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.

5 Strategies to Help Students Discover the Power of Possibilities

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.

5 Strategies to Help Students Discover the Power of Possibilities

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.

Come join Dr. J’s new group, Motivation for Transformation:

Any time of the day, visit this group to find your source of motivation, to be inspired and more importantly, have your mindset transformed: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/9108352/

Dr. J offers transformative resources

Please visit the Books page and Store page for more details.

You can also find Dr. J on the following social media sites:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/motivational_guru_drj/

Follow @DrBruceAJohnson

       

The saying about perception becoming our reality is absolutely true and especially relevant for online students who cannot assess an instructor visually. Instead, students rely upon perceptions to decide what the reality of an online class will be, and distance learning in general, whether or not those perceptions are accurate.

For example, if a student is focused on outcomes only, such as a grade for an assignment or the course itself, they are going to rely upon perceptual cues to determine if their instructor is making an accurate assessment. Those cues come from interactions and a perceived tone of every message or email received. If there is any sense of negativity or indifference to the needs of the student, the outcome received is going to be perceived as anything but authentic. This can also create a perception of what future classes may be like, as to a generalization of instructor attitudes.  

From my experience with online teaching, there are many ways you can describe the interactions between an instructor and their students. The most basic description is to refer to it as communication, with a sender and receiver attempting to accurately convey a message. Yet there is one type of interaction I found to be the most transformative of all, and it begins with some form of appreciation by the instructor for their students. What this does is take a form of communication, typically email or classroom messages, and transform it into a supportive interaction.

When I am able to extend some form of appreciation for my students, as a teaching strategy and overall disposition, I help create a different type of perception about instructors. This is especially important for entry-point doctoral classes I teach, as I want to establish a supportive tone to help students and be a positive representative of the school in general. Developing this attitude of appreciation has been a product of time and my own doctoral research. What I’ll share are methods you can use to incorporate appreciation as a general teaching strategy, regardless of the subject.

Why Appreciation Matters, Defining Appreciation

My journey with the concept of appreciation began back in 2008, when I was starting research for my dissertation study. At this time, I was developing a dissertation topic and I was also in the early phase of my online teaching career. I was at my last in-person residency for the doctoral program and attended a session about appreciative coaching. It was then I learned about an organizational developmental strategy called appreciative inquiry. I was immediately intrigued by this concept and wanted to learn more. I discovered its use was primarily for organizations and had not been translated for distance learning. That’s when I settled on my dissertation research topic.

For my dissertation research project, I translated appreciative inquiry for distance learning, and more specifically online teaching, and I called it appreciative andragogy. I immediately connected with the appreciative aspect as I have always held a helpful and supportive attitude while interacting with my students. The word andragogy refers to teaching adults. The strategy I developed at that time was designed to help improve the performance, motivation, and engagement of students through a series of scheduled appreciative interactions. The results confirmed the use of appreciation did help improve all elements studied, including student performance, motivation, and engagement.

After graduating in 2010, I continued to use appreciative andragogy myself as a general teaching strategy. I also continued to study appreciative inquiry and have been inspired by its results within organizations. It is based upon the strengths of an organization’s employees to help facilitate change and improvement of any deficits. Over time, my use of appreciative andragogy has evolved as well. I learned from my own experience that a formalized process of scheduled interactions might not be feasible when I have a workload of 90 students.

The concept of appreciative andragogy evolved into appreciative teaching, to denote a supportive disposition when working with students. I’ve found, and my colleagues have shared the same results with me, that the use of appreciation has a significant positive impact on the overall performance and progress of students. It’s about creating a positive connection with students in every interaction. Appreciation can be defined in three ways: 1) to appreciate another or demonstrate gratitude in some manner, 2) the act of appreciating someone or making a conscious effort to appreciate someone, and 3) creating a supportive and positive feeling when interacting with another.

