In my last article, I wrote about ways that we can get to know our students in virtual and hybrid courses. I also did a webinar on building a community online. You can watch it on replay here. One of the best ways to build relationships is through frequent one-on-one check-ins. In this article, we explore ideas for how to make the most out of these quick check-ins so that students feel known and understood, even when they are working at a distance.
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The Power of a Check-In
During the pandemic, many students described feeling lonely and isolated as they shifted into online environments. So much of the classroom experience is designed around face-to-face experiences. However, without the in-person interaction, students often felt like they were no longer connected. In some cases, students began to check out.
This isn’t surprising.
Over two decades ago, researchers Anderson and Garrison demonstrated that success in an online course depended on the relationship between the student and the content, the student and the instructor, and the student and classmates. When students fail to connect with their instructor or with their classmates, they disengage. This disengagement results in lower attendance, lower assignment completion, and lower achievement. In other words, by every metric imaginable, students learn less and perform worse when they aren’t connecting with others. On a more human level, students need to connect relationally to their classmates and their teacher.
When schools shift to remote learning courses, certain students who would normally do well in person end up struggling to manage their time and get started on their learning. They get distracted and fail to develop deep work habits that can lead to success. Here, students might even fail to show up to class video conferences or respond to emails. They turn in work significantly late and at a lower quality than they would if they were in a physical classroom. Without the teacher present and the reminder of accountability, these students disengage. In other words, they fail to connect with the content, with their classmates, and with the teacher. However, distance learning doesn’t mean we have to be distant on a relational or social level. As teachers, we can be intentional about creating a sense of presence with our students through short check-ins.
These check-ins might focus on social-emotional elements, such as wellness, emotional status, and social connected-ness. This type of check-in can be as simple as a “How are you doing right now?” or “How are you doing with distance learning?” It might even begin with a short conversation about a student’s life, such as, “How is dance going for you?” or “What video games are you into?” These little questions can send the message that you care about your students and you want to know how they are doing. Other times, it might be a more in-depth check-in with a student, a caretaker, and the school counselor or psychologist.
Other times, the check-in might have a more academic focus. You might ask students questions about their hybrid learning experiences, including how they are navigating their courses, how they are managing their time, and how they are handling the workload. This is often when you address issues of late work or a lack of engagement. In these moments, it’s important to listen first and then help students develop a plan of action. In some cases, you might ask students about the social elements of school, including how they are getting along with their group members or how well connected they feel to the classroom community.
In some cases, these academic check-ins might relate more closely to the class assignments and projects. You might provide some targeted help for students who are struggling. You might need to clarify misconceptions and provide students with additional resources or scaffolds. You might also help students set and track specific academic goals.
We can conceptualize these check-ins on a continuum with the social-emotional check-ins on the more personal side and the targeted tutoring on the more academic side.
In general, teachers tend to focus on the personal elements first and move toward the more academic approach later. However, some students are doing well emotionally and really want a check-in to be academically focused. It’s why there’s no single right way to approach this. In some cases, a conversation begins on an academic level and then shifts toward a more social-emotional side as students share how they’re actually doing. Ultimately, this is where you are the expert as a teacher. You know how to connect with students and parents or guardians in a way that is approachable but also professional.
Nine Types of Virtual Check-Ins
Here are a few ideas that I’ve found helpful:
- Social-emotional pulse check: You can do this as a warm-up activity in your video conference / class meeting. You might begin with an open-ended question like, “How are you handling hybrid learning?” Students might meet with small breakout rooms or share their answers in the chat. Other times, you might create a more structured pulse check with something like, “Tell me two wins for the week and one disappointment.” It can even be creative, where you have students create a superhero name or a band name. Some teachers have done emoji check-ins where students share an emoji to represent how they are doing. Others have created emotions chart with pop cultural references. Still others have had students sketch what’s on their mind or what’s on their heart by drawing inside of a mind shape or a heart shape. This really depends on the age, the class culture, and the subject you teach.
- Video updates: This starts with a teacher-created video. In the first week, you can do an on boarding video of the course and explain how it will work. But after that, you can create a weekly short video with a preview of what students will do. Although prerecorded, these short, unstructured videos create a sense of presence for you as a teacher. You can then ask a specific check-in question and have students send an email or fill out a survey.
- Video check-ins: While it helps to create videos for students, we can also encourage students to create their own video reflections and either post them to Flipgrid or email them directly to the teacher. You might give students a specific prompt or provide options of multiple prompts and encourage each student to select their own prompt. Video check-ins allow students to share how their doing with body language and voice. However, the fact that they can re-record a video allows them to have a sense of control over the process.
- Small group check-ins: Here, you can schedule small group meeting and use video conferencing to meet with groups and look at their progress. You might have students engage in the mastermind group format as a way to share their academic goals or project progress. Other times, you might create small groups that function as a peer advisory / check-in.
- Email check-ups: You can send out a whole class email with expectations, deadlines, etc. You might also send a short email to each student asking how they’re doing. If you have 180 students in a class, rotate with 18 per day and make sure each student gets an individual email every other week. While this can feel overwhelming, you can create a template and personalize it.
