Communication and Student Engagement in Remote Learning
This page provides resources and information for TAs working in a remote learning environment with regards to communication and student engagement. Strategies for communicating with students effectively via email, in discussion forums, and through virtual office hours are outlined below.
Communication in Remote Learning Courses
Communicating effectively in remote learning courses is critical to the success of the course. Remote learning can feel isolating for students, especially in the current situation during Covid-19. Remote learning can also feel daunting for students, especially for those who are unfamiliar with remote and/or online learning. The goal in face-to-face communication is the same as online communication: to bond, to share information, to be heard, and to be understood. Effective, consistent communication has to occur in remote learning courses in order to create a sense of community among the Instructor, TAs, and students. It is important to create an engaging, positive learning environment where students feel connected and supported.
There are many ways that you will communicate with the instructor and students in the course including through email, announcements, and discussion forums in UM Learn. Whatever your role is in the course as a TA or Grader/Marker, find ways to let students know you are there and available to help them and guide them through their remote learning courses.
General Guidelines for Communication
There are some general guidelines for communication (whether you are communicating via email, announcements, virtual office hours, or in discussion forums) that can help make online communication go smoothly. Online communication can be challenging – there is no body language, tone, or facial expressions to guide communication, only written words (except when we are using videos or technology to virtual office hours).
- Less is More – Communicate efficiently – Students are more likely to read shorter, concise announcements, emails, and discussion posts.
- Be Clear – Communicate clearly – Include relevant details only – For example, if you are sharing information about a specific assignment and deadlines, keep the communication focused on that topic.
- Know your Audience – Your students are diverse and will come from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and knowledge levels. Keep that in mind when you are drafting communication that they will read.
- Words Matter – The tone of your communication comes through in the words you use, punctuation, and the order of information. Choosing what you say carefully and how you write will affect how students perceive and take in communication.
- Straight Talk – Avoid using acronyms or slang terms unless you are certain students will know what you are referring to so that they understand clearly.
- Be Open to Questions – Encourage students to reach out and ask if they need clarification from you.
- Make Communication Personalized – Students want to feel connected to the Instructor and to you, as the TA. Communicate in a way that demonstrates respect and acknowledges that students are people, too. Use students’ names consistently and use the pronouns they identify (e.g. he, she, they).
- Introduce Yourself – If the instructor allows it, consider posting a brief introduction in the course so they can get to know you before the course starts.
- “Ask the TA” Discussion Forum – Check with the Instructor if this is something they would like to implement for their course. Remember that responding to this board would be part of your hours of work. But, this is the ideal place for students to ask questions about course content or assessments. All students would benefit and could check the forum, even if they do not ask questions themselves. It could also reduce email volumes and keep emails for more private concerns like grades and accommodations.
Communicating Via Email
Communicating with students via email may be part of your role as a TA, but it is important to remember that just because you are working remotely, this does not mean you have to be available 2/47 to respond to emails. You should discuss and clarify appropriate response guidelines and timelines with the Instructor. For example:
- How often should you check emails? Once a day?
- When can students expect a response from you? For example, within 48 hours (including/excluding weekends)?
Once you have discussed this with the Instructor, make sure that students know when they can contact you and when they can expect a response. You can consider adding an automated response to your email so that students know when they can expect a reply.
**Remember to use your U of M email address (@myumanitoba.ca) when communicating with students and encourage them to do the same to ensure that you receive their emails.**
Netiquette, like etiquette, is using correct or acceptable ways to communicate online. You can think of it is as a code of conduct for online communication used in an academic or professional setting. It includes topics such as respectful behaviour, appropriate language, seeking clarification, and acknowledging others’ privacy.
Here are some “netiquette” tips for communicating in remote learning courses:
- Avoid dealing with numerous topics in one email unless absolutely necessary. This helps to keep the communication clear and focused on the main topic.
- If it is necessary to cover multiple items in one email, consider using a numbered list to keep track of your responses to all of the students’ questions
- Avoid emotionally charged emails. It is possible that you will have to respond to students who are upset and you may have to write emails that deal with sensitive topics. Sometimes emotions surface even if we have the opportunity to reflect on the message.
- Ask yourself: “Would I say this out loud? Is this how I would speak with someone face-to-face?” – This may help you re-phrase communication that is emotionally charged before it is posted online or sent via email.
