Connectedness with Latinx Students as a White Instructor in Online Teaching

I am a white, female Assistant Professor at a Hispanic-Serving institution and found that Latinx students in my online courses felt less connected to me than others. As more courses are placed online, instructors need to reflect on and improve such disparities. Here is my reflection.

Compared to other racial/ethnic groups, Latino male students are more likely to leave college before graduating.1 Instructor connectedness, sometimes known as social presence, is linked to student retention. Social presence can be improved in online teaching by providing video lectures, individualized feedback to students, humanizing learning, and interacting with students while they are learning (i.e. VoiceThread). I recently taught three sections of a research methods course in three different modalities (face-to-face only, online only, and blended). I sent an email to students in each section asking them “how connected do you feel to the instructor of this course?” and disaggregated my findings by Latinx and non-Latinx to see if there were ethnic differences. I found that only the Latinx students felt less connected to me as the instructor compared to the non-Latinx students in the online section only.

I was presenting my findings to my peers and someone asked, “Does this reflect your experience?” I have thought a lot about this. I do feel as though I connect easily with the Latina students, but it may be more difficult for me to relate to the Latino male students. I am a mom of two young boys and take on a traditional female role within my household, such as being the primary caregiver and preparing most of the meals. I share brief stories of my children and home life in an effort to humanize myself as a professor, which research shows improves instructor social presence. I have had Latina students ask me about my role as a mother, wife, and balancing home and work life. I reflected more on this in a previous blog post. However, I have never experienced this with Latino students.

The dichotomy between my connectedness with Latina versus Latino students was reflected in a survey in which I asked students “what do you believe impacted your connectedness to your instructor?” One Latina student responded “group work and the submission comments”, while a Latino student responded, “Being the only guy made it harder to talk to people.” This comment reflects not only his experience with me, but also the fact that the university and the major I teach, Health Science, is mostly female. Latino male students may not feel as comfortable to speak for various reasons. This reminded me of a Thank You letter that I received from a recent Latino graduate. He said, “Although we did not have the closest relationship, I am glad that I had you as my professor…you were always so kind and helpful. Knowing that I won’t be in one of your classes again makes me sad but I want to thank you for making my experience as CI enjoyable.” I remember being a bit shocked to receive a personalized Thank You letter from this student as I do not remember feel particularly connected to him either. He referred to kindness and helpfulness, which are actions, rather than words. Often, I connect with students through spoken or written words.

How can we use actions to connect with students online? One action might be availability. Students often seem surprised when I respond to emails quickly. Addressing their questions or concerns quickly is an action that shows them that I care. In online teaching, I also try to integrate videos from Latinos discussing course topics. I find that all students really enjoy and learn from service learning projects in the community as well. Practices that are promising in improving Latinos’ college success include:

  1. emotional support through mentoring,
  2. instrumental support, such as study skills and time management,
  3. informational support including valuable academic transition and advising information,
  4. appraisal support, such as ongoing feedback, and
  5. structural support, such as providing student accommodations.1 I will continue to challenge myself to explore other ways to connect with Latino students and hope you will too.

  1. Sáenz, V. B., & Ponjuan, L. (2011). Men of Color: Ensuring the Academic Success of Latino Males in Higher Education. Institute for Higher Education Policy.

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