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Strategies to Build Student-to-Student Rapport in Online Adult Learning Courses

By James Kennedy / February 2021

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In a resident undergraduate class, building student-student rapport is easy as students can meet after class and maybe in several after-school activities. However, in an online class, building this social interaction and rapport between students is a challenge. In most graduate courses, students generally have one to three different classes a week with a different group of students in each class. There may be a small group of students in several of the classes together and they can form a bond from shared experiences. 

There is significant research that provides best practices and tips for online learning. These include timely instructor feedback, maintaining contact with students, and students developing time-management plans. Meghan Lister’s research “Trends in the Design of E-Learning and Online Learning” surveyed numerous research that indicates the value of student-to-student interaction for both educational and personal satisfaction [1]. The research indicated the student-student interaction was executed predominately with emails, chats, and class discussion boards. Ali Sheer’s research of university students in an online course demonstrated that student-student and student-instructor interactions are significant contributors to the level of student learning and satisfaction in a technology-mediated environment [2]. The research indicated the student-student interaction was executed predominately with emails, chats, and class discussion boards. 

The course I teach has 16 students that are in a single cohort, taking eight classes over 16 weeks for four hours a day of in-class instruction. This is a graduate-level course with mid-career military officer students spread around the country. The course is normally taught in residence at four sites across the US. However, due to the COVID-19 precautions, the entire course was converted online for the full four-month session. When in residence, the students form very good bonds and social connections, which help their educational success and overall course experience as expected from the research. However, with a virtual classroom, the students do not meet in-person and only see each other in cyberspace. I believe that a student will not ask another student for help or interact positively with another student unless they have some connection. The problem for online instructors is how to get students to make connections and build that important student-student rapport. I searched many online sources and could not find any research for building student-to-student rapport in an adult learning online class. The following are some ideas we used that helped our students get to know each other a little better. 

Introduction slides. For our first class together, each student built their own introduction slide to present to the class. This included required items such as photos of the student, where they are from, education, last place of work, but students could add others such as #1 bucket list item, favorite TV/streaming show, least favorite food, favorite sports team, and others. This helped them find others with similar interests. Four of them were fans of a specific TV show. We realized later that adding their work experience related to topics within the course would have helped identify whom others could reach for assistance.

Virtual Happy Hour. Several times, the students would have the optional Friday afternoon virtual happy hour with their favorite beverage of choice and talk about whatever—no instructors invited.  

Special Event Emails/Texts. Group texts about what is going on for a specific occasion. Maybe it was Stupid Pet photo Tuesday or for Father’s Day it was photos of a gift received or their dad; 4th of July was a long weekend so photos of food or beverage or where went for a trip, etc. 

Special Activities. Those that liked to run shared an online app to record and share their run times/distances while others shared workout routines, a favorite recipe, or food/beverage they tried. Those fans of one specific show held online watch parties. These common interests started with the introduction slides mentioned earlier. Several started a Book Club recommending books they were reading. 

Discussion Boards. These are where the instructor sees the rapport between students demonstrated and impacting learning. Rapport and connections are established in the posts between students. 

Group Practical Exercises. As in resident courses, group activities offer opportunities for social connections. Instructors noted that while in breakout groups working on a practical exercise, students would use the remaining time to socialize and share experiences. 

Digital Communication Platforms. Students used an online app as a medium to synchronize schedules and prepare for classes, but over time, this became the primary method of rapport building. In addition to using digital apps to post announcements about upcoming events and assignments, students developed camaraderie channels to build and strengthen one-on-one and intra-group relations. The online apps replicate the playful banter that students would use to build rapport with one another in person, enabling distributed students to share funny content, personal stories, and get to know each other and each other’s professional backgrounds in a way that cannot be done in person or social setting. This was probably the most helpful method to improve rapport and interactions.

Photos in Blackboard. Students added their photos to their profile in Blackboard. We had them use a civilian photo. This small item allows students to see the person commenting on their posts, etc. vice a grey blank avatar. In a classroom, you know the person commenting, but online, the photo adds a personal touch. In hindsight, changing the photos every month would be a good idea to try to share more personal moments.

Over the course, the instructors observed the group was bonding by the verbal comments made during class or discussion boards. In their final course survey comments, all the students responded they felt closer as a group than they thought they would have when they were informed the course would convert to all virtual. Students overwhelmingly commented that the different ways the students collaborated outside class helped build their confidence to seek help from others and felt these connections increased their success [3]. These comments support the earlier mentioned research by Lister and Sher. Hopefully, the strategies utilized by this one class can spark other creative ways for instructors to help students build that critical interpersonal student-to-student connection in their online classes.


[1] Meaghan Lister, M. Trends in the design of e-learning and online learning. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10,4 (2014).

[2] Sher, A. Assessing the relationship of student-instructor and student-student interaction to student learning and satisfaction in web-based online learning environment. Journal of Interactive Online Learning 8,2 (2009). The research indicated the student-student interaction was executed predominately with emails, chats, and class discussion boards.

[3] End of Course Survey. August 18, 2020, held by author, James Kennedy.

About the Author

Col. James Kennedy, U.S. Army, retired, is an associate professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Belvoir, Virginia campus, where he teaches force management and sustainment. A former logistics officer, he holds a B.S. in chemistry from Presbyterian College, an M.S. in logistics management from Florida Institute of Technology, an M.S. in military history from the Command and General Staff College, and an M.S. in education from George Mason University. He served in various assignments in Army Materiel Command, 1st Theater Sustainment Command, and the Army G-4, Pentagon.

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