By now we’ve all heard about the importance of faculty engagement in online courses. A faculty member who properly engages in an online classroom can boost student success, improve satisfaction, and raise retention rates. Discussions about faculty engagement tend to focus on activities like interaction in discussion boards and frequency of posting announcements. Although these actions are important, what’s overlooked in these conversations is the need to ensure students are first comfortable and prepared to participate in their classes. Let’s face it, starting a new semester can be anxiety inducing for students and the situation can be exasperated in an online environment where students can’t ease their anxiety by walking to class with a friend or seeing a welcoming smile from their instructor as they enter a classroom.
Don’t think your students are anxious? Think again. Dealing with anxiety issues is a challenge for a steadily increasing percentage of our population, including students. Perform a quick Google search for “student anxiety” and you will find an abundance of articles including, “Anxiety and Depression: Anxiety the most common mental health diagnosis in college students,” “Anxiety and Depression Are on an 80-year Upswing,” and “Anxiety: the epidemic sweeping through Generation Y.” The Anxiety and Depression Association of America even has a page on their website dedicated to providing resources to college students dealing with anxiety.
To help ease this anxiety, online instructors can strategically use their “Bio” or “About Me” pages to help put students at ease. When students first gain access to their online course, they are searching for answers to their plethora of questions. Who is this instructor? Are they going to be approachable? Will I like them? Are they qualified? Providing answers to these types of questions will help instructors humanize themselves for students.
Humanizing bios can help reduce student anxiety and increase a student’s potential to succeed. Education researchers DuCharme-Hansen and Dupin-Bryant (2005) suggest, “Humanizing the web-based learning environment increases learner’s investment in the process” (p.37). If students are comfortable in the environment and feel connected, they are more likely to stick around. Have you ever experienced students disappearing from your course in the first week or two? Do you think they might be more apt to overcome whatever obstacles they are facing if they see their instructor as a human being and the student has greater buy-in to the course?
Here are some tips to craft an effective profile:
- Keep it real – This speaks to the humanizing aspect of your bio. Don’t try to be someone you’re not and don’t feel pressured to create a false persona that you won’t live up to anyway. Students will see through that. Do you have a good sense of humor? Express that! Are you particularly clever? Show off that wit!
- Inspire positivity and excitement – Students appreciate enthusiasm, and it can be contagious! Demonstrating emotion in this way helps with the humanization process. Tell students what content you most look forward to discussing or explain why you feel the material is valuable to their education.
- Share your story – Where did you grow up? Where do you live? Where did you go to school? What are your favorite hobbies? Let students know you are a real person. You might even be able to make connections with some students who enjoy the same things as you.
- Avoid red flags – Some information might actually do more harm than good. Are you teaching online for the first time? Is this your first time teaching a particular course? Keep that to yourself. Students are often looking for excuses to act on their anxiety and we don’t want to give them any ammunition. Additionally, we are all proud of our credentials, but there is no need to provide our entire CV. Stick to the relevant parts that let the students know you are qualified to lead them.
- Change it up – If you teach different courses, don’t be afraid to use different bios. Differences to consider include course content, course level, required vs. elective classes, etc. You would likely address 18-year-old freshmen in a different way than 30-year-old graduate students.
- Use pictures to help tell your story – Consider your discipline, personality, and course (level and content) when selecting your profile picture. If you’re teaching a business course, a picture of you wearing a suit is probably appropriate. If you are teaching acting, maybe a more animated action photo or professional headshot is appropriate. If you’re camera shy, consider an alternative like having a digital caricature of you created.
- Maintain boundaries that are comfortable for you – All of the previous suggestions assume a certain willingness to share personal information. You may be guarded and reserved, which is fine. Just consider our objectives to make a good first impression, reduce anxiety, and humanize the course environment. Then, share to the degree you feel comfortable.
By giving greater consideration to the content of the instructor bio, faculty can create a welcoming educational environment that will reduce student anxieties and help them start a new semester on a path towards success.
DuCharme-Hanson, B.A., & Dupin-Bryant, P.A. (2005). Course planning for online adult learners. TechTrends, 49 (2). Retrieved from http://www.adesignmedia.com/onlineresearch/(strategies)courseplanning.pdf
Evan Kropp is the associate dean of faculty, communication and philosophy at Southern New Hampshire University. He holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Georgia where he also earned a Graduate Certificate in Interdisciplinary University Teaching.