Implement Positive Psychology and Change How You Teach

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Do you see the best in your students now? Or will you be so focused on classroom management there is only time to get the job done each week?

Here are the most important questions to consider, especially as an online instructor: Do you see a group of anonymous students you may never really get to know? Or do you take the time to learn what you can, through discussions and feedback, to help students with their developmental needs?

Teaching students is not always a matter of showing up for class, disseminating information and instructions, facilitating class discussions, and providing feedback. It is more about the instructional approach you take and its effectiveness when utilized. This is especially true for online instructors who teach in a technologically enabled environment. Your classroom presence as the assigned instructor, or lack thereof, determines how students respond to your involvement in class and whether or not they engage with you.

More importantly, your choice of an instructional strategy will influence how well your students make progress throughout the class. Their continued development depends upon you more than your instruction. There is an additional strategy you can use, one that can encourage progress, which requires only a change in your focus and choice of wording, and it is called positive psychology. This is centered on the enhanced well-being of students, as it helps renew their self-motivation.

The Importance of an Online Presence

An online class may seem like a cold and uninviting environment; however, the involvement of an instructor can change all of that through visibility and continual engagement. It demonstrates to students the instructor is fully invested in their class. Yet there is more to being present than logging into the class and checking off required duties; there must be substantive engagement. A discussion board is one of the most crucial interactive elements of an online class, and this is where engagement can occur. It’s where an instructor can work with students and provide help when needed, guide them when they are off track, and prompt their knowledge retention, critical thinking skills, and intellectual involvement.

Working with Online Students

In a traditional classroom, an instructor has control in how the class proceeds. They conduct a lecture and lead students according to a specified plan. With an online classroom, everything changes. Students may cooperate and work with their instructor, or they may simply ignore them, complete the required work, and believe somehow they will pass the class.

In this environment instructors must gain the cooperation of their students and nurture a productive relationship. Credibility and trust are both built through one interaction at a time. It may be easy to engage some students, especially overachievers, while others may prefer to remain hidden behind anonymity. But if you set high expectations for students and they aren’t responsive, it means they have shut you out.

Positive Psychology Basics

There are three phases commonly used to describe positive psychology and includes well-being, happiness, and optimism. Martin Seligman is generally credited with bringing positive psychology into practice, and the purpose was to help individuals recover from depression through a positive perspective.

As you learn more about this particular branch of psychology you will find it is much more than positive thinking. It is also a strengths-based approach to human development. When positive psychology is utilized in treatment programs, not only is there a focus on strengths, there is also attention placed on positive emotions. The goal for this type of program is creating hope and restoring a sense of well-being within the patient. While this is a simplistic overview, it shows there is another approach to bringing about change within adults.

Appreciative Inquiry and Distance Learning

Positive psychology aligns with appreciative inquiry, which is also strengths-based and the focus of my work as an online educator. I took appreciative inquiry and translated it for distance learning, as an instructional strategy, and called it appreciative andragogy. Andragogy is a theory that addresses how adults learn and is distinguished from the theory of pedagogy or the instruction of children. The basic premise of andragogy holds that adult learning occurs through a process of action and self-reflection.

Appreciative andragogy emphasizes the positive nature of adult learning and the enhanced view of self which will occur through supportive interactions with an instructor. Through the use of appreciative andragogy as an instructional method, an instructor may have a tool to build nurturing relationships. This may increase the instructor’s presence within an online classroom environment. With a positive approach to student development, students are likely to experience a greater sense of motivation, engagement in class, and improved performance overall.

Deciding to Implement Positive Psychology

As an educator, you will develop a routine for managing a class and the many responsibilities that come along with it. For example, you develop a standard approach as to how you interact with, and communicate with, your students. Over time you may not question or examine that routine. As a faculty trainer, I observed many instructors who put time and thought into their instruction. It was evident because their communication was done with purpose and their feedback was focused on a balance between guiding and correcting students. That approach to instruction is the easiest for adding in elements of positive psychology. It would be a matter of building from students’ strengths and coaching them, encouraging them, and offering resources for their developmental needs. The purpose of taking this approach is to help students create positive emotions so that they are encouraged to continue making progress.

The other pattern that I have seen as a faculty trainer is that of “facilitation on the fly”, or being reactive instead of proactive. This was the faculty member who was trying to keep up with the work while often missing some of the important instructional requirements. The feedback returned to students was generally quick and to the point, and there was minimal substance provided. For this type of instructor, they will find implementing positive psychology can be overwhelming and any attempt to use it will seem disingenuous to students. This instructor will need their own professional development before utilizing any new instructional method of this nature.

Implement Positive Psychology and Change How You Teach

I recommend a student-centered approach to teaching, which will allow you to focus on the best of your students. When students are the center of the learning process, they are transformed and the class is transformed into an engaging and dynamic environment. The following is a list of my strategies and what I recommend when I train faculty.

