Changed by Our Journey: Engaging Students through Interpersonal Acknowledgment

min read

The first article in this series argues that instructors who successfully engaged students during the coronavirus pandemic adapted their thinking, mustered courage, and put heart into their teaching. In this article, an instructor explains how she experimented with interpersonal acknowledgment in a virtual setting and discusses its continued impact on her in-person courses.

Drawing of a landscape with the heads of a scarecrow, lion, and tin man floating over it.
Credit: Sarah McRury © 2023

Articles in this series:

When Associate Professor Martha Strickland found herself teaching an emergency remote synchronous course in the spring of 2020, she wondered how to keep her students engaged over seven weeks of what has become known as the "greatest experiment" in higher education. Strickland determined that students needed to feel seen and heard. She explored how to approximate interpersonal acknowledgment in her remote synchronous course and found success by adapting her thinking, mustering courage, and putting heart into her teaching.

First, Strickland considered "the space between." Many instructors employ methods to bridge the space between themselves and their students in physical classrooms. Some instructors move from behind the podium in large lecture halls or sit within a circle of chairs arranged for their students in small classrooms. These instructors use nonverbal immediacy—a tactic that leads to interpersonal acknowledgment and perceived classroom civility—to lessen the distance between themselves and their students.Footnote1 Faced with a remote synchronous scenario, Strickland needed to figure out how to communicate nonverbal immediacy and reduce the distance across cyberspace. She adapted her thinking about the space between, creating nonverbal immediacy through her webcam by using gestures, postures, and vocal animation. Immediately after spring break in 2020 and for several weeks that followed, her attempts had the desired effect.

Halfway through the second half of the spring semester, students began to disengage. They were less willing to turn on their cameras and more willing to rely on someone else to answer questions. As students began to fall away, Strickland realized that interpersonal acknowledgment goes two ways, and she also needed her students to acknowledge her. As hard as she tried to keep her students engaged, she felt she lacked what she needed to energize her teaching. So, she courageously revealed her needs to her students. She shared with them how difficult it is to teach to a screen with only a few—and sometimes no—faces visible and gauge whether students were listening and understanding. Given these difficulties, she explained the challenges associated with sustaining the motivation to innovate week after week. Her bravery in expressing her needs led to problem-solving how students could re-engage. Strickland, with her students, created a plan in which students who felt able would commit to extend nonverbal immediacy to the instructor, encouraging their classmates to participate during each class.

Strickland also attended to another element of interpersonal acknowledgment: students' feelings. She knew from her training, education, and years of teaching experience that emotions affect learning. Students who feel depressed, scared, anxious, or stressed are more likely to have difficulty learning. She needed to find ways to acknowledge their feelings and emotions and—where appropriate—connect those feelings to the lesson. She orchestrated this connection with check-in activities. She used Likert scales, word clouds, and other tools to take the pulse of the class each day. Strickland put heart into teaching by collectively acknowledging students' feelings.

Below, Strickland and I explore her notion of interpersonal acknowledgment, discuss the strategies she used, and reflect on how she has applied the lessons she learned from remote synchronous teaching to her current courses.

Lisa Lenze: I watched a video where you demonstrate how to facilitate activities in a remote synchronous environment.Footnote2 You sound as if you are right there with your students. Can you explain what you did to engage students in the early days of the pandemic?

Martha Strickland: My in-person courses include three core practices: (1) Students see each other as active participants in the learning community; (2) Students and the instructor engage in incidental conversations as they enter and leave the classroom; and (3) During class time, students interact with each other to construct their understanding of the content. When my courses changed to remote synchronous mode, my challenge was to emulate those same core practices in a remote learning environment.

Lenze: What informed your core practices?

Strickland: As an educational psychologist, I embrace the social constructivist understanding of the learning process. This theoretical perspective presents learning as a social act that occurs through interaction within a community.Footnote3 Therefore, as I entered the synchronous online video environment with my students, I knew that creating a space for relational interaction during class time was essential.

Lenze: How would you describe a typical start of a remote synchronous class period?

Strickland: My course had two starting points: the before-class start and the scheduled class start. I opened the Zoom space for my class about five to ten minutes before the scheduled start time each day. As students arrived, I welcomed them and started making connections by talking about novel past experiences or new perspectives on common things. For example, one day we considered the question, "What is walking?" When I lived in Africa, walking meant avoiding snakes as I moved from one place to another. I used students' interest in the story as the first point of interpersonal connection. Over the semester, more students started coming to class early—especially international students who appreciated stories about my work in countries around the world.

