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Helping students succeed as (online) learners

While teaching online offers opportunities that traditional face-to-face delivery does not, it presents a different set of challenges as well, managing instructor-student communication among them. The impact of positive out-of-class communication on student retention, persistence, and motivation is incontrovertible (Brooks and Young, 2016).  However, the absence of regular classroom interaction requires rethinking the way we engage students outside of the “classroom” setting. 

Avoiding the tendency for communication with online course students to monopolize your time requires more than firm personal/professional boundaries, a few lines of text in a syllabus, or the establishment of online office hours, although these strategies may be helpful.  To best manage out of class communication, it is important to first determine why students are asking questions at the times that they are doing so in the first place.

Help students learn how to learn online

Include guidance for your students on how they can be successful in your course, including how, when and where they spend time on the course and other work habits. Make sure students review and process the recommendations by integrating them into low stakes assignments or discussion (e.g., a Discussion Board). Here is a downloadable list of recommendations for student success in online learning that you can use or adapt for your course Blackboard site or syllabus.

The College Online has also developed a terrific student-facing resource to help students prepare for online learning. Find out whether your students have completed it, and if not, build it into an early assignment that asks students to reflect on their readiness and generate a plan to help them succeed this semester. 

Find more tips for students’ online learning (time management, self-care, learning strategies, and more) here

For individualized support for student academic success, the University Academic Support Centers offer a range of student-facing programs and services to help students succeed academically, including tutoring, a Peer Mentor Program, and the Student Access Center. Check their website for more information and to make a referral, or just email them at uasc@ku.edu

Teach the technology

We cannot assume that just because our students are heavy users of digital technology, they will succeed in the online course environment. We often need to take the time to teach the technology as well as provide content instruction, particularly with younger students or those enrolled in their first online course.  Consider the following strategies:

Aim for transparency

Taking a few extra moments to provide a consistent structure and clear and redundant directions as you set up your course will likely reduce the amount and frequency of student e-mail seeking help in locating items or clarity on instructions and due dates.  Short video clips introducing and discussing common challenges encountered during assignments also enhance students’ sense of connection with you as a real, live human being.  Consider the following strategies:

  • Organize course material into learning modules, structure each module in the same way, and provide students with an orientation to this structure at the start of the semester so that the class “environment” becomes familiar to them.
  • Pre-load weekly task lists into Blackboard’s announcement function before launching your course and set the date restriction so that they will appear at the start of the appropriate week.  
  • Pre-load exam study guides and/or sample questions and encourage your students to use these tools as they work their way through each week’s course material so that they have a better sense of what you will expect of them come exam time.
  • Tape short video clips of yourself orienting students to the class structure, reviewing the weekly to-do announcements, and introducing and discussing assignments and embed these with the appropriate modules.  Not only will these provide redundancy in instructions, but they also help satisfy students’ immediacy needs and humanize you as an individual.
  • Consider hosting a virtual exam review. Although this will take an hour or so of your time, you may be able to reduce the amount of repetitive e-mails, particularly if you tape the review and embed it on Blackboard after the fact for those students who were unable to attend.

Anticipate and address peak periods

Based on the course calendar, you will know in advance and be able to plan for, when you will likely experience peak student communication.Clear and redundant communication can reduce the crush of e-mail.Consider the following strategies:

  • Before major assignment due dates or exam time, post a reminder about your availability, even though it is published in your syllabus, or even expand the window of time in which you are available for quick student communication. 
  • Provide students with information about how you will handle technology glitches around submitting assignments and taking exams and plan extra time into your schedule to address these issues should they occur. The following language is used in LDST 201: Introduction to Leadership courses as an exception to the course’s 24/7 grade dispute rule and is published in the course’s supplemental textbook.

In the event that your grade was negatively affected by a technology glitch (i.e., a quiz mal­functioned or an exam closed out before you were able to complete it), you should contact your instructor immediately rather than waiting 24 hours. Similarly, if you are unable to complete work due to a medical or other emergency, you should contact your instructor immediately rather than waiting 24 hours.

  • Remind students of KU IT and Blackboard IT help resources.

