Online learning presents new challenges beyond those of a traditional classroom because students must become more responsible for their learning. Many learners are unfamiliar with the online learning environment, which may include unfamiliar technology, isolation from instructors and university staff, and a lack of face-to-face interaction other learners. As online instructors, we must give additional attention to strategies that will keep our learners engaged, create a successful learning environment, and provide a rewarding learning experience where learners feel supported, valued, and connected.
Ideas for best practices
Start early by reaching out to your learners. One way to do this is to send an email that provides a PowerPoint, Jing, or YouTube video that highlights some of your experiences and accomplishments. Do not forget to include personal interests. Students like to know their instructors are real people who have shared many of the same sorts of experiences that they have.
Provide your students with information on how to get started in the classroom (Briggs, 2015). Try creating a PowerPoint or other media presentation highlighting the class requirements (i.e. assignments and discussions). Keep the presentation short and succinct. Point out any nuances to the requirements, such as specifics in a discussion or assignment that many students neglect or the use of outside references in their writing. Then, schedule a telephone conference to discuss the major assignments or requirements of the course. This provides learners with the opportunity to ask questions on all aspects of the course. It also provides a more human element to the course. It is vital that students see you as a person and that they connect with you from the onset.
Create templates or outlines to help guide learners and clarify the expectations. Learners may have been out of the learning environment for a time or be unfamiliar with style guides or with how to write an effective paper. Many students struggle with APA or MLA. By providing templates that adhere to the requirements of the course you also provide learners with examples of the university required writing style (ie. APA) thus lowering the stress of learning both the writing style as well as the assignment requirements. Here’s an example of a template we provide to our students.
Give specific feedback to students on what they did well and offer suggestions on how to improve. It is important that you always begin with a positive comment, and then introduce 2-3 specific ways to improve, and then end with a positive comment. Do not overwhelm learners with too many corrections. Instead focus on 2-3 areas that are attainable by the next assignment. For example: APA in-text citations for direct quotes or help in including transition statements that improve the flow of the paper or assignment. If there are too many “errors” then the learners become overwhelmed and it is less likely that they will address the issues on subsequent assignments. In addition, offer to schedule one-on-one telephone or Skype sessions with your learners to discuss any concerns or questions they may have. Just 10 minutes can get the students back on track and have them feeling more confident about their ability to be successful in the course.
Post weekly announcements, reminders, and tips for assignments or discussion postings. It is a good practice in these announcements to introduce the new week, call attention to anything that is due during the current week, and then provide a section on what learners can expect in future weeks. This is also a good time to remind students of timelines for major assignments, exams/quizzes, or special projects that are due in the course.
You can also provide learners with additional resources and links to assist them with their work. Research has documented that students report a strong positive connectedness and improved academic success with instructors that provide external resources/links to help them in the classroom (Brown & Starrett, 2017).
Finally, design a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page that answers many of the common questions students have about a course. The FAQ page serves as a valuable tool that helps students quickly find the information they need, when they need it; resulting in more independent learners and fewer repetitive questions for you. It also reduces their stress levels because it outlines where to find key resources, such as writing tutors, technology support, and assistance with accommodations.
By being proactive as instructors we can take some of the stress out of the online learning environment while making the experience both rewarding and successful.
Briggs, A. “Ten Ways to Overcome Barriers to Student Engagement Online. “ Academic Technology. February 11, 2015. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/news_item/ten-ways-overcome-barriers-student-engagement-online/
McInnis Brown, M., & Starrett, T. “Fostering Student Connectedness: Building Relationships in the Classroom.” Faculty Focus Higher Ed Teaching Strategies. April 7, 2017. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/fostering-student-connectedness-building-relationships-classroom/
Jill Alred’s experience includes both teaching at the university level and in public education for more than 30 years.
Candace Adams has been a teacher for the past 22 years. She started her educational career as a high school English teacher and then after earning her doctorate moved to higher education.