December 1st, 2009

Keep Your Classes on Track During the Holidays

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This time of year is always one of the most difficult times for students to focus on their studies. In the online classroom it can be an especially challenging to keep students engaged, serious, and committed to assignments and deadlines. For while students in the face-to-face classroom know they must be in X classroom on Y days at Z time each week—no matter the month—the casual setup of the online classroom can bust wide open if not addressed during these holiday months.

Here’s how to keep your classes on track during the holidays.

Stay within your established schedule. Students need order in any classroom; the syllabus, your class schedule, and the course website offer a stability that students can count on. Through these the students know where to go for course information, where to turn in assignments, and with whom they can interact. If any of this is out of whack it can be upsetting to the online student, especially during the holidays when extra outside influences are all around. So maintain your regular schedule and same course requirements.

Post a motivational email and announcement. Be sure to indicate to students the importance of giving these holiday weeks their “all” and remind them of the overall impact on their final grade from each week’s work. Also, ask for any heads-up on absences or delays due to holiday travel or guest visits: the more you know ahead of time, the smoother you can run your class(es).

Give students course-related “gifts.” There is a host of either subject-related or just-plain-fun websites you can send to your students as holiday gifts; you can also find cartoons, jokes, puzzles, and light articles— all related to the subject taught. It’s a nice way to strengthen the rapport between you and your students, show you are part of the holiday spirit, and give something that merely offers a chuckle or some additional information on the subject taught.

Invite students to exchange “gifts.” This can be much fun, help students develop new friendships, and offer another item that keeps students involved in and enjoying your course. Whether through assigned pairings or simply having each student give a “gift” to the rest of the class, letting students exchange or send helpful/just-kinda-cool websites, articles, and information can add a nice holiday touch to your class.

Call your students. Many schools allow—and some encourage—faculty to call their students, and what better time to “just call to say hello” than during the holiday season. This not only shows you as a warm, caring person but also allows for an additional and personal interaction with your student.

Send the class electronic holiday cards. This is simply you saying, “I know it’s the holiday time, class, and I just wanted to wish you a very nice one.” Again, this strengthens that all-important student-faculty rapport, adds a dash of lightness to your course, and makes your class just a bit nicer to attend.

Keep your tone serious yet within the holiday spirit. There should not be a dramatic shift in your tone—in emails, announcements, chat, discussion, etc.—during the holiday season, as you want the students to continue all aspects of your course in a serious manner. Yet it is the holiday season, so striking a nice balance between the usual “sound” of your writing and some holiday spirit is both appropriate and important (to help keep students engaged) during November and December.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for more than 12 years and has a national reputation in the subject, both writing and conducting workshops on it.

Excerpted from Teaching Online With Errol: Keeping Your Classes on Track During the Holidays!, Online Classroom, Nov. 2008.