The Importance of a Good Bedside Manner for Doctors Teachers, Part 1

A physician attends to a patient with their medical knowledge, training, and experience. But sometimes, these skills are just as important as a doctor’s attention to a patient’s needs. Does the doctor’s attitude toward their patient resemble more of a Patch Adams or Dr. Gregory House approach? The approach and attitude, or bedside manner, a doctor brings with them into the hospital can make all the difference in patient engagement, investment, and success.

Years ago, my grandmother was hospitalized for a chronic problem that had become more serious. I was with her in her hospital room her entire stay. Our first night there, we were visited by the attending physician. He entered the room, headed straight for the clipboard at the end of her bed, flipped through it, made a statement to me about her current state and the expected treatment plan for the future. He never looked up from the clipboard, he spoke in a barely audible voice, and he never once looked at my grandmother, though she was the one receiving the treatment. His approach was definitely closer to a Dr. House. He left my grandmother feeling depressed and disengaged that she could ever recover from these chronic issues that plagued her. However, the next morning we were greeted by a different doctor. His sunny attitude radiated into the room. He headed straight for my grandmother’s bed and asked how she was doing. His attitude and attention helped snap my grandmother out of her detached state and engaged her in a conversation. They spoke about her chronic health issues, her lifestyle, and her health goals. By the end of her visit, she felt empowered and invested in making some of the simple changes he had recommended.

So, you see, the bedside manner that is exhibited in a doctor’s attitude and approach can impact patients to connect and engage for a successful recovery, even when those issues are long-standing or chronic. Having a positive attitude, while listening and connecting, can go a long way in making a difference to the person you are helping. Just as it is important for doctors, so too is it important in making a difference for our students and their success. I’ll discuss many times throughout the term that we can demonstrate our positive bedside manner and how it may look in the various types of class formats.

Before the term

Welcome email

A welcome email is correspondence that you send to students before the start of the term. This is your chance to let your students know how excited you are to have them in your class, to share pertinent class details, and maybe even explain why you enjoy teaching this class.  It should be helpful, welcoming, and reflect your personality.

In my welcome email I like to include information such as:

  • Where the classroom is located (I include a link to our campus map)
  • Where they should park, and if parking is free or if a day or term pass should be purchased
  • Day/time of the class, section number, course name
  • Textbook information
  • Other supplies they should have for the class (paper, pencils, internet access, etc.)
  • Attach your class syllabus (if ready)
  • Encourage students to reach out to you if they have any questions and identify the best method for them to do this—email, phone, Learning Management System, etc.

I send welcome emails to all of my class formats, in-person, online synchronous, and online asynchronous. I send them to the emails the school has on record and I also post the email to our Learning Management System (LMS). I modify the emails based on the class format and prepare videos (no more than two-minutes) for my online classes. The videos are posted on our class LMS, and I work with my school’s Canvas administrator to open the class access about a week early so students can view the video and my welcome letter. 

Syllabus

Teachers know the importance of the class syllabus, and as discussed above, including it in your welcome email is an important step in setting the tone for the learning experience you’re trying to craft. The syllabus is great way to show your positive and encouraging bedside manner to the class. While the preparation of the syllabus is essentially the same regardless of the class format, the style of the syllabus can enhance the student’s early interest in the class. If you haven’t already, try a “visual syllabus.” This style can immediately engage students and it supports Universal Design for Learning, accessibility, and student equity. Recently, I had a student tell me she was dreading taking managerial accounting, but after receiving my visual syllabus she became excited, thinking, “If the teacher puts this much time and effort into the syllabus, this is going to be a good class.”

If a visual syllabus isn’t your thing, simply ensure that your syllabus contains positive, welcoming language. Check out Kevin Gannon’s Chronicle of Higher Education article, “How to Create a Syllabus,” where he recommends avoiding scolding, sloppy editing, and overly specific/long course policies.

During the term: First day

I still get nervous before the first classes of the term; butterflies are swirling in my stomach, hands are sweaty, and I have an aurora of nervous energy around me. I want to make sure I showcase my good bedside manner because I want students to know I am committed to them and their success. This is my chance to look them in the eye, as the doctor did to my grandmother, and let them know I care, and that I am dedicated to their successful course completion. To help establish this (and ease my nerves), I focus on three areas for the first day: class setup, icebreakers, and class importance.

1. Class setup

In-person: By class setup, I mean setting up the actual physical classroom space. I arrive early, make sure the desks and chairs are all as they should be, whiteboards are clean, and that the computer is working. By arriving early, I help ensure students won’t see me frantically trying to organize my paperwork or my frustration at the computer for not working. I want them to see me composed and present for them. I like to follow the 60/20 rule, which says to arrive 60 minutes before your presentation to test the equipment and become familiar with the room layout, and then reserve the last 20 minutes before class starts to focus on the attendees as they enter the room. Understandingly, students are nervous as they enter the new space. To help put them at ease, I greet each student with a “Good morning” as they enter and then start up conversations where I can. This helps serve two purposes; you get to know the students in your class and those students entering witness your good bedside manner. If you are shy in starting up conversations and don’t find your students as receptive, consider bringing in a tutor or a former student. Then you can introduce the student and have them speak about their time in the class and their tips for success. Now your new students have valuable information to help them in the class and they were still able to witness your bedside manner.