- Short text check-ins: With this option, you can ask students to use the chat function to send questions or comments as they work on various projects. Some classes might even use an option like Slack or Voxer so that the check-ins remain largely asynchronous.
- Surveys: Ask students to fill out a course survey each week where they share what their experiences have been in a distance learning or hybrid course. These surveys tend to center on student course experience but you can also include a few questions that deal with social-emotional learning. It’s important to avoid survey fatigue, so you might want to limit the surveys to 3-5 questions.
- Scheduled conferences: You can schedule one-on-one video conferences with students where you guide reflection and do quick social-emotional learning check-ins. I love doing short five-minute conferences and allowing students to select between feedback conferences (where I provide help), reflection conferences (where I ask reflective questions), or assessment conferences (where I give feedback on mastery).
- Phone calls: This is my least favorite option because I’m an introvert and generally dislike talking on the phone. However, given the challenges students sometimes experience with internet connectivity, sometimes the best option is a simple phone call to see how a student is doing.
At this point, these options might feel overwhelming. This is why it helps to experiment with the process until you find your groove. It also helps to ask students about their preferences for check-ins.
Poll Students for Ideal Check-in Processes
As an educator, you can honor student agency by asking them their preferences for check-ins. Students can submit their answers in an online form or in a short interview that you do a the beginning of the year. After students have submitted it, you can look at the spreadsheet and divide up your primary way of communicating with each student. This process sends the message that you value each student’s input in their preferred approach to communication. As a result, they have a greater sense of control over frequency and method of communication. This can also free up your time to be more efficient with your communication. Not every student wants daily or weekly personalized check-ins. Some students prefer a short 3-question survey in a weekly email. Other students might need a phone call every other week.
The following questions can help guide the process:
- How can I help you? What are some areas where you might need support? What are some challenges you might have in remote learning?
- When is the best time to reach you?
- How often do you want me to communicate with you?
- What is your preferred method of communication? Do you prefer email? Chat? Phone call? Video conference?
- What type of feedback do you prefer on your work? Video feedback? Audio feedback? Comments that are typed?
- What is something former teachers have done that helped you feel known and appreciated?
- What is something former teachers have done that helped you stay on track in your course?
However, this is also a two-way process and you might need to help students clarify expectations. You might send an email to a student affirming their desire for frequent communication but also explaining that daily one-on-one communication might be unrealistic.
Communicating Your Availability
Although it’s important to take the initiative as the educator, it can also help to encourage students to take the initiative as well. We want to empower students to be self-advocates. As the instructor, you might provide the ideal process for asking questions, giving feedback, and reaching out to you with questions. When crafting a course syllabus, you can create a category for communicating with the teacher or professor. This category can include reasonable methods (an email, online form, office phone number), reasonable times, and expectations for when you will get back to students.
For example, as a professor, you might have the following:
Please feel free to reach out if you have questions. I am glad to help. Office hours are by appointment only. Please schedule video conference office hour meetings using the online Google form in our LMS. Please feel free to email me at any time. I will be sending email updates to check in on you and I want you to feel free to let me know if you have any questions. You can also use the chat feature in Slack or the Voxer walkie-talkie app. You can generally expect a response to an email, chat, or message within twenty-four hours. I generally end my day at 5 pm, so I will likely respond to a late-night email the next morning or afternoon.
However, if you are a fifth grade teacher, you might include a communication explanation in a newsletter you send to students and families:
Please feel free to reach out if you have questions. I am glad to help. Please schedule video conference office hour meetings using the scheduling link in our LMS (Canvas platform). If your parents or guardians would like to schedule a meeting, they can use the same form or they can send me an email or message me directly through Remind. You can generally expect a response to an email or message within twenty-four hours. If you have questions on an assignment and it’s due the next day, please remember that you can always resubmit assignments after I have given feedback. Also, we will have virtual study hall sessions available to the entire class. I will be sending you a weekly check-in and it will be really important that you read and respond each time.
Notice how both paragraphs communicate availability but also boundaries. They make it clear that you are present but they also ask students to initiate conversations. It also sets the tone for future communication. Students can expect check-ins.
It’s About Empowerment
Ultimately, the issue of student engagement is an issue of self-direction. When students fail to show up or turn in their work, they are often failing to be self-directed in their learning. As teachers, we can empower students to own the learning process. However, this begins with building relationships and checking in on students. When students feel known and respected, they are more likely to engage in meaningful projects that build on voice and choice. These check-ins can help build student agency and a sense of belonging in the larger community. In my last article, I wrote about how we can get to know students in virtual and hybrid environments. However, I also have a virtual learning hub with resources, articles, and webinars. I’m also working on the finishing touches on a book about empowering students in distance and hybrid learning. I can’t wait to share it with you!
If you want to take a deeper dive into empowering students in distance learning, please check out my course. It’s fully self-paced and on-demand, which means you can work on it at your own pace. It’s packed with videos and practical resources. The course is designed to take 15 hours and I offer district and school bulk license discounts. My friend A.J. Juliani also has a great course about online and hybrid learning. As an affiliate, I get a portion of his course sales and I also have access to the 20% off coupon code. Simply type Spencer at checkout and the 20% off will be applied automatically.