • Post occasional announcements in which you encourage them or offer some positive comment, such as: 

    • “Almost half way through the term!” 

    • “I’m pleased with the quality of the discussion in the online discussion boards, especially with regard to…” 

    • “Today in chemistry history: Robert Bunsen (who gave his name to the Bunsen burner) discovered caesium.” 

  • Acknowledge events taking place outside of the course, such as: 

    • “Happy St. Patrick’s Day!” 

    • “These are difficult times, and I know some of you might be dealing with family members who are unwell. If you need extra time for an assignment because of that, please speak to me.” 

  • Collect feedback from your students two or three times in the term. A brief survey in LEARN might include questions such as  

    • What do you like most about this course and/or its teaching methods? 

    • What do you like least about the course and/or its teaching methods? 

    • What would make this course a better learning experience for you? 

  • Thank students for getting conversations started on discussion boards and encourage others to do so. Summarize highlights of a discussion. Summarize activities for the upcoming week or provide feedback on the past week. 


Think of your entire course site as a communication channel with your students. A well-planned and useable site will ensure your students minimize the potential for cognitive overload and ensure they can easily navigate the course throughout the term. The Templates for Remote Teaching site, a self-registration course in LEARN, provides downloadable template pages with examples. To access the site, click on Self-Registration in the top navigation bar in LEARN and select Templates for Remote Teaching.

Course Outline

  • Include a weekly schedule that provides an overview of the requirements for the entire course 
  • Present your course outline in a module at the top of your table of contents 
  • Upload your course outline as an accessible Word or PDF document


  • Ensure your assignment instructions are clear and detailed. For example, “maximum 500 words” is better than “2 pages in length.”  
  • Learners benefit from knowing what to expect for the duration of the course so they can plan their time accordingly. Aim to provide assignment instructions at the beginning of the term, if possible.   

Table of Contents 

  • Lead students through the topics of your course by organizing your Table of Contents by week such that one topic or unit of content corresponds to one week of the term. 


Good design can make your course more effective. Key principles include: 

  • Design for accessibility 
  • Provide an organizational structure for students: use sections, headings, and columns to lay out and segment the content 
  • Signal important information (e.g., using bold and italics), but do so sparingly 
  • Use a sans serif font for digital materials, and a serif font for printed materials 
  • Use organizational images and infographics to help convey information visually 
  • Avoid adding elements (text, images, video, etc) that distract from the learning outcomes 
  • Leave white space: don’t crowd too much onto a page
  • Make the navigation and links clear: if you need instructions to find it or use it, it’s not intuitive.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 



teaching tips

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