#1. I will work to prompt student engagement. This applies to their participation in discussions and involvement in the class. I want students to know they are encouraged to try and supported in class for their efforts.

During class discussions, I will try to respond to every student at least once and when I do, I will ask direct follow-up questions which help to promote higher order or critical thinking skills. If I discover students are not involved in discussions, or there are some who are absent from class, I will reach out and check in with them.

#2. I will encourage the effort made by students. Students need to know that even when they believe their effort has fallen short, you still recognize the attempt made.

When I provide feedback for assignments and learning activities, I will use the sandwich method and begin the feedback with something positive. Then I’ll address a developmental need and conclude with a positive statement. If I have a student who is struggling, I can always encourage them based upon the effort made, as it will determine if they will continue to make an effort. If they are making an attempt and only receive negative feedback, they can easily become discouraged and give up. 

#3. I will encourage reflection through self-assessment. Any form of reflection must be taught as a productive exercise, one in which the student is looking for possibilities and opportunities, not failures, if it is to be implemented successfully.

If I can teach students to be reflective it will help them learn to self-assess their progress in class, rather than believe they have no control over their outcomes. I can also suggest self-assessment techniques such as a one-minute paper which will help them review what they know about a subject. Through the use of reflection and self-assessment I can help students take ownership of their involvement in class, which aligns with the theory of adult learning.

#4. I will work to be an example for students. As an online instructor I need to establish a highly visible and interactive virtual presence, which is also referred to as a social presence according to the Community of Inquiry framework.

Being visibly present means I am actively engaged in the class and class discussions, and students develop a perception I care about the class, which translates into the level of attention they will likely receive from me. I have found students follow my lead and if I am active and responsive, there is a good possibility they will be too.

#5. I will leverage my subject matter expertise. I want to create an inclusive, informative, and safe environment for the exploration of course topics.

Providing engaging feedback and discussion posts requires the use of my own background and knowledge. As we know, students can benefit from the inclusion of examples from our experience and expertise. How I share this is through the class discussions, when I provide real world context, along with weekly feedback, as it can help guide students as they attempt to comprehend the course subjects.

#6. I will always try to consider the perspective of students. I need to engage in my own self-reflection to make certain I understand the needs of my students.

As I reflect upon the progress of students, I will ask myself: What are their developmental needs? Are the instructions provided clear and concise? Is the feedback a true reflection of their progress and does it help to guide their thinking about the topic they have written about or discussed? When I provide feedback, I will think of students individually and provide personalized guidance rather than canned general comments.  

#7. I will try to lead the way to application of what was learned. With a student focus and concern for the student experience, I can also help students learn by making the course relevant to what they are interested in.

In other words, as self-directed adults who are taking courses for a specific purpose, they need something more than reading about subjects in a textbook; they need to know how to apply what was learned so they can use it, whether in their personal lives or careers. When students are provided with a context for what they are reading about they are more likely to retain that knowledge in the long term and they will develop a perception they have actually learned something in class.

Potential Challenges and Benefits

There are many benefits to adding a positive or strengths-based approach to your facilitation. For an instructor who already demonstrates care and concern, coupled with meaningful interactions, this will be another tool and a natural fit to their instructional approach. Students will likely respond in an enthusiastic manner because it will create a sense of hope, as it is tied to their continued well-being. Of course, not all students will respond to this approach, as some will keep their distance. With online learning you really do not have an opportunity to approach them in class and engage them in a conversation. You can extend the courtesy of an outreach attempt but it is dependent upon their perception of what it means to them.

Overall, the point of implementing positive psychology is to create positive experiences in the class so students will be encouraged to participate in the learning process. By taking a strengths-based approach, you can teach students to develop persistence and self-confidence, as they have skills and abilities to draw upon no matter what learning activities they are required to complete.

The use of a positive psychology frame of reference also creates a feeling of satisfaction for the instructor. I can state this from my own experience working with appreciative inquiry. I’m not a subject matter expert in either field; however, I know how it has helped the ongoing development of my work with online students. You can also experience this through the use of a positive facilitation instructional practice. When you focus on the best of a student, it encourages hope, elicits positive feelings, and creates a sense of self-renewal and self-determination, which is vital to their success in the online classroom.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has 35 years of experience teaching and training adults. The first half of his career was spent in the field of Corporate Training and Development, with his last role as Manager of Training and Development. Then in 2005, he made a transition into the field of distance learning. Over the past 17 years, he has been an online instructor, Faculty Development Specialist, Faculty Director, Faculty Development Manager, and Dissertation Chair.

Dr. J holds a MBA, MS in Adult Education, Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, and Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement. He is an avid writer, having authored two eBooks about distance learning, and a book of tools and techniques for traditional business instructors. In addition, Dr. J frequently authors articles which are posted on LinkedIn, related to distance learning and online teaching, along with inspirational quotes which he’s been sharing both there and with his students.

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