At the official start of each class period, I used narration to establish a sense of community and to draw everyone in. First, I narrated the entry process to simulate students assembling for class. I wanted them to know that I saw them as individuals and that they mattered to the class. I also wanted to emulate the familiar routine of noticing individuals entering a classroom to join the learning community. I would say, "I see that John has joined us—good morning! And here come Maisha, Emily, and Umar. We have twelve people so far. Good morning! Oh, and here come ten more people. Wow, we have thirty-eight students here today. Good morning, everyone!"

Once students were gathered, I asked them to observe who was present. "Look around. Who is here? Take note of your classmates in Zoom." I reminded students who chose not to turn on their cameras to establish an online presence by personalizing their Zoom image with an avatar, and I encouraged students to be creative in their avatar selection. Some students used the brief twenty seconds of scanning the community to use Snap Camera, adding sunglasses, hats, and more. My goal was to make people feel like they had entered the classroom.

I capped off each class-start segment with a check-in activity. For first-year students, this activity often involved a poll about student success plans. For example, I used collaborative tools like Nearpod to ask students: "What is one action you will take to succeed in class today?" Nearpod allowed me to display all responses so students could see each other's ideas. I would then point out novel suggestions and ask students to elaborate on them.

To carry this start-of-class check-in theme throughout the class, I would also pause a few times during class to ask first-year students how they were doing in terms of focusing their attention. I encouraged them to use the "thumbs up" icon if they were faring well. For those who were struggling, I asked them to consider whether they needed to implement the "student success" plan that they offered at the start of class—or maybe change their strategy to something that a peer had suggested.

For more advanced students, the initial check-in activity functioned as a way to take the pulse of how they were feeling and connect with the whole group. For example, I often used the annotated whiteboard in Zoom to pose a question, asking students to mark their response on a ten-point scale. Sample questions included, "How strong are you feeling this week?" "How distracted do you feel today?" and "How curious do you feel about what we're about to learn?" I avoided more general, emotionally loaded questions like, "How are you feeling?"

After giving students a moment to mark their responses on the whiteboard, I invited a brief discussion: "This scale with all the markings is the map of our community. Let's talk about this." Most often, students engaged in the discussion through the chat tool. I encouraged those who were feeling confident that day to lean in and help those who were feeling timid when it came time to move into breakout rooms, asking, "How might you do that?" Some students offered to take the lead in the small-group discussions. Or, I would ask those who were feeling distracted, "How can you move toward focusing? What ideas do you have? We need you here as part of our community!"

Lenze: What else did you do to encourage interpersonal connections as the class period progressed?

Strickland: I did two things. First, I designed my physical space and my engagement within it. I started with a sit-stand desk and my physical posture. Whereas some of my colleagues sat at their desks to teach when higher education went remote, I was much more engaged in my instructional role when standing. I was also more likely to use hand gestures when on my feet. From my standing position, I looked into the screen and talked as if it were simply a window through which I could see my students. This practice helped me simulate interpersonal space.

Second, I structured activities using instructional technologies, clear directions, imagery, and check-ins to engage students in small groups and as a whole class. Jamboard, Nearpod, and Google slides were my go-to technologies. They enabled students to build conceptual maps, make infographics, and create joint slide presentations. These tools allowed students to complete tasks that would have been done using paper and pencil or on a shared computer screen in an in-person environment.

I provided specific directions for what students should discuss, write, or design for each new activity. I followed this with my expectations for how they should engage. For example, if I wanted students to discuss a topic more deeply, I suggested that they elaborate on someone else's ideas, consider what might need to be refined or corrected about other students' contributions, look for alternative explanations to those that were offered first, or compare and contrast two or more group members' contributions. Setting expectations for students' conversations was particularly important for first-year students. However, these clarifications helped to encourage more thoughtful discussion and, in turn, facilitated more interpersonal connections regardless of course level.

After setting the stage with directions and expectations, I used mental imagery to emphasize the whole-class community element of the activity. I asked students to recall walking around our physical classroom to look at what other small groups were working on and remember the additional understanding they gained from sharing ideas. I then asked them to hold this image in their mind as they looked at another groups' shared slides or watched another group's report. Directing their attention in this way helped to simulate familiar interpersonal and group interactions.

Finally, I routinely asked all students to post a reaction (using a thumbs up or clapping hands icon) to ensure they were present and understood the directions before sending everyone to breakout rooms to begin their work. This check-in confirmed that students were committed to the task.

These four elements helped me create a community in our virtual space. The sense of community increased students' understanding of our shared purpose, reduced questions about where to start and what to do, and set the stage for valuing each person's contribution.

Lenze: Were there days when things didn't go so well? If so, what did you do?

