Connecting With Your Class

Whether it's your first time in the classroom, or you're just looking for new ways to reach the bleary-eyed or disengaged, Matt Eventoff offers tips for turning strangers into engaged students.

August 30, 2013

For many thousands of students, the new semester, and academic year, is about to begin. 

Many professors will be speaking to a rapt classroom with eager students who are consumed with their subject matter. Unfortunately, some professors will be teaching classes where establishing a connection with the class is as difficult as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

You might be lecturing in a required course, and more students are there because they have to be rather than because they want to be. You might be in an intro-level class with so many students that you are having a hard time connecting with any of them. 

Maybe you are teaching a difficult technical class to a disinterested or intimidated audience, or teaching a required humanities classes to an audience that is interested in anything else.

Fear not.

There are steps every professor can take to connect with students while teaching. Many of these steps will help to put a nervous, or anxious, professor at ease as well.

The key is to establish that connection as soon as possible, and the first class is the best opportunity to do so. As the semester continues you will connect with individual students who come to office hours, show interest or participate; the first classes are your opportunity to connect with most of your students, and engage them immediately. 

Here are 10 steps you can take on Day 1:

1. Smile. When your students first start to arrive in your classroom, they will be looking for you to set some sort of tone.  Set the tone with a warm face and genuine smile.  If you don't appear interested in teaching the class, why would a student be excited about taking it?

2. Why you? You might be teaching the class because you want to or you might be teaching the class because it was assigned to you. Determine what about the information you are going to be teaching matters to you, why it matters, and why your students should care. One idea is to answer the following question: What is the most valuable piece of advice you can provide for your students to help them succeed, based on your experiences as a student in this subject area?” Stories that humanize you are helpful as well.  Allowing students to see another dimension to you, rather than just the label of professor, will help to establish a connection.

3. Introduce yourself. Introduce yourself, and rather than just providing an abbreviated C.V., tell your students why you are teaching this class, why you care about the subject matter, and why you studied this subject. Then …

4. Ask them to do the same. It is a great way to break the ice, develop some collegiality among your students, and give you a better idea of who you are teaching.  This then allows you to determine how this class will not only help students reach a requirement, but also benefit those same students as they pursue individual majors and specific learning interests.

In a large class this becomes extremely difficult, but still possible. One idea: This is going to sound a little strange, but ask each student to introduce herself or himself to the person seated the right and the left.  While this will not directly help you learn more about your students, it will at least generate some conversation among students, and may result in increased collegiality.

One more way to try to lower the barrier in a large class is to, literally, step away from the lectern, walk to the front row, and introduce yourself to a student.  Use this opportunity to pivot by asking the student a basic question about his or her experience with the subject matter.  Then use this as an opportunity to pivot and ask the class “How many other people feel the way (so-and-so) does?”  You can now continue to pivot by asking questions to learn more.  The trick here is to ask questions that are fairly benign, avoid being confrontational and thank each student that speaks up.

5. Why this class? "Because I had to" is not the reason that you want students to provide at the end of the semester if asked why they took your class.  Take control of the situation and define why this class is important at the outset.  How do you do this?  Get an idea of who your students are, and how the information learned will help them. 

One example: "Biology affects every facet of our lives, and can make you a better scientist, executive or poet. Over the course of this semester I will show you how."

Another example: “Over the course of the next 12 weeks, we will learn how (subject name) affects every person and every student, whether you are a majoring in art history, zoology, or any subject in between.”

6. Support your students. A nice signal to send students on Day 1 is that you are going to be there to support them. The class might be very difficult, and you can tell your students that. There might be quite a bit of homework. You can tell them that. Just don't tell them that you have office hours in the same tone that an attorney would provide rules at a deposition. 

An example: "This class will be difficult, but I will be here to support you every step of the way. I can make you this promise -- if you try your hardest, schedule time with me when you have difficulty, go to TA hours, etc., you will do O.K.  in this class" (if that is in fact true!).

7. Show them. If you are assigning homework over the first few classes, ask for a student volunteer, or pick a student.  Then surprise them by taking one of the homework problems or questions and actually showing them, step by step, how you would gather the information, utilize said information and approach the answer.  Literally step by step, as if you were a young student learning this course material the first time.

This may seem cumbersome, and it is.  It also shows your students you are in it with them.  You meant it when you said it. It is crucial that you don't leave a student at the board struggling when doing this – you are taking them through your thought process, step by step.  This will help them, and will help you.

8. Fun. Incorporate something fun into your first lecture. Not necessarily funny, but fun. A video. A story. An anecdote. A light moment will not distract your students; it will actually refocus them. It will also show them you a) are human and b) have interests other than your subject area, and grading them in that subject area.

9. Current events. One way to make the first class more interesting is to scan your favorite newspaper or current events website, and connect the subject you are teaching to something happening in the news. One way to successfully do this by connecting your class subject with a current event or current "hot" topic a student would not typically associate with your subject area.   

An example: “Last night was (pick an event.)  Well (sporting event), at first glance, has absolutely nothing to do with (pick a subject). But in reality, it does have something to do with (subject). What we will learn over the next few weeks is how (subject) affects many areas of our lives….”

10. Learn from hosts.  This may not be appropriate for every class, but I find that this works to establish connection with any audience.  It has the added benefit of putting a nervous professor at ease.  Greet students as they enter your classroom.

"Hi, I'm Dr. ______, it is a pleasure to meet you."

This changes the mood in the classroom immediately, as now you are no longer speaking to a room full of strangers. 

While these are by no means the only ways to connect with students, they are a strong start.  Remember, the class is not about you.   It is about your audience, and it is easier to educate once you have connected.


Matt Eventoff is the owner of Princeton Public Speaking, based in Princeton, N.J., and Dallas, Tex.


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