I truly love being an online facilitator, but it can lend itself to more frequent communication gaps because everyone is virtual. Online communication can be easily misinterpreted or unintentionally lead to poor conclusions. Things can go south quickly when you cannot read body language or facial expressions. In my experience, it is not difficult to move to quick judgments about a student when they are not timely with an email response or have “checked out” during a weekly module. The problem is that those assumptions are not always what they appear to be at face value. I can overvalue student dispositions while undervaluing outside circumstances or details. We call this the Fundamental Attribution Error (McLeod 2018). For example, a student does not turn in their assignment on time, and I automatically assume it is because they are undisciplined or lazy without giving any thought to important situational factors.
This makes for a potential disaster in a virtual setting. If my first response has a negative tone or is curt, I have most likely lost all future opportunity for influence. My student may conclude I am stiff arming them and really have no interest in their life.
Periodically, there are instances that do necessitate the need to have a difficult conversation or communication with a student. This could range from a learner being inactive or disengaging in a course, to suspicions about the integrity of a submitted assignment. Regardless, at the end of the day, my relational capital with my students is most important because it is the glue that provides further opportunities for lasting impact.
So, what do you do when you have to confront a student about an action or character issue? Do you have the necessary tools in your toolbelt to not only be effective, but foster an opportunity for a continued positive impact?
OIC: Observe, Interpret, Clarify
If you are looking for an effective tool that is easy to implement, let me introduce you to OIC: Observe, Interpret, Clarify. I first came across this gem from a group named Pilgrimage Educational Resources during some frontloaded training before a five-day canoeing and backpacking trip in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. It was a tool to teach me how to work through conflict with other individuals when tensions arose.
Let’s say you have a student who has been inactive in your course and you have already “nudged” them to get reengaged. Still, they seem to have checked out. An initial thought might be they are not managing their time well or they are not concerned about their course. In communicating with them, especially via email, there is a high likelihood that emotions written into the communication may be misinterpreted. At that point, I will most likely be shut out by the student and further communication is merely transactional and not transformational. OIC is a tool that allows a potentially awkward situation to be addressed while maintaining a healthy and respectful relationship with the learner.
Here is an example:
“Jon, I have noticed that you have not replied to my email last week about not submitting any assignments for the prior module. I wanted to check in.”
This is my O: Observe. I have made an observation of the facts without any emotionally charged words or phrases. I am merely stating what has happened.
“When I do not hear from you, one concern is that it is leading me to think that perhaps this class is not a priority or that you do not care about your success as a learner.”
This is my I: Interpret. I am not stating how things ARE, only how actions are being interpreted by me. Notice I did not say, “You do not care about this course.” Rather, “[These actions are] leading me to think that perhaps this class is not a priority.”
“However, I understand that I may not know all of your story or have all of the facts of the situation. Are things going OK for you or is there anything I can do for you? I understand how life can present its own roadblocks. I would love to have some communication to better understand where I can best assist. I want you to do well and am here for your success. Would you be able to provide some clarity for me?”
This is my C: Clarify. I have left the door open that I may not have all the facts to come to a proper interpretation. And this is key: I give the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the student is undisciplined and needs help—that may be—but it also keeps me from assuming motive and backing a student into a corner. I am allowing for the fact that the student may have some clarifying details that might change my perception of and response to the situation. It allows the relationship to continue as I have not made any accusations. I simply want to understand how to best help the learner. The student might be dealing with a parent struggling with COVID-19, needing to work overtime in their job, or news that a sibling has cancer. Or they might simply be really struggling with your course content or structure and feel overwhelmed or paralyzed. Regardless, this process is working on the most important part, learner success, and not interpreting the situation through my own lens of limited information.
This tool has been incredibly helpful for me because maintaining and growing relationships with my students is a top priority in partnering with them in their success. In addition, it allows me to model how to handle potentially inflammatory situations with professionalism, kindness, and grace.
Our courses are never just about our content or assessments. Our classes are fertile fields of teachable moments. But be careful because they can be easy to miss. OIC is not just a conversation aid for potentially awkward or difficult conversations; it is also a key strategy for making your student an ally.
Antone M. Goyak, EdD, currently serves as an associate dean and online facilitator in higher ed venues. He loves the online platform for teaching and learning and enjoys finding techniques that help facilitators build transformational community and presence with their students.
McLeod, Saul. “Fundamental Attribution Error.” Last modified 2018. https://www.simplypsychology.org/fundamental-attribution.html.