Building positive and engaging connections with our students is a crucial part of any teaching environment. Online teaching presents different challenges in building rapport as students are scattered across regions, access learning material at their own pace, and work on assignments in different time zones. Geographical logistics are not the only challenges which face teaching staff: there are limitations in the design of courses, software restrictions, and how the number of students impedes personal connections.

This article will consider what rapport involves, and the obstacles to building rapport in virtual learning contexts. Six categories of rapport building indicators in distance education (Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2012) will be discussed, and recent experiences from an eight-week online course in English for Academic Purposes drawn upon.

What does rapport involve?

The ability to establish and maintain a good rapport with your students is seen as the axis on which all learning hangs. It is an attribute which is overtly referred to by employers, and subsequently often mentioned by teachers in interviews and post observation reflections:

‘I have been praised for the rapport
I create with my students.’

‘The activities I planned helped to build rapport between the learners.’

The word harmonious is often cited in explanations of what rapport involves, e.g. ‘harmonious understanding’, ‘harmonious interactions’, and ‘harmonious relations’. Consider how important this goal is in your face-to-face educational setting? What factors do you think help to achieve rapport?

There is a belief that this attribute is inherent to all teachers and that those who enter the profession are by nature personable and sociable people, which fosters harmonious interactions. Personality is hence seen as the principle antecedent of rapport, as The British Council reports ‘Building good rapport is often a matter of personalities, and many teachers will have excellent rapport with one class and bad rapport with another, for no clear reason’ (British Council n.d).

These sentiments are not wide of the mark. Personality has indeed been identified as a rapport building factor (Granitz et al, 2009). Aside from the ability of inducing the more observable emotions of excitement and laughter in the classroom, the study by Granitz et al reveals ‘personality’ to include caring and empathy factors, i.e. when teachers are on the side of learners, sensing when a student needs help and putting themselves in their position.

The recent increase in distance education though requires us to revisit factors which contribute to building connections with online learners in the absence of being able to fully use our personalities as a mediator.

Six categories of rapport building

Several studies have researched antecedents of rapport and their outcomes in the classroom (Granitz et al, 2009; Ryan et al, 2011; Sybing, 2019). Few have examined how rapport is established outside of the face-to-face group classroom context. There are some notable expansions such as Lee’s 2015 study on a microscopic level of rapport building in 1–1 writing consultations for non L1 English students at a higher education institution. Regarding online provision, six categories of rapport building factors in distance education were identified in a 2012 study of Canadian high school teachers. These categories provide a valuable measure of how rapport manifests itself in virtual learning contexts, and can be used to determine where further opportunities for establishing harmonious understanding lie.

Table 1 outlines the six categories identified by Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares (2012). Examples of indicators of each category from the original study are given as well as my own observations of how these were met on a recent eight-week online course in EAP which I co-coordinated.

 

Discussion

The eight-week online course in EAP provided for many opportunities to build report around category 1: Recognising the person/individual. In addition to orientation activities in the first week, students were encouraged to express personal information such as likes, dislikes, interests and intentions throughout the course in spoken language tasks, as well as comment on their peers’ responses to build a sense of community. Teachers, on the other hand, could have been also afforded more opportunities to express their personalities. One suggestion from the Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares (2012) study is to allow teachers to create their own profile pages or wall.

Category 2: Supporting and monitoring also exemplified indicators of good rapport building with a range of mechanisms from live small group academic and personal tutorials to weekly messages of praise and support.

In the original study indicators in category 3: Availability, accessibility and responsiveness mostly emphasise teacher availability without limitations. Given the onus in recent years on employee well-being, i.e. a healthy work-life balance, this expectation is now both unrealistic and undesirable. In addition, some indicators under category 4: Non text-based interactions are now less relevant given the prolific use of asynchronous video/audio material in distance education, and use of webinars.

Category 5: Tone of interactions presents some interesting indicators which teachers would be familiar with in the face-to-face classroom, but are challenging to reproduce in an online course. The indicators in the original study focus on emotions and attributes such as being friendly, jovial, easy-going, exchanging pleasantries and having a sense of humour. To build such a relationship online requires increased live teacher contact time, more than the eight-week online course in EAP afforded. Attempts to create rapport with, for example, humour and pleasantries may backfire unless the teacher has the trust and a good understanding with their students.

A number of these indicators are indicative generally of effective teaching and would be expected in classroom contexts as well as distance education. It could be argued that without the dynamic of classroom interactions, strategies to build rapport become even more significant in the online context to compensate for the anonymity of learners and teachers. Yet, the goal of creating harmonious relations may indeed be of less importance in distance education, not only due to limitations of time and software, but also student preferences and the status of the course. Adults taking a course voluntarily will have different needs for rapport compared to younger learners in compulsory education. Similarly, the higher the stakes, the less concerned students may be with ‘off-topic’ conversations. The above categories and indicators are useful though to build an understanding of specific behaviours and activities which help to overcome the physical distance with our students.

References

The British Council (n.d) Rapport [online]. Available at: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/rapport (accessed 16 August 2020)

Granitz NA, Koernig SK & Harich KR (2009) Now it’s personal: Antecedents and outcomes of rapport between business faculty and their students. Journal of Marketing Education 31 52–65.

Lee C (2015) More than just language advising: rapport in university English writing consultations and implications for tutor training. Language and Education 29 430–452.

Murphy E & Rodríguez-Manzanares MA (2012) Rapport in distance education. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 13 167–190.

Ryan RG, Wilson JH, Pugh JL (2011) Psychometric characteristics of the Professor-Student Rapport Scale. Teaching of Psychology 38 135–141.

Sybing R (2019) Making connections: student-teacher rapport in higher education classroom. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 19 18–35.

Vicky Collins works at the International Study and Language Institute at the University of Reading, UK. She is principally responsible for coordinating courses in English for Academic Purposes including Pre sessional English programmes, and Academic English for Business and Finance students.