- Try to maintain a positive, or at least neutral tone in your response. This will help you convey a clear message to the student in a polite and respectful way.
- Check grammar, spelling, and punctuation – minor mistakes are okay, but communication should be proofread carefully.
- Use full sentences to maintain professional communication.
- To emphasize something, use asterisks* instead of capital letters as capital letters can look like “yelling” online.
- Keep Underline and Italics to a minimum. Not all email applications recognize these features. If you need to use them, do so sparingly.
- To maintain privacy, ask permission before forwarding any personal communication.
- Do not modify the content of an email that you may forward to the Instructor. However, if need be, you can copy and paste an excerpt.
- If you cannot respond to a student within the timeframe you indicated – acknowledge the students’ email and indicate when you will respond. Acknowledging their email shows students that they are not being ignored and that they will receive a reply. This will also discourage students from sending multiple emails.
Virtual Office Hours
Many TAs hold office hours with students in face-to-face courses to help students and answer questions about course content and assignments. However, it is still possible to hold office hours virtually to support students in remote learning courses. Find out from the Instructor if you will need to hold virtual office hours and how often you should hold these hours.
You can set up your office hours in UM Learn using Webex Meetings or use another platform, like Zoom. Students can sign up for a specific time slot in a calendar in Webex or you can use a spreadsheet to avoid double-bookings. These one-on-one meetings help encourage contact between you and the students in the course which can have a positive impact on student motivation and involvement in remote learning courses. Hosting office hours virtually can also be more time efficient than sending multiple emails and can eliminate any misunderstandings or confusion from written communication.
You can post an announcement in UM Learn or send an email to let students know when you will be available for office hours each week. Set specific days and times for those hours and try to be consistent in maintaining them. Provide students with basic instructions on how to access the meeting using Webex or Zoom.
As the TA, some preparation is needed before holding office hours, just as you would prepare for face-to-face office hours. Some of this preparation may include reviewing assignments, feedback, and students’ questions, as well as familiarizing yourself with the technology you will be using to hold the meeting. Reviewing the relevant course material will ensure that you can provide detailed feedback and discuss relevant topics efficiently and clearly. During the meeting, provide guidance to students to help them make improvements or find the right answer on their own. Giving students the right answer does not benefit their learning and does not help them make improvements on future assignments. You can check with the Instructor about how much help and guidance is appropriate in the context of the course.
For more tips and suggestions about holding virtual office hours, you can consult the following resources:
- The Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning: Using Cisco Webex to Offer Office Hours
- The University of Waterloo: Holding Virtual Office Hours
Discussion forums, also known as the discussion board or message board, are one of the most popular features in online and remote learning courses. They are a place where students can interact with one another whenever they want (24/7) and also where they can interact with TAs and the Instructor. Discussion forums enable students to share, debate, offer ideas, and share insights, suggestions, and information to stimulate the learning process. Discussion forums help encourage critical and creative thinking, supporting students in their own reflection on course content and the questions they may have. Through dialogue with peers, TAs, and the Instructor, deeper learning is promoted and students attain better retention of course content.
Moderating Discussion Forums
As a TA, you may be asked to moderate discussion forums and engage with students using this tool in UM Learn. Here are some best practices for moderating discussion forums:
- Check discussion forums regularly – if students have to respond to a question/prompt weekly, ensure that you are checking their posts regularly
- Use your presence to encourage discussion, not dominate it.
- Encourage student-to-student interaction by referring to content, ideas, and questions from other students’ posts
- Facilitate meaningful discussions by asking good questions, making connections, and responding to a variety of students
- Model good “netiquette” by being polite, respectful, and encouraging
- Thank students for relevant contributions – acknowledge when students make a valuable contribution as it will encourage them to keep posting.
- Encourage students who may not post frequently, but who make an effort. Students may not be comfortable contributing online, but a “nudge” of encouragement can help them overcome shyness
- Prevention is better than censorship – if a student posts something disrespectful or inappropriate, but the Instructor has given you permission to moderate the forum, give students a warning, rather than removing the post.
- However, if things escalate, contact the Instructor.
- If you have to remove a post, the student can be contacted directly to discuss respectful communication guidelines.
- Know when it is time to stop responding to posts/end a discussion – if there are weekly or bi-weekly posts with a deadline set by the instructor, when time is up, take steps to ensure that the discussion stops and students move on to the next topic.
