October 30th, 2015

Promoting Learning: The Instructor’s Main Mission or a Secondary Duty?


teaching online

As instructors, promoting learning is, or at least should be, our primary task. As an online instructor, I must enforce deadlines, respond to requests for accommodations, post announcements, provide guidance and clarity, assess student performance, provide feedback, and post grades. Instructors have a variety of duties inside and outside the classroom to meet the standards required by the university, yet our primary mission should remain ensuring that students are gaining new knowledge.

In the online classroom environment, the instructor has the opportunity to remain faceless, detached, and a distant enforcer of classroom etiquette, academic integrity, and grading standards. Such a teaching model might allow an instructor to remain employed, yet one might consider the negative effect on student engagement and motivation, communication flow, and the overall learning environment. If promoting new learning is a secondary function of being an instructor, I submit that the instructor has a misguided view of what teaching entails.

Below are a few strategies that help promote learning as our primary mission:

  • Allow students the opportunity to see you and get to know you. By embedding short videos in the classroom, students can put a face on you as the instructor and associate you with a real person. An introductory video of the instructor has become quite common for online classrooms, but consider including weekly videos to help clarify the weekly discussions and assignments. A 3- to 5-minute lecture regarding the weekly work expands the course shell, provides additional clarity, allows students to better understand your expectations, and allows you the opportunity to convey your expertise on the topic.
  • Open up multiple lines of communication. Enhanced communication with students fosters a more comfortable classroom and promotes learning. Never fear posting your telephone number in the classroom. Spending five minutes on the telephone with a student can replace an hour of back and forth e-mails. Provide opportunities for group video chats. With today’s technology, we have little excuse for not providing a forum to gather the class together in a virtual face-to-face setting.
  • Err on the side of empathy. Recognize that students, particularly adult students, have other life events occurring during the course. Work/life/school balance is a challenge for adult learners. Use your position to improve the balance, not exacerbate the situation. Can we extend every deadline, make every possible accommodation, or provide an advantage to somewhat lazy students or procrastinators? No, and we should not, but we can replace harshness and severity with a persona that’s a bit more warm and caring. If the true goal of the instructor is promoting learning and stimulating the gaining of new knowledge, allowing an overwhelmed student another day to submit an assignment will not be an impediment.
  • Identify underachievers. Every class has a few high-achievers—they are easy to recognize, are self-motivated, and can move through the course material and assignments with little instructor assistance. Underachievers require more instructor attention, support, time, and effort. Anyone can enter a zero in the grade book for an uncompleted assignment. An ordinary teacher follows up with the student to find out why the assignment was not submitted. An engaged instructor has the underachieving student(s) identified and flagged prior to assignment deadline, has touched base with the student(s) to ensure assignment clarity, and has let the student(s) know how to proceed. Can we save them all from failing or earning a below-average grade? Certainly not, but hopefully we have tried to instill the value of learning the topical concept. Should we devote the vast majority of our time and efforts to underachievers, providing little attention to high-achievers? No, balancing our time is essential to creating a quality learning environment for all students. However, we should never assume that underachievers are not worthy of an additional measure of determination on our part to help them gain the learning skills required to be successful.

As instructors, our primary focus should remain on student learning. Do we all have contractual duties to fulfill? Yes, and hopefully a key contractual duty is facilitating learning. Checking the boxes needed to meet the minimum faculty standards should be a faint byproduct of our engagement efforts with students. Is remaining in the background of the course, allowing students to basically “go it alone” easier and less time-consuming for the instructor? Yes, but we did not take the job because it was easy or because we wanted to see how little work we could perform to stay employed with the school. Make a lasting difference in the lives of your students. Be the instructor that students remember as the one whom they actually learned something from, because your mission was to teach them something.

Ronald C. Jones, dissertation chair, University of Phoenix; associate faculty, Ashford University.

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  • Great article! Demonstrating caring and motivating students in a virtual environment is sometimes difficult for instructors. You offer feasible ways to help an online student succeed. These practices are incredibly meaningful to students who may feel disconnected and overwhelmed with life and/or school.