IT Teaching Resources

Informal trust-building in an online environment

A GSE-inspired collection of practices for positive relationships in the digital classroom

Article Promising practices

This is one of two resources on promising practices for building community and trust online. Please refer to the other resource for information on community building activities for agreement and norm-setting.


In an online environment, teachers start at a disadvantage in terms of social interaction (McAleavy & Gorgen, 2020). All the quick interactions that would naturally occur between students and teachers, as well as among students, at moments of class-transition or casually in the hallway are stripped away, leaving few opportunities for informal trust-building. Relationship building by teachers has been found to earn student trust by feeling they are fairly treated, which makes them more likely to cooperate in the learning experience (Gregory & Ripski, 2008). Moreover, social and school connectedness is important in affecting students’ mood (Bond et al., 2007), and academic self-efficacy (McMahon et al., 2009), as well as their academic achievement and school success (Cohen et al., 2009).

The failure of many MOOCS reflects the fact that student persistence and motivation relies on substantial teacher-student engagement (McAleavy & Gorgen, 2020). Aspects of social interaction linked to engagement—such as teaching presence (Garrison  & Anderson, 2003), teacher and student support (Patrick et al., 2007), and emotion-related interactions (Reyes et al., 2012)—that are commonly taken for granted in face-to-face teaching environments must, therefore, be incorporated into online classes in a highly intentional way. Promising practices for such informal trust-building in an online environment follow.

Be intentional about including time for check-ins inside and outside class to build rapport and well-being

(Source: A., Garcia, Lunch-n-Learn Instructor Panel #2, May 27, 2020; E. Saito, Lunch-n-Learn Student Voices Panel June 15, 2020)

Create a collaborative class playlist for engagement inside and outside of class

  • Allow students to add songs to a class playlist either individually or by asking them in a Google Form what they’re listening to and having the teaching team include those songs in the class playlist (C. Bywater, Lunch-n-Learn Instructor Panel #2, May 27, 2020; Gathers & Woolsey, 2020
  • Play songs at the beginning of class while waiting for participants to join, and during transitions/breaks between activities, along with a prompt like:
    • Type how the song playing makes you feel in the Chatbox
    • Guess the song name/artist. Have students unmute to say the answer and play a new song each time they get it right to see how many the class can guess in 2 minutes
    • (STEP digital pre-orientation, July 14, 2020, H. D’Apice, Lunch-n-Learn Student Voices Panel June 15, 2020)

Use stokes to build in moments of levity and get brains, bodies, and creativity moving

  • Introduce coworkers (family members, pets, roommates) to set the tone for play (Gathers & Woolsey, 2020
  • Include 1- or 2-minute exercise breaks between tasks using Tabata (high-intensity interval training), jumping jacks, or something similar, with music playing in the background (Gathers & Woolsey, 2020
  • Use American sign language for applause (both hands up) (Gathers & Woolsey, 2020
  • Use lighthearted polling about silly questions to make sure students are paying attention and get to see what each other are thinking (V. Lee, 2020)
  • Draw & Show
    • Pair up and draw the person on the other side of the camera without looking down at the page or taking your pen off the paper then hold up your picture in gallery mode (Gathers & Woolsey, 2020

Use analog activities for off-screen community building and group reflection

Build opportunities for student choice and voice into class time 

  • Allocate a third of the class time to students sharing about the weekly topic, whether through a short presentation or other active engagement strategy (Ardoin, 2020)
  • Allow students to choose different trajectories of participation based on what is most comfortable for them, for example choosing between holding up a post-it note with premeditated thoughts or volunteering to speak in a whole-class discussion (N. Ardoin, Lunch-n-Learn Instructor Panel #2, May 27, 2020)
  • Share a list of podcast episodes with the students, allowing them to choose whichever one(s) speaks to them or seems interesting. Keep in mind the way they relate to each other (even if they seem wildly different). Encourage students to listen while walking outside or sitting in a different place, and bring back a thought/connection on a sticky note, to discuss in breakout rooms or a bigger group (Ardoin, 2020)
  • Incorporate the option for voice recordings into assignments, e.g. through the creation of radio news stories, so students can choose to convey ideas orally instead of in a written format (A. Kelman, Lunch-n-Learn Instructor Panel #2, May 27, 2020)

Be flexible in adapting to student needs