When you’re assigned an online class, what is your mindset, as to the responsibilities you’ve been tasked with completing? Do you have a particular checklist ready to use in preparation for your duties? Is there anything you do to mentally prepare for the start of the class? Do you think about how you’ll interact with your students?
Based upon my experience, there are two commonly held views by online instructors. One is to approach your instructional role as a series of tasks to complete, a class to manage, and students to address in a fairly routine manner. The other is to view this role from the perspective of being an educator, mentor, coach, and someone who can make a direct contribution to the development of your students. Most instructors develop a standard working routine, and over time they come to rely upon it, without having to think about how they are going to engage with their students.
Once a new class begins, and you’re at the initial starting point, it is unlikely you’ll know anything about the students. If they share their introductions during the first week, you can gain insight into their experience and goals. Yet it’s the learning activities, or engagement in the course itself, which reveals the capacity and capability of every student to learn and develop. As their instructor, you hope they will be able to meet the minimum requirements, follow instructions, comprehend materials, get started, and be truly self-motivated adult learners. But the reality is often quite different.
An online class needs one vital element to ensure students are performing to the best of their abilities, and it’s an instructor. Why? Because the learning process is relational, as is teaching. Students develop a relationship with their course, and either sustain or lose motivation week-by-week. Students also develop a critical relationship with their instructor, one interaction at a time. Should that relationship fail to fully develop, the online class will become almost mechanical in nature, as to how it feels to students.
It is essential to the longevity of each student in class, and their best performance, to find they have a highly accessible, engaged, and caring instructor. More important of all, students need to feel an emotional sense of satisfaction as they are interacting with their instructor. This can be accomplished in any class, and with any subject matter, through the use of appreciative interactions. When appreciative interactions are implemented as a teaching strategy, even the most challenging communication scenario can become a teachable opportunity.
For any online instructor, thinking about interactions with students may seem insignificant or inconsequential to the overall scope of classroom management. I’ve worked with faculty development long enough to know there are many other areas faculty can continue to work on and refine. In fact, most interactions may seem to be routine in nature. For example, a student sends a message with a question, and a simple response is needed. Or an instructor posts a discussion question response to a student on the discussion board. Both of those interactions seem fairly routine, and require little continued evaluation, correct?
My answer to the question is not exactly. Within an online classroom, every interaction has potential meaning and impact. This includes every word choice made, the style of writing used, format of the message, and perceived tone of the message or post. It is also perceptual in nature, including your perceived demeanor and overall disposition. All of these seemingly irrelevant factors greatly influence the message conveyed in every interaction you have with students.
Relational Nature of Interactions
Why do interactions matter? Students are either going to find they can develop a relationship with you, because you are a supportive instructor and have a positive tone, or your interactions are demeaning and create negativity. When students feel supported and uplifted, because of positive interactions with you, it will help to bring out the very best in their performance. This is especially critical when they feel challenged or discouraged.
In contrast, if students send a message and the response received from their instructor is perceived to be unhelpful, uncaring, and/or unresponsive, they will likely not attempt to interact with that instructor again. This can be quite disruptive to the progress a student is trying to make, if they feel stuck and do not want to speak with their instructor again for any reason.
What this also does is affirm why every interaction matters, and as someone who is responsible for the academic growth and development of your students, those interactions are not interruptions or unimportant messages. Every time you work with a student, you have an opportunity to teach, coach, and guide them to success. What will also help emphasize your concern for their developmental progress is to show appreciation for them.
Building Bridges to More Effective Interactions
The development of effective classroom interactions can be significantly improved when instructional tools are used as a means of building bridges across the distance gap. The reason why these tools are important is they establish a tone and purpose for your role as an instructor. Students begin to observe who you are and what it may be like to interact with you in the classroom. This is why each one of them becomes so important to use, and implement as effectively as possible. There are three primary tools I use to accomplish this goal.
Course Announcements: While a Course Announcement can become very rote in nature, as to the content developed and posted each week, it is also possible to create something much more meaningful. If you take some time, for the development of your announcements, you can create a message that has a personality and warm tone. For example, I create a weekly announcement and introduce the subjects being studied through an instructional video. This turns a static post, which could be easily ignored as just another random message to read or ignore, into a message students connect with and gain something of value from each week. This tells students you care about what and how they learn.
Course Messages: Whenever I’m sending a message to a student, or the class as a whole, I never think of it as “just a message”. I consider the potential each message may hold to connect with the student or students it is being sent to. This requires paying attention to the wording and perceptual tone of the message. What this demonstrates to my students, and it can do the same for you, is my level of dedication and concern for them.
Discussion Posts: The same rule for class messages applies to my discussion posts. I never want to post something just to meet a facilitation requirement. I do understand how much time and effort class discussions take, and the fact online discussions are falling out of favor among online schools, yet there is still tremendous value to be found if they are utilized appropriately.
