The All-Important First Week

Making connections to your students is very important in online classes.  With the inability to see people's faces and facial gestures, or receive immediate feedback, this can be problematic and lead to what some people may typically think of as a cold environment where students are disconnected.  It is important to reach out and try to connect to your students right away.  I do this in two ways:

Envelope with cursor over it

The welcome email can give students important information about the class to ease any anticipation they may have about starting an online class.  It is also a way to let the students know you care, and are a friendly person they can contact if they have questions.  The following is an example of a welcome email I would send to my students.

Subject line:  Welcome to Introductory Biology starting 1/12.


My name is Dr. Heather Taft and I am your instructor for Introductory Biology.  I am very excited for class to start next week!  We will be covering a lot of interesting information that will relate to your life.  Biology is the study of living things, right?  Everything from what makes up the cell to how organisms in ecosystems interact.  Before class starts I would like to get to know more about what all of you want to learn in this class, and give you a little more information about myself.  Please complete this short 10 question survey.  It is anonymous, so answer honestly.  After you are done send me an email to let me know you have completed it.  Whenever you email me during this class use an appropriate subject heading with "Bio" somewhere in it, so I know it is related to this class.  Your subject heading for this email might look like this: Bio Survey Completed.

In the mean time please look over the syllabus and course material posted in Blackboard.  If you have any questions about anything send them my way!

Dr. Taft *looking forward to meeting all of you!*

Handshake icon GREEN-BLUE
The introduction forum allows everyone to introduce themselves and get to know each other better, including me.  Connections are formed over commonalities and students start to bond.  It is critical to the success of our discussions for this bond to form so students are comfortable disagreeing with each other to help clarify and build their knowledge when we are discussing course content.  Often students are comfortable sharing more information online than you would get from them during the first day of class.  People hear about exciting things going on in the lives of their classmates and discover that there are others in the class with similar experiences.  In classes I've taken and taught, the ice-breaker discussion often has a lot of posts.   One important point that instructors may overlook is the necessity of participating in these online discussions with the students.  It is just as important, if not more so, for the students to get to know the instructor.  If they have a problem in the class the instructor should be the first person they contact.  That means they have to be comfortable discussing issues with the instructor and feel that the instructor will be receptive to the problem.  The following is a prompt for an ice-breaker introduction and my post in response to it.

Introduce yourself to the class and tell us about a fond memory you have related to biology.  This is an open question and you can respond however you want, but make sure to include a personal element to your story.

After you post your introduction respond to two of your classmates.  Look for the posts with few or no responses yet so we can get everyone talking.

My Post in the Introduction Forum
Hello Class!

I am Dr. Heather Taft.  I currently live in Virginia with my Navy husband, our two rambunctious little ones (4 and 2), and three lazy balls of black feline fluff.  We moved here two years ago from southern California, where I completed my PhD at the University of California, Riverside focused on conservation genetics.  Biology has been a passion of mine since I was a child.  My parents used to take me and my sister camping a lot!  My fondest biology memories actually come from the research I did for my undergraduate thesis.  I was an intern for the campus natural reserve collecting data on woodrat nest locations on the untouched portion of the campus that was being planned for development.  The woodrat found there was classified as a species of special concern, and there was hope that the development plan would be modified to accommodate the locations of the woodrat nests.  What I loved most about this project was that I was going to help make a difference for these animals!  I also got to spend a lot of time hiking through the woods gathering data.  I don't know if it was partly due to this study, or maybe it was budget issues, but that area of campus has yet to be developed (10 years later)!

Dr. Taft

Riparian woodrat
Woodrat image by Peterson B. Moose