As an instructor, are you aware of how your students are performing at all times? Do you maintain a proactive or reactive approach to instruction? Do you have supportive teaching strategies which are meant to help students grow?
It is possible you have developed a routine for your instructional tasks and address students when they ask questions or submit assignments. However, there is an aspect of teaching which requires a continued commitment and that is the manner in which you interact with and support your students.
Every educator is aware of the challenges involved in trying to create a dynamic and engaging learning environment, one that is supportive of the learning process and the developmental needs of students. Adjuncts face a greater challenge, especially those who are teaching online classes, as they do not have an opportunity to meet with students face-to-face on a regular basis. The time required to prepare instructional materials, along with completing other tasks such as feedback, is significant and it can be easy to lose sight of the perspective of your students when there are many instructional tasks that need to be completed.
One perspective of my students I am always concerned with is how they are adapting to the classroom environment and responding to the required learning tasks. As an educator I want to be supportive of their development, especially when it involves changing behaviors or habits. Students rely upon habits and patterns of working in a particular manner to meet the requirements of each class, and the idea of having to perform differently in some form can create a mental roadblock or barrier to their progress. Students may also not recognize a need to make changes in how they work or perform until it has been brought to their attention through feedback or interactions in class, and they may or may not be willing to accept it – unless I have established a productive working relationship with them.
While every instructor has many aspects of classroom management to consider, and focusing on students individually at all times may not be a priority, there are instructional practices that can be implemented that will help students grow and create a supportive approach to instruction.
Teach Students How to Adapt
Maintaining a supportive approach is needed as learning requires adapting. Instructors expect students to perform in a uniform manner, which means they must learn to follow the academic guidelines, adhere to school policies, and complete what is expected of them within the time frames established. As instructors know, not all students are fully prepared to work in a productive manner or have all of the academic skills necessary to perform their best. That means these students will have to learn to adapt and make changes as needed.
There will be students, especially new students, who need to adapt in some manner to these expectations and requirements, which means making changes to how they think, behave, or respond. The transition made from one class to the next requires adapting to a new instructor, new expectations, new students, and possibly new procedures. Students also experience change as part of learning as they may need to adapt what they believe and even what they know about course subjects or topics. Students are more likely to adapt if they feel supported by their instructors.
Students as Self-Directed Adult Learners
The principle of adult education that explains how adults learn is known as andragogy, and it holds that adults are independent and self-directed in their ability to be involved in the learning process. However, that doesn't always mean they know what to do or what is best for them. For example, if I were to ask a group of students to tell me what they need to work on or their most critical developmental needs, they may or may not be able to accurately articulate what is needed unless they were to refer back to feedback I've provided.
The next consideration is whether or not that self-directed nature helps or inhibits their ability to adapt and change when needed. What often occurs is that it can create initial resistance if they believe they know best about their ability to learn or they disagree with feedback received from their instructor. The attitude that a self-directed adult student holds is directly influenced by the relationship they have established with their instructors, which can be productive or adversarial.
Help Students Grow with These 3 Supportive Teaching Strategies
An instructor's approach has a definite impact on how students respond when they interact with him or her. For example, if the tone of feedback or communication is stern or threatening, students may feel intimidated and not respond well. As another example, if students start a new class and find their instructor has different expectations of them, it can create resistance, especially if they have been working in the same manner in past classes and received positive outcomes. As a result, students may have emotional or reactive responses, express their feelings tactfully or otherwise, or they may quietly withdraw and disengage from their class, if they are not supported by their instructors. Below are strategies an instructor can implement to nurture a supportive approach to instruction.
#1. Develop Meaningful and Supportive Feedback
The learning process is also a behavioral process which occurs through a series of progressive steps. The first step is to comprehend and understand what they are going to do, why they are going to complete the required tasks, and determine if they have the resources and skills needed to complete what is required.
When feedback is received and developmental areas have been noted, students have to make a decision whether they will accept or reject it. An instructor will be more effective if they can relate these developmental needs to the potential for positive outcomes and improved performance.
Consider this perspective of learning, especially for a new student: The first attempt a student makes to complete a required task is usually the most important step in the process. If they experience positive outcomes, such as encouragement or improved results, they will likely try it again. However, if they make an attempt and experience a negative outcome, such as criticism or a lack of an acknowledgement from their instructor, they may stop, give up, quit, or disengage from class.
#2. Prepare the Way for Students to Adapt
If you are going to propose that students try to do something new or different, help prepare them before they begin. This includes offering resources or creating an action plan with them so they know the steps to take. This creates a roadmap that sets them up for success. You can establish checkpoints along the way as a means of providing follow-up and checking in with them on their progress, so they feel supported.
If the suggested changes were noted in their feedback, offer to have a follow-up conversation with them to clarify the purpose and intent of your feedback. You will also find it helpful to be available to answer any questions they may have as that extra effort helps to build a connection. This is especially important with online classes as that they cannot "see" you in a virtual environment. Most of all, never give up on students, even when they want to quit. Some students need a nudge or put in extra effort to get past mental barriers or a lack of self-confidence.
#3. Take a Strengths-Based Approach
I've found one of the most effective and engaging methods of working with students is taking an approach that is focused on their strengths rather than their deficits. For example, I've used the sandwich approach to feedback. It begins by noting something positive, then addresses developmental issues, and concludes with another positive aspect, even if the only positive aspect of their performance is acknowledging the effort they have made.
The more you encourage the effort that students have made, the better that effort is likely to become in the long run. You can share details that outline how you have assessed their performance and if there are many issues to address, try selecting the most important or critical issue first so they do not become overwhelmed. You want them to view the process of learning as something that is done through incremental steps. And if you believe that students don't read and implement feedback provided, be sure to make yours meaningful and ask follow up questions as a means of creating a dialogue with them.
Help Students Change What They Believe
The duration of most college classes provides instructors with a limited amount of time to get to know their students and work with them. Most instructors may not develop a true sense of the potential of their students until they have had time to interact with them and review their performance. It is unlikely that an instructor will know about prior feedback students have received, or if their performance has improved or declined from their prior classes. I've learned to focus on how students are performing now and never assume they don't know better, they aren't trying, or they haven't been making any improvements. I always believe all students have a capacity to learn and my approach to instruction determines how well they will respond and perform.
To create a supportive instructional approach, focus on the specifics of what students need to improve upon in a manner that encourages their progress. This will demonstrate to your students that you have their best interests in mind. If you expect students to adapt to your personal preferences and they do not see the benefits of trying what you've suggested, you may find yourself at odds with them.
Every student has a potential to try something new and make changes; however, it often becomes a matter of whether or not they see the benefits of implementing your suggestions or trying to meet your expectations. Your relationship with them, along with your disposition about their development, will go a long way towards helping them adapt and discover that ongoing development is a natural part of the learning process. When you nurture a supportive approach to your instruction, you will also nurture a positive mindset in your students.
About Dr. Johnson
Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities, fulfilling his life's mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.
As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.
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