I know from having worked in online faculty development for over a decade what happens when other facilitation duties, such as grading, take more time than anticipated. The class discussions are given minimal consideration. However, I simply ask this: What would your approach be if you walked into a traditional classroom, with students sitting there waiting for you, and you gave them only a couple minutes of your time to talk about the course topics? I do not agree with the elimination of course discussions, and never will, as I know how learning can occur if developed and implemented with meaning and purpose. If discussions are in your course, take time to be engaged and watch how your students respond in kind. While some may not respond fully, a majority will respond well to you and your efforts.
Developing Appreciative Interactions
There are tools available to help bridge the distance gap; however, this is not enough by itself to help encourage students to perform their best, especially online students. Consider the perspective of online students and how they are completing their coursework. They are likely balancing other responsibilities, trying to stay motivated, and hoping to feel capable enough to write posts and papers. What is the key to helping them, as their instructor? I’ve found it comes down to a human connection, and most important of all, demonstrating appreciation for them and their efforts.
If I am going to connect with students, and demonstrate appreciation, it can best be done with every interaction I have with them. The three primary interactions in which I can develop appreciative interactions include:
Appreciative Discussion Posts: When I post a reply to a student in the discussion board, I begin first by acknowledging the student, and inviting the entire class into the discussion. For example: Hello John and Class. I use this approach as I am rarely able to respond to every student each week. I make certain to rotate my responses for a larger class, and ensure all students receive at least one reply by the end of the term. If there is a longer term, such as ten weeks, each student will typically receive a reply two or more times.
The next strategy I use is to show appreciation, by thanking them for their post. For example: Thank you for providing a thorough response. The goal is to always acknowledge and uplift students. I’ll quote an excerpt from the student’s response and add some insight from my own experience. Then I’ll bring in something from the course, course materials, and/or a supplemental academic source. I’ll pose questions and invite all to join in, and conclude with an appreciative comment as well. This keeps a positive tone for the overall post, which students respond to well.
Appreciative Course Messages: This is one of the most important course tools in which you can demonstrate appreciation, and often one of the most challenging to feel any sense of positive emotions about at times, simply because of the aggressive nature students may take when their expectations are not met. If you feel a negative reaction, you have to set their message aside, until you can manage your emotions and address the student effectively. Your emotional control is absolutely essential, if you are going to find a means of resolution that eases the tension for both of you.
Regardless of how the student has written or responded to you, it is imperative for your relationship with this student to develop a connection with them and demonstrate appreciation for them as a student. This of course may take some effort to achieve, yet it is possible to do. For example, you can show appreciation for their efforts and demonstrate empathy for their frustrations. Do your best to try to diffuse the situation, as best you can. I’ve written about disrespect becoming more commonplace with online students, and this makes the work of an instructor even more challenging. You can use tools such as Zoom, to speak with the student face-to-face, which may help diffuse the situation. When you develop a connection with your students, it is then you are better able to convey a message of appreciation for them.
Appreciative Feedback: Many instructors view feedback as a one-way process, something that is delivered to students to be read. Yet I have discovered this is also an interaction, one that carries significant potential to help build connections with students, and one that allows me to demonstrate genuine appreciation. The first essential element of feedback is that it must be personalized to each student and never canned commentary. My experience with faculty development has shown me how easy it can be to plug in canned comments; however, students learn right away if all they’ve received are a few pre-developed comments.
Here is one of the most discouraging aspects of canned commentary: Students develop a perception their paper and/or posts have never been read. More than likely, they are probably correct. What happens next? Students start feeling as if they do not need to put in as much effort any longer. Another issue that comes up when instructors are not reading papers closely is plagiarism. But one of the most important issues, as related to missed potential, is the loss of development towards a supportive relationship with students.
If feedback is personalized, this demonstrates you are being responsive to their needs, concerned about their well-being, and you can influence their development. In addition, with personalized feedback, it is possible to show appreciation, and all it would take is just a few comments to help uplift your students. Now I’ve had instructors tell me, “This paper is so poorly written, I cannot find anything good about it to praise”. My response is always the same: You can thank the student for their effort, if nothing else. I always look for something to show appreciation for, to demonstrate I care, and you can to. This will help you connect with your students, and build productive relationships.
Appreciation and the Power of Positivity
There are always two approaches to classroom instruction: Demand compliance to course requirements, or encourage completion to the best of the ability of your students. For many instructors, online classroom management becomes mechanical in nature over time. This means checking into class, completing feedback via a rubric, posting a few discussion messages, and answering messages when needed, without giving any of it all much thought. Yet there are some who begin a class with a mindset of helping students as individuals who are on an academic journey of growth and development. They see students as those who will perform best if their instructor connects with them.
When you demonstrate appreciation, it helps create a mindset that brings out the best performance in students. The reason why is that it harnesses the power and potential of positivity. You become focused on the potential of your students, rather than their weaknesses, which creates a monumental shift within their minds. Students experience an emotional reaction that helps instill confidence, resilience, and perseverance. What you are doing is acknowledging them in a manner which validates their hard work, contributions, and continued progress. The more you can find ways to show appreciation for your students, the more likely they are going to flourish in your class and beyond.
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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