Strickland: Yes, there were days when my screen was filled with black boxes. I knew from years of teaching that there is always a slump or a waning in the semester whether COVID exists or not. So, the experience was not entirely unfamiliar. The trick was how to re-engage students in the new remote synchronous environment.

I leaned into the interpersonal and shared my perspective of how difficult it is to teach with absolutely no visual feedback. I asked students to visualize what it would be like to teach to a class of students who didn't appear to be there—visually or verbally. I also explained that their experience would be better if my teaching were more conversational and that conversation requires give and take—with verbal or, at least, non-verbal acknowledgment.

After requesting that they minimally commit to personalizing their Zoom squares, I asked them for additional ideas. How could they help to provide me with the feedback I needed during class? We worked out a way to have a few students each class period—whoever felt like they could—turn on their video so that I had faces to teach to. We combined this idea with my opening check-in activity, so I could offer students the opportunity to turn on their cameras each day. Most were mindful of spreading the responsibility around the community.

Lenze: How did students respond to your efforts collectively?

Strickland: They were thankful for the planned activities, the intentional changes to the course, and the many attempts to connect. For example, as the semester progressed, more and more students attended the pre-class story sessions. They recognized those five to ten minutes as an opportunity for meaningful conversation and—I think—interpersonal acknowledgment.

Lenze: In 2020, you essentially conducted an interpersonal acknowledgment experiment. Now, you're back to in-person teaching. How has your experience with interpersonal acknowledgment during the early days of the pandemic informed your in-person teaching today?

Strickland: My teaching has improved since that synchronous online teaching experience. I have a renewed appreciation for interpersonal acknowledgment.

For example, I am much more likely to use instructional technologies to connect students' ideas today than I was pre-pandemic. Now that my students and I are comfortable using digital tools, we use them to maximize learning within the in-person context. We continue to create Google Slides in groups and have taken this pandemic-era teaching activity to the next level. We recently transformed a slide show into an infographic providing information for the broader student body.

In addition, I don't take casual pre- and post-class conversations for granted. I value that in-person time with individual students; therefore, I regularly come to class early and stay after class as needed. Practicing interpersonal acknowledgment and making connections for two years in a remote setting helped me realize that instructors have always played an important role in encouraging, listening, sharing, and affirming students. Whether we are teaching during a pandemic or not, students bring their whole selves to our classrooms. Making space for them to participate as such is an important element of interpersonal acknowledgment.

You didn't ask me this, but students have also brought interpersonal experiences forward. My students engage more readily and in a more focused way during the pair-share portion of class. On their feedback forms, students express the benefit of turning to their neighbor and discussing a topic. They are acknowledging each other!

Lenze: That was my next question! Can you elaborate more on what your current students say about learning in your courses?

Strickland: When students returned to campus, they leaned into the value of interacting with their classmates, asking me to advise them on re-learning to engage in focused learning conversations. This is particularly interesting because I spent a lot of instructional time from 2020–2022 guiding students on how to have a meaningful discussion—elaborating on someone else's thinking, considering what might need to be refined, looking for alternative explanations, and contrasting peers' ideas. Whether other instructors did the same or not, I don't know. But engaging in these behaviors certainly feels different in a remote environment than it does in an in-person environment sitting close to one's peers. It's a transfer challenge—and maybe an interpersonal confidence challenge too. I'm glad I was able to coach students in these skills—and even happier that they are asking for what they need.

Lenze: If you could offer one pearl of wisdom from your experiences with interpersonal acknowledgment, what would it be?

Strickland: Learning is a social act that engages thought through intentional conversations that need to be fostered for students' present and future success. I encourage students and instructors to lean into community, cognitive dissonance, and challenges during class to maximize learning.


  1. Robert Boice, "Moderate Classroom Incivilities," in Advice for New Faculty Members (Needham Heights: Pearson, 2000), 81–98. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. "Remote Synchronous Class Activities," produced by the Harrisburg Center for Teaching Excellence and the College of Information Sciences and Technology Office of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, Penn State University, Video, 4:38, July 16, 2020. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. See, for example, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, "Practice, Person, Social World," in An Introduction to Vygotsky (New York: Routledge, 2002), 155–162; and Neil Mercer, "The Social Brain, Language, and Goal-Directed Collective Thinking: A Social Conception of Cognition and Its Implications for Understanding How We Think, Teach, and Learn," Educational Psychologist 48 no. 3, (June 2013): 148–168. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.

Lisa Lenze is Director of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at The Pennsylvania State University.

Martha Strickland is Associate Professor of Education in the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education at Penn State Harrisburg.

© 2023 Lisa Lenze and Martha Strickland. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.