The rise in distance learning courses and programs continues, yet the persistence rate of students remains an issue. Regardless of how many options students now have for taking online courses, even those of high-quality design, current research finds a significant problem with the number of students completing their courses and making it to graduation. Many online schools, including those which are experiencing the greatest growth in enrollment numbers, believe the answer is to diminish the role of the instructor. This means students are allowed to work on their own, until or unless they would like to seek the assistance of someone who knows the subject matter.
Yet I do not believe this trend will succeed in the long run, as my nearly two decades of work within the field of distance learning finds the instructor’s role is critical for student success. Without an ongoing relationship, in which a bond is formed through positive interactions, students are likely to struggle and even fail. When an instructor takes time to be involved with their students, developing an interest in how they are progressing and what their developmental needs are, students begin to awaken to their potential. Yet this increased self-awareness doesn’t come while working alone, rather students discover the power of possibilities through interactions with their instructors.
The Start of Class as a Litmus Test
Any time a class begins, I view it as a litmus test of my ability to develop productive relationships with students. Often students feel a sense of apprehension and uncertainty during the first week of a new or entry-point class, and it is not confined to undergraduate students. Even my doctoral students experience a range of uncomfortable emotions as they begin. I am keenly aware of what it took for them to enroll in their program and start this first class. It was the culmination of decisions made and answering questions about making the right choice. If I am able to ease their fears, and help them believe in a future with limitless potential, they will have a better chance of continuing on each week.
A Bond Between Instructor and Student
I understand the argument for reducing the role of an instructor to that of an on-call expert or grader. It is based upon a new trend for courses which are aligned with competencies, tested via exams and written assignments, and assigned individually to students without an instructor. Yet this diminishes the intellectual stimulation and discourse which is offered through traditional online classes with weekly discussions and highly engaged instructors. My students want to feel a sense of connection with me and I work to ensure interactions with them are meaningful.
I know it only takes one challenging assignment, poor grade, and/or unclear set of assignment instructions to stop a student from progressing. This is when my availability to speak with students and assist them becomes invaluable. I speak with them not just as an educator, but often as a coach and mentor. This also includes the times when a student tells me about their negative self-talk, which can become quite loud during challenging course weeks. When I have established a working relationship with students, they are likely to confide these struggles with me and seek advice.
Trust as an Important Relational Aspect
A student’s trust in their instructor is never automatic. First there is the distance factor, which is going to automatically work against students, and prevent them from feeling a sense of connection to their instructors. Then they must decide, as the class progresses, if the instructor can be trusted to help them when needed. They will be observing what the instructor posts to determine if they have the skills necessary to facilitate the course. Trust is either built or lost then, one interaction at a time.
The very nature of instructor-to-student relationships are complex. Take for example the mindset of students and their view of feedback they anticipate receiving from their instructor. One of the first assignments my entry-point doctoral students complete has a variety of criteria to reflect upon. The following are student excerpts from one in particular, titled How I Accept Constructive Feedback:
“Availability to ask the professor questions and get a timely response.”
“Try not to form hurt feelings.”
“Accept it comes from someone that cares about me.”
“I often need time to sit in the feedback and let my defensiveness simmer down. Once I can reflect upon it, I become much more responsive.”
“I analyze if the feedback I receive supports my goal achievement; does it have value?”
“I accept constructive feedback when there are points of gratitude incorporated and some validation is given.”
As you can tell from the responses above, the relationship I develop with students has a direct impact on how well they accept feedback received. There are key words here which depict the importance of developing a bond with them, including one a student wrote: “someone that cares about me”. Now if I were only an instructor on-call, and someone who was not working closely with students, any feedback received may be met with resistance or worse.
5 Strategies to Help Students Discover the Power of Possibilities
I have always believed in the power of the mind, and more specifically, the thoughts we focus upon. Whether you want to complete a goal or create a new future for yourself, it is all possible if you accept your own power. This starts by deciding it is important to you, and then believe it is possible, for you to achieve or accomplish it. This is something I try to teach my students, not directly through long classroom posts, but through motivational messages I create and share in my classes. As to strategies you can implement, there are five I implement into my online teaching practice which you may be able to use as well.
Strategy One: You Didn’t, But You Can
When students receive feedback from me for the first time, they have a true indicator of how I will evaluate their work. While there is always an objective element to feedback, because of the inclusion of a rubric, there is also a subjective element as well. This comes in when I am deciding where on the rubric their work meets specific criteria, and to what degree it meets those criteria.
For an entry-point class it would be easy to give perfect scores, operating under the assumption students have not adapted to the expectations yet. However, my approach is to grade based upon what was submitted. While I may not grade to the extent as an advanced course, I do not “give-away” grades either. I will include numerous supportive comments, especially for students who did not earn all points possible. This tells the student: You didn’t achieve the maximum score, but you can with practice and by using the resources made available to you.
