Connecting With Our Students — Donna Ellis

My colleague Monica Vesely recently blogged about connecting with our students by being more transparent in our teaching.  This is solid advice and helps us to think about putting our students and their learning experiences at the core of our teaching.  It fits with a recent e-flyer that I received about the 5Rs that we can use to better “engage” students: relevant learning, research-based approaches to instruction, rationales for course designs, relaxed and participatory learning environments, and relational opportunities and rapport with professors.

I have my own thoughts about how to connect with our students.  I recently delivered a keynote talk at a geotechnical engineering conference on teaching and learning where I was asked to provide my insights on how to promote effective learning in the lecture setting.  Traditional didactic lectures have not been the ideal setting for students to learn deeply – to retain key concepts and apply and connect knowledge across multiple contexts.

In a non-traditional interactive format, I explored principles of deep learning with the participants and then presented a model about making connections in our teaching to promote effective learning:  learner to content, learner to learner, and learner to instructor.

At the core of this model is the learner, not the instructor.  I asserted that our learners need to be at the core of our teaching and provided various strategies for connecting with our students during our face-to-face teaching time.  To connect with the content, we can use compelling questions, discussion via questions, one-minute summaries, concept maps, and narrated modelling (explaining your thinking processes as you solve a problem).  Connecting with other learners can be achieved through activities that have students working together during class time and sharing their thinking.  Making our own connections with students involves using nonverbal strategies (e.g., smiling) and creating trust through sharing information about ourselves and our learning or asking students for their feedback on our course during the semester.

In an effort to connect with my learners in that conference setting, I demonstrated as many of these strategies as I could, and I enjoyed our lively discussion around what they planned to apply in their own settings.

So what about you?  It can be truly satisfying to connect with your students during the few hours of class time you have with them each term.  Being able to witness their learning in class is much more energizing than looking at a sea of disengaged faces.  Why don’t you give it a try?  Remember, we’re here to help.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

Published by

Donna Ellis

Donna Ellis has supported the teaching development of Waterloo faculty members and graduate students since 1994. In her role as Director, she oversees the development and delivery of all the Centre for Teaching Excellence programming and services, which include individual faculty consultations; events directed at graduate students, new faculty, and established faculty regarding face-to-face teaching, blended learning, and emerging technologies; online resources; curriculum and program review consultations; and research support services. Donna has a PhD from Waterloo’s Management Sciences program and completed her dissertation research on instructional innovations. She also has an MA in Language and Professional Writing from Waterloo, and has taught in the Speech Communication program. Donna, along with her husband, spends time away from work raising three fine boys.

Leave a Reply