Online synchronous: All of the same tips work for an online synchronous class as well. Arrive early to make sure the technology is working properly and greet students as they enter the virtual classroom. You can also have a tutor or former student that is available online to chat with students before class starts. This also helps with a problem instructors seem to face with online synchronous classes—students being on camera. Having your camera on as students enter, and your tutor/former student having theirs on, provides guidance to those students who may be unsure about having their camera on.

Online asynchronous: For an online asynchronous class, there is no traditional “first day” since students can access the class material anytime based on their schedule. So, consider having a video at the beginning of each module (this is in additional to your welcome video) that welcomes them to the module and provides an overview of the objectives of the module they are about to start. You may also want to include a video from a former student or current class tutor with their recommendations to students in the class.  

2. Icebreaker

An icebreaker is an activity designed to help break down initial apprehensions about meeting new individuals—they help to facilitate conversation and connection. These are a perfect activity anytime, especially the first day of class. Make sure to include yourself in the icebreaker activity! This helps your students see you as a person beyond the classroom which helps release their anxiety about you and the class, and will lead to greater connection throughout the term.

In-person: The icebreaker I use is a five-question survey that students use to interview a partner. The questions are:  

  • Name
  • Why are you taking this class?
  • What is your hobby?
  • What is the furthest you have traveled?
  • What is the last movie you saw or show you binged?

This activity definitely works as intended. The classroom turns into a buzzing environment of chatting and laughing as students connect over their similarities (places traveled or movies watched). After about 10-15 minutes of the activity, students take turns introducing their partners and their responses to each of the survey questions to the rest of the class. I make sure to include myself by sharing my responses to all five survey questions as well. In fact, when I answer the fourth question (the furthest I have traveled), I tell them I travel the world to play in Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG) tournaments. This revelation piques their interest and sparks many individual conversations later. Whatever unique hobby you have, do share it! Are you an MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) fan? Love Harry Potter? Into basket weaving? Whatever it is, share it with them as it might give them some common ground to connect with you. And once a conversation starts, they will feel more comfortable approaching you later with their class questions or concerns.

Select the icebreaker that works best for you and your students. My colleagues use a variety of icebreakers for their in-person classes:

  • Two truths and a lie
  • Bingo
  • The marshmallow challenge (where students work together using spaghetti, tape, string, and a single marshmallow to build the highest tower in the class)

Ask around and pick whichever ice breaker is of interest to you and facilitates the best connections for your students.

Online synchronous: With online synchronous classes, you can adapt many of the in-person icebreaker activities (maybe with the exception of the marshmallow challenge) to online by using breakout rooms in Zoom and shared documents.

In the synchronous class format, I normally have my students directly supply the answers to my five-question survey. Then they select a student to present by throwing an invisible ball of energy to them. You can start off the icebreaker by answering the five questions yourself, and then be the first to get the ball going. You will be surprised how well the students do with keeping track of which students have already been called on and remember who is still left to go. But in case they do “drop the ball,” you will be there to help. Here they see your commitment to help them out from day one.

Online asynchronous: While online asynchronous classes may be the most challenging format to have a first day icebreaker since everyone participates at different times, it nonetheless is still a critical moment to establish good community. There is the usual use of discussion boards where students write a quick introduction for others to read when they log on. In fact, students are so accustomed to this discussion board introduction process that even when I have a different introduction assignment, students will still introduce themselves on the discussion board.

Since I want to create a sense of community despite the disparate locations and schedules, I have students prepare a short video introduction. If you do this, make sure to allow for an alternate assignment (like the tried-and-true discussion board introduction) for students that can’t be on camera.

Or, if you emphasize group work in your class, you may want to structure the student introductions to emphasize the importance of groups from the first day. You can use your LMS to set up groups within the class, use a shared document for each group, and then create your own introductory questions. However simple or complex your first day icebreaker activity is, make sure the students get to know each other and you! You are all a community, and you want students to know as soon as possible that there is an entire class, including you, of supporters to help them throughout the term.

3. Class importance

Students are more likely to be engaged and motivated when they can see the importance of the class and its impact on their lives. Most students in the icebreaker will reveal that they are taking this class because it is a requirement of their major (the second question of my survey). I expect them to answer this way, which is why I place it on the survey. It creates a moment of humor as we hear student after student say they are only taking the class because it is required. So then, after introductions, I use the time to ask them why they think the class is required? I briefly show company logos that have failed or struggled in recent years: Peloton, Covergirl, JC Penny, J. Crew, and Enron, and tell them that after this class they will be able to identify the signs of struggling companies and therefore, avoid potential disastrous investments. This demonstration of the subject’s impact to their future success resonates with students and can be delivered in any class format with a lecture, video, or assigned exercise.

Part 2 will cover the art of the check-in, an after class summary, and last day thank yous, and will be published on Friday, March 3, 2023.


Teresa Thompson is tenured faculty at West Valley-Mission College District where she enjoys teaching accounting to her wonderful students. In addition to teaching, Teresa runs West Valley’s Entrepreneurial Center helping support students in their entrepreneurial pursuits.