Strategy Two: Celebrate Your Ongoing Progress
When students begin an academic degree program, or even when they are early in their program, the thought of reaching the end point may seem a long time away. This is especially true for doctoral students who must complete a dissertation after their coursework has been completed. As students complete a course, they may still feel as if there will be a significant amount of time required to finish the remaining requirements. This is why it becomes very important for instructors to remind students of their progress, and more importantly, help them celebrate what has been completed as each course marks progression and progress confirms their capacity to persist.
Celebrating a student’s progress can also occur within a class as well. For example, if a student struggled the first few weeks of class, but maintained a willingness to learn, then their growth throughout the class needs to be recognized by the instructor. With my entry-point doctoral class, which is only five weeks in length, I can observe growth for many students, especially if I encourage them as they make attempts to complete the requirements. As I notice progress, I make certain to remind them of their growth as it encourages them to continue. I learned from my own experience as an online doctoral student how challenging the first few weeks of class can be and how transformative the interactions with my instructor become. Even a single sentence of encouragement can nurture student growth.
Strategy Three: I See Potential in You
The following is what I personally believe about all of my students: No matter how well or poorly you perform with a required learning activity, you have a capacity (and capability) to achieve more. In other words, one grade does not define who you are as a student or your potential. I work with non-traditional adult students who are typically highly experienced in their fields and many believe (in the beginning) they are knowledgeable enough to complete the requirements with little assistance. It’s usually not until these students begin to receive feedback, they realize there is more to learn as they have academic skills which are required in order to be successful. That’s why I have to encourage them to see their potential and ability to learn.
Strategy Four: When “I Can’t” Arises, Remember You Can
The role of an instructor needs to involve more than being a grader or subject matter expert. There are many times when students are going to hit the proverbial brick wall mentally, and they believe they cannot continue. Perhaps they have received a grade which was less than expected, they cannot develop an idea for a discussion or assignment, or their dissertation writing seems to be too overwhelming. That’s when I intervene and become more than an instructor. I begin to act as a coach, encouraging them to remember why they can continue, and I provide them with helpful ideas to break through their mental barrier. I also monitor classroom conditions and intervene any time I observe signs of defeat and/or frustration on the part of a student. While I may not be able to help all students, most respond well.
Strategy Five: Make No Time for Fear
There are two types of fear I commonly find students address. The first is the most expected, a fear of failure. There is no question, from my experience, it takes time to build a sense of confidence within students. Even those doctoral students I work with who reach the dissertation phase may still not feel completely capable of meeting the requirements. The second type of fear, which I also find common among students, even doctoral students, is a fear of success. This occurs when students are receiving consistently good grades, positive feedback, and there has been nothing to indicate they have significant areas of development.
These students may be afraid of continuing to perform well and/or be unwilling to admit they are on the right path to success. My role for either type of fear is to help build their self-confidence and reassure them they can engage in class without fear, as they have a built-in support system, starting with their instructors. More important is the value in making mistakes, as those are the times in which valuable lessons can be learned. I’ve learned from experience both success and failure are necessary for growth.
What to Consider as You Help Your Students
If you want to help your students to discover the power of possibilities, begin with a tune-up of your online teaching practices and ask yourself the following questions:
#1. What can your students accomplish in one class? This prompts you to think about the subject matter and learning activities for your course. What could (or should) your students be able to complete by the end of the course? You can think of the course in terms of what students should learn and how they could learn. It is also important to factor in the length of the course as it will help establish a realistic frame of reference while you are working with your students. This also allows you to consider the possibilities for students and how best to help encourage them.
#2. Will you see immediate results? This prompts you to consider the point in which students are at in their academic program, the level of their studies, and difficulty level of the course itself. For example, if you teach a doctoral course and this is one of the last courses in the program, you may expect students to have already acquired knowledge and a set of academic skills. However, if you are teaching a master’s degree course, and students have not taken a college-level course in some time, you may expect it takes time for them to learn how to meet the requirements. Regardless of the college level, you want to know what creates potential and possibilities for students.
What students need, if they are going to persist in their academic program and continue to grow, is an instructor who can help instill hope and teach the value of a positive outlook. It’s not just about achieving perfect grades, rather it’s a matter of realizing the potential they hold, which can transform how they perform, what they believe about their ability, and the level of self-confidence they can sustain. This occurs when there is an instructor who is actively engaged in the course and dedicated to the development of their students. From my perspective, I don’t want students to just believe they can complete the course I’m teaching; I want them to see the many possibilities their academic growth can provide. When students believe in the power of possibilities, how they view their potential and ability to perform, become transformed. Now learning can occur and whatever seemed impossible, now feels possible.
About Dr. Johnson
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has been working in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005, with roles including Doctoral Chair and Committee Member, Faculty Development Manager, Core Faculty, and Faculty Development Specialist. Dr. J’s background also includes work as a Human Performance Improvement Consultant, and prior to 2005, he was a Manager of Training and Development.
Dr. Johnson is an inspirational author, writer, and educator. His life mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others. He has earned a PhD in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement (TPI), a Master’s in Adult Education, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).
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 published three books related to higher education, including two about online teaching. Dr. J has also published over 230 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and mindset development.
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