Meet immediacy needs

The heart of education is often defined by interaction.Research shows that student-teacher interaction influences active learning, motivation, participation, and the achievement of learning objectives (Baker, 2010).Instructor presence, or the virtual “visibility” of the instructor as perceived by the learner, is an emerging construct in research on online learning which is applicable here (Picciano, 2002).Although you will not have the same degree of presence in an online course as you would in a face-to-face classroom, you can continue to meet your students’ immediacy needs virtually.Consider the following strategies:

  • Hold weekly virtual office hours via Zoom.  Embed a weblink with your Zoom meeting on the Blackboard navigation bar so students can easily “click in” to visit with you face-to-face.
  • Create a personalized video introduction separate from your course introduction and orientation.  Tell your students a few things about yourself beyond your professional qualifications to “humanize” you   and allow you to connect on a personal level.  Who are your favorite authors?  What was the last movie you saw? What sports teams do you follow?  What captured your passion for your subject?
  • Provide rich assignment feedback.  Give students a sense of your thinking as you were grading their work.  What did they do well?  Where did they fall short?  How can they improve next time?  Again, a few moments now will likely reduce the number of upset e-mails essentially asking you to “justify” the grade you awarded.
  • Balance instrumental and relational messages.  While it is easy to dash off a quick group message with instructions for an assignment or an announcement about an upcoming course event, consider including some relational content as well which further humanizes you.  Perhaps this is a bit of encouragement or an acknowledgement that your message comes at a particularly busy time for students.  In an response to an individual student, strive to craft a message that not only provides the necessary task-focused information but also signals that you have “seen” or “heard” your student and understand their concern/stress/distress/confusion and want to support them.

Communicate about communicating

Much of this information will be covered in your syllabus, but the more clearly and directly you can be, the further you go in reducing uncertainty among your students.  Since we know that students rarely digest and retain syllabus information at the start of the semester, consider incentivizing a thorough read of the syllabus by providing a short, 5-point syllabus quiz in the first week’s learning module.  Additionally, consider the following strategies:

  • Clearly state the hours between which you will be answering student e-mail.
  • Similarly, provide students with a sense of how long they may expect your response to take. The following language is used in LDST 201: Introduction to Leadership courses and is published in the course’s supplemental textbook.

Your instructor will be available to answer any questions you have about the course Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Please allow 24 to 36 hours for a response  to your email.

  • Update your students if your availability changes.  While we are not accountable to our students for our time on a regular basis, giving your students a heads up if you are going to be traveling or immersed in a time consuming project that may change your usual pattern of availability is not only thoughtful, but may allow you to avoid duplicate messages.
  • Use your Out of Office response to remind students of changes to your stated availability.
  • Adopt the 24/7 rule for grade disputes.  Allowing for a cooling off period is never a bad thing when your relationship with students is managed asynchronously.  The 24/7 rule will give students a chance to consider your thoughtful comments (see #4) and craft an appropriate response prior to contacting you.  For particularly contentious exchanges, consider offering students a Zoom meeting. The following language is used in LDST 201: Introduction to Leadership courses and is published in the course’s supplemental textbook.

To discuss any grading issues or grade disputes, LDST instructors follow the 24/7  rule. In cases where you think a grade might be an inaccurate reflection of your  performance, make your case in writing, basing your reasoning in the assign­ment rubric’s criteria, and wait 24 hours before contacting your instructor via e-mail. You must initiate your dispute within seven days of the date when the grade is posted. After seven days, we will no longer discuss the grade.

Experiment with other strategies

A little creativity can go a long way in handling communication in online courses.Consider the following strategies:

  • Post a list of Frequently Asked Questions in a conspicuous location, such as a button on your Blackboard navigation bar, and update the document regularly as common questions emerge.
  • Cultivate a discussion thread with frequently asked questions and visit it regularly.  Again, while this may take a bit of your time, you will reach a wider audience than you would answering individual student e-mails.  Incentivize the thread by dropping exam prep or assignment hints/tips occasionally or announcing extra credit opportunities.
  • Assign peer learning partners or divide students into peer learning groups.  The “hive mind” can serve as a first line of clarification or support, particularly for unsure or underconfident students.
  • Encourage a positive GroupMe presence.  GroupMe’s tend to evolve organically in face-to-face classes but they can function equally well in online courses.  If your students do use GroupMe, remind them not to get wrapped up in mediated angst.  If the group seems confused or has questions, encourage them to assign a contact person to reach out to you for clarification on behalf of the group.