Engaging Students in Discussions
To engage students in discussions, it is important to have good questioning skills. It is important to know how to ask good questions to keep discussions lively and ongoing. Asking good questions can help students think critically, be more creative in their responses, help students find solutions, and consider different perspectives. When questions are used to stimulate learning, students can make connections to their previous knowledge and experience, engage with their peers, retain information, and apply course concepts.
This resource from the University of Waterloo provides a list of six types of questions that may be helpful for discussion forums: Six Types of Questions
Addressing Potential Issues in Discussion Forums
Sometimes, issues can arise in the discussion forum. Being informed of potential challenges can help you moderate and manage the discussion forum effectively as a TA. The chart below identifies some common issues in discussion forums and provides a few potential solutions.
|Conflict in the Discussion||Maintain an active presence in the discussion Post a reminder about respectful communication/discussion guidelines Explain why diverse opinions and perspectives are valuable|
|Personal Attacks/Bullying||Active intervention – contact the Instructor to determine next steps If you are to address the issue, email the student individually to discuss respectful communication/discussion guidelines Post a reminder about respectful communication/discussion guidelines|
|Lack of Participation||Highlight posts of students who do not post often as good examples Provide students with positive feedback when they do post If a student continues to be inactive, bring it to the attention of the Instructor.|
|Off-Topic Discussions||Monitor the discussion regularly Ask questions related to the original topic to get back on track Remind students that the discussion should be focused on the opening prompt/question|
|Weak Posts (e.g. “I agree,” “nice post!”)||Ask the Instructor to provide a sample, high quality post so students know what is expected If discussions are graded, remind students of post expectations and guidelines Ask a student a probing question to encourage them to respond in more detail|
Adapted from: Sull, Errol Craig. Faculty Focus. September 2012. Tips for Overcoming Discussion Board Challenges. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/tips-for-overcoming-online-discussion-board-challenges/
UM Learn Resources/Tools
There are resources available to you to assist you in using the UM Learn tools associated with communication in remote learning courses including Announcements, Class List and Email, and Discussions.
To access the Support Documentation for these tools, please make sure that you are logged in to UM Learn and then click the following link:
- Mitchell-Holder, S. “Chapter 3: Let’s Talk: Effectively Communicating with your Online Students.” Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning. Ed. W. Kilgore. https://humanmooc.pressbooks.com/
- Sull, Errol Craig. Faculty Focus. September 2012. Tips for Overcoming Discussion Board Challenges. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/tips-for-overcoming-online-discussion-board-challenges/
- Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. Purdue University (Fort Wayne). Preparing Guidance for Online Teaching Assistants. https://www.pfw.edu/dotAsset/95590dbc-7703-489e-9933-503cf045ebe1.pdf.
- Centre for Teaching Excellence. University of Waterloo. Asking Questions: Six Types. https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/alternatives-lecturing/questions/asking-questions-six-types
- Centre for Teaching Excellence. University of Waterloo. Being a TA in Online Courses. https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/teaching-tips-teaching-assistants/being-ta-online-courses.
- Centre for Teaching Excellence. University of Waterloo. Collaborative Online Learning: Fostering Effective Discussions. https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/alternatives-lecturing/discussions/collaborative-online-learning
- Centre for Teaching Excellence. University of Waterloo. Holding Virtual Office Hours Using Bongo and Webex. https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/virtual-meetings
- Centre for Teaching Excellence. University of Waterloo. Keep Teaching: Resources for TAs. https://uwaterloo.ca/keep-learning/resources/ta-resources
- Centre for Teaching Excellence. University of Waterloo. Online Discussions: Tips for Students. https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/developing-assignments/blended-learning/online-discussions-tips-students
- Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. University of Calgary. Graduate Teaching Assistants: Teaching and Learning Continuity Information. https://taylorinstitute.ucalgary.ca/teaching-continuity-gats
- Teaching and Learning Support Service. University of Ottawa. Guide: Fully Online and Blended Courses: A Guide for Teaching Assistants. https://uottawa.saea-tlss.ca/media/attachments/2019/12/12/ta_guide_2015.pdf
- The Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning. University of Manitoba. Using Cisco Webex to Offer Office Hours. https://centre.cc.umanitoba.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Webex-Instructor-Quick-Guide-Office-Hours.pdf
- The HUB. Learning Online Course. University of Manitoba, UM Learn.