September 24th, 2012

Boosting a First-Time Online Adult Student’s Self-Esteem


As professors, we all have seen first-time students who are so nervous that they do not even know where to begin, let alone how to achieve their educational goals. I am one of those lucky professors who works with adult students who are going back to school for a myriad of reasons, and are choosing to take online classes. Not only do these students need help with writing an academic paper, and how to submit an assignment to a dropbox, but their self-esteem and support system are sometimes lacking.

Last year I began sharing the following advice in an email to my students. The result has been a more open dialogue as students learn that I care about them and will help them succeed, but also that it’s going to take hard work and ultimately they’re responsible for their learning. Feel free to adapt to meet your needs and let the learning and self-esteem grow.

Dear Students:
You made the choice to get your degree and are taking classes online. Now what? It does not matter when you begin your journey, as any time you begin to reach your educational goals is the perfect time. You are looking at a long road ahead of you, and I will not lie, it will not be easy. Committing to your educational endeavor is like a lifestyle change that will take just that, a commitment, and it is a big one that will take a lot of work. However, believe me, as I am speaking from experience, when I say to you, it will be worth it!

I know you can do this and I have put my top four tips down on paper to help you get on a smart track in order to reach the finish line and walk across that stage at graduation to accept your degree.

1. Guard Against Self-Destructive Behaviors – You made the first step by applying to college, selecting a major, and getting signed up for that first class. Now, the real work begins. We all have the ability to choose our paths, to reach our goals, and build the life of our dreams. The challenge is in believing in yourself.

Next look at how your behavior, emotions, and thoughts are affecting your study habits. Are you procrastinating reading your assigned work, thinking you can just pull whatever information you need from the Internet, not starting your papers until the last minute, etc.? Examine your self-destructive behaviors. What can you do differently to be more positive and to gain the best experience out of each and every class?

2. Set Attainable Goals – What is your vision of your future? Look at next week, next month, your current class, and each class after right up to the end of your degree. Include goals for all the roles in your life. What is important in attaining those goals you have set? To make a permanent change in how you study, and balance school with the other roles in your life, you will need to set short-term goals – what is due this week? How much time do I need to set aside to complete this assignment? Then look at long-term goals, the class as a whole, and every class you need to take. Once you set your goals, continue to track them so you can see the progress you are making. Tracking your goals will keep you motivated as you check off each task you accomplish.

3. Set up a Support System – You are responsible for your own success, but we all get by with a little help from our friends and family. That is why it is important to build a healthy support system. Share your educational goals and how you are planning to accomplish them. Let others know how important this is to you to have their support. Enlist coworkers, as you never know you may find yourself a study-buddy. Do you have school-age children? Study with them. I actually spent an hour every evening with my son studying. It was a great bonding time between us, and he saw just how important learning was for the both of us. Lean on the people in your network when you feel discouraged or ready to give up due to a difficult subject, and celebrate with them when you reach your goals.

4. Ask Questions – This is your education, and you will get out of it what you put into it. Any time you find yourself struggling to figure out a specific problem, an assignment, or even just not sure what a term means, ASK. Your professors are there to help. If you do not ask, we will not know that you are struggling. We are part of your support system, and we want to see you succeed in the class just as much as you do.

Going back to school may not be easy, but with the right mindset, motivation, and support system you can do it. Believe in yourself, and your ability to learn, and you will succeed!

Dr. Dawn Kaiser is a faculty manager and teaches online fulltime for American Intercontinental University.

  • Beth Nichols

    I love this idea. In fact, I just wrote my own letter to share with students. THANKS for sharing!!

    • Dawn Kaiser

      You are very welcome, Beth! I hope your letter is just as effective with your students, as mine has been.

  • Debb Pongratz

    Awesome I going to use this in all of my classes, not just the first quarter ones, it's a nice reinforcement for all stages of students.

  • Marion Boon

    Dawn, excellent article. So true. May I share with our students? We are an online program and our students have jobs, families and all the other challenges of adult learners. I am the chair of an online emergency management program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Canada.

    • Dawn Kaiser

      Hi Marion – Yes, please feel free to share with your students. As educators I like sharing with others, as there is no sense in reinventing the wheel 🙂 I hope it helps with yoru students as much as it did mine.

  • Michael

    Dr. Kaiser,

    The four tips you offer in your email to adult learners who are first-time Online students are great. I'm sure they really appreciate the message and the consideration.

    When my Online students give their introductions during the first week of class, I do my best to encourage them and remind them to develop the habit of logging into the class at least three times a week to keep abreast of what's going on. I also stress the importance of getting assignments turned in before the deadline, because when taking Online courses, the weeks can fly by, and the last thing they want to do is fall behind.

    Thank you so much for sharing your message.

  • Dawn Kaiser

    You are very welcome, Michael. I believe anything we can do to keep them encouraged and on-top of their work will help them succeed.

  • Michael Keathley

    Thank you, Dawn. This is an excellent idea with some helpful insights. I also work with a similar student population, and I know that just the very fact that you reach out to them this way will be appreciated. Furthermore, keep up this regular contact and encouragement does a lot to keep students comfortable and engaged.

  • Jan

    Thank you– This is a great idea. I don't teach in an on-line community, but I am amazed at how green those 17-18 year olds are in my classroom (I teach an introductory class mainly populated by first-year students). I try to give them verbal advice on the first day of class, but a letter seems more personal and they can refer back to it if they want. I like to treat them immediately as adults, and –frankly– your advice is great and applicable to these adults with considerably less life experience. I'm filing this away for the next time I get to teach freshmen!

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  • Carol Price

    It is so exciting to see others that truly care about students and their future (it affects us too!) May I pass this out in class as a handout. I copy articles I believe will inspire my students. I found a assignment that seems to help. I have the student make a 8X11 picture collage of either their support system or some goal to finish this program (LPN). Then on first class I have each student tell about their collage and hang it on back wall, this is a great ice breaker and I have not had one student refuse. It sometimes is very emotional sharing but so heartwarming. I then explain there will be time when they want give up and quit and this is when they need to look at their collage and remember why they are there. Then at the end of the semester I have them take it and keep in their notebook to keep them motivated. It has been a success (wish I could say it was my idea -but it wasn't). Thanks.

  • Mary Ann BestRabonza

    Dr. Dawn Kaiser,

    This is Mary Ann Best-Rabonza, I am trying to locate you to update you with information, please if you would be so kind to send me your present email address and I appreciate it! I see you are no longer teaching at Trident University International and I found you here. My email is

    I will wait with positive expectancy for your response.

    Thank you.


    Mary Ann Best-Rabonza
    P.S. Hope Walter and Bob are doing well!