Appreciation as a Teaching Strategy

I’ve been teaching online over 17 years and I still love this profession. I’m teaching and mentoring doctoral students, and I find they need just as much support and care as any student at any other grade level. For online classes, the students are referred to as non-traditional, which means most have returned to school after a lapse in time since their last degree was completed. This means they are starting at the beginning, as to learning the finer points of academic writing and formatting. It also means I’m in a unique position to share my experience and serve as a guide, mentor, coach, and overall supporter of their progress. What follows are the three basic steps I use to implement appreciation as a teaching strategy.

Step One: Know Your Disposition

When it’s time for to me to interact with students in any manner, I need to be aware of my disposition. This is a self-check I have performed since the start of my career and continue to this day. I want to be aware of how I’m feeling, what my surroundings are like, and any influences there may be at the moment that can shape my interactions with students, whether intentionally or unintentionally. What you can do is to ask yourself: What do you believe about your students and their potential? How do you feel at the moment? Are you prepared to teach and interact with students, in a non-judgmental and unbiased manner? A quick self-check is absolutely essential to remain in a positive state of mind for your interactions.

Step Two: Use the Power of Your Words

Without question, words hold potential for tremendous power. Everything you write or post can be interpreted, or even misinterpreted, based upon perceptual cues each student picks up. What this means is you must write with care, not fear, but with an attitude of support and concern for each student’s well-being. I create what I post or send first in the body of a Word document. This allows me to read and re-read it, quickly assessing it for any potential flaws in tone or intent. It will be easier to fix it before it is sent, than explain something afterwards. This is also where appreciation comes into play. You can use just a few words to shape your message into something positive. Even if you state something simple as “I appreciate you” at the end, you have established a supportive tone.

Step Three: Take Proactive and Measured Action

This is the step that encompasses what used to be appreciative andragogy as a process. What I do each term for my students, regardless of the level they are at, is to post pro-active weekly supportive messages. I typically post these messages on Friday, as I know students have already met the discussion deadline and they will continue working on a written assignment that is due by the end of the week. I will share tips and inspiration, usually consisting of the motivational messages written with my moniker Motivational Guru Dr. J. These picture quotes are meant to uplift and inspire students. Included with the Friday message are words of appreciation, to remind students they are supported and cared for by their instructor. I also utilize appreciative wording in all my feedback, whether it is discussion or assignment feedback. There is something I’ll find within a student’s work to appreciate.

Transformational Education Through Appreciation

I’m witnessing now a trend in higher education, and more specifically distance learning, towards a form of learning that is exclusive of classrooms and assigned instructors. Instructors are becoming guides on-call, if needed by a student, rather than being an essential part of the learning process. Students take exams and write papers to earn a passing score, only engaging with an instructor who grades or answers questions. This reminds of the days long ago when there were correspondence-style courses.

While I understand the intent of competency-based education, and I’m not going to evaluate its merits, what I can share with you is my experience after working with directly with students for over 17 years. The lesson is simple: I know many students would not make it through their program were it not for the support, time, effort, and encouragement of their instructors. I was also an online student, and earned most of my advanced degrees online, and I know how effective a class is with an instructor.

For those of you who still work within a traditional online classroom, with instructor-led courses, there is only one way this form of education will continue, and it is by continuing to show how transformational education can be as a result of direct involvement with an instructor. The discourse I have with students in a discussion board always prompts higher order thinking and contributes to their intellectual development. I am always appreciative of their contributions and take time to craft feedback acknowledging what they post, supporting their growth and progress.

I encourage you to think of online teaching not as a task or set of duties, but at its core it’s a set of interactions. More importantly, every interaction has a potential to contribute to the learning and development of students, if you will demonstrate some form of appreciation. This only requires finding something positive to state when you write an email or post a message. If you maintain a disposition that reflects your enjoyment of the work you do, this will also show up in your interactions and before long, you will naturally be using appreciative teaching. When students perceive you appreciate them in some manner, and they experience positive interactions with you, appreciative teaching will have also become a transformational strategy.  

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.

Come join Dr. J’s new group, Motivation for Transformation:

• Any time of the day, visit this group to find your source of motivation, to be inspired and more importantly, have your mindset transformed: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/9108352/

Dr. J offers transformative resources

Please visit Dr. J’s Books page on his brand-new website.

You can also find Dr. J on the following social media sites:

Twitter

Instagram

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.

Meaningful Interactions

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.

Come join Dr. J’s new group, Motivation for Transformation:

Any time of the day, visit this group to find your source of motivation, to be inspired and more importantly, have your mindset transformed: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/9108352/

Dr. J offers transformative resources

Please visit the Books page and Store page for more details.

You can also find Dr. J on the following social media sites:

Instagram

       

Do you ever feel so completely overwhelmed by the external circumstances around you it seems almost impossible to remain calm and steady when you need to be present in the classroom? Has 2021 started with a sense of renewal but quickly given you feelings of apprehension and cause for concern?

A new year is under way and you have already felt the emotional pull of the year we all hoped to leave behind, along with the continued drama that fills the news almost every day. As an educator, you have to somehow separate yourself from the emotional reactions you may be experiencing, if you want to have a clear mind and remain focused on your students. But this isn’t always easy to do, especially if you continue to pay attention to the news and social media. It can leave you feeling emotionally drained.

Yet consider your students and what they expect of you as their instructor. You are expected to be focused on their needs and ready to guide them through the learning process. Instructors are really not “cut some slack” for feeling overwhelmed and having a less than perfect day. When you are involved in your instructional role, and supposed to be focused on the developmental needs of your students, there is no downtime provided. This means you either must be plugged in mentally, and fully available to provide quality instruction, or you need to ask someone for help.

Why is all of this so important? If all of these circumstances are so challenging for you as an instructor, consider how even more challenging it must be as a student. I’m an online instructor and my students are typically the non-traditional learners, who are working full-time while also attending school. They are not only balancing work-related issues, most are also addressing pandemic-related issues, which may include financial challenges, home schooling, remote work, and the list continues. These students are feeling the impact of significant stress, while also attending school.

As an instructor, you must set aside the events of the day and focus intently on your students. If your students needed your attention before, and assistance to be able to persist, they need it now more than ever. In fact, many students need to feel a sense of hope, in order to continue on in their academic program. There are many students who are internalizing negative reactions they experience, and absorbing negative emotions from those around them, and the result is a feeling their hard work may or may not pay off in the end. Your encouragement, while they work, is vital to their success.

It’s as Simple as: I’m Here to Help

The first key to the establishment of a relationship with your students is availability. It is being responsive and demonstrating your appreciation for their effort, contribution, and attempt. Even if they may a mistake or get everything wrong with a written assignment, there was an attempt. The point is they showed up to class and they were present. You must also mirror that presence with your willingness to be available and ready to assist them. That readiness can be developed in multiple methods. Just be certain your students know it will be consistent from week to week.

I’m “old fashioned” in that I offer Office Hours during the week, which includes daytime and evening hours. I also offer Office Hours on Saturday, which I understand seems out of the ordinary and a significant investment of my time; however, we live right now in extraordinary times. If I can assist and resolve a student’s concern with five minutes of my time, it is time well spent. When I began teaching online over 15 years ago, the institution I worked for required weekly Office Hours and it was instilled within me, as to the value and benefit it could offer to students. I’ve never forgotten it and even know what it was like from the perspective of being an online student, when instructors I had offered it.

What can also be transformative is your disposition towards your students. When you are in the classroom, engaging with learners via email or classroom messaging, be careful about the words you use. A simple statement in reply to a classroom message or email, such as “I’m here to help”, can change the disposition of a struggling student. I also include this statement any time I provide feedback, whether it is formal feedback for grading, or informal feedback to help guide and coach a student. Those words let the student know I am a resource and available for them.

Give Students a Reason to Feel Hope

If you are teaching online, it will not be easy at first to determine if your students are adapting well to the class, or if they are facing challenges related to the current external environment. As the class progresses, you may receive emails or messages which inform you of their status and challenges. The most difficult aspect of teaching online now is observing students who struggle and not knowing if it due to a lack of academic skills, motivation, stressors, pandemic-related issues, or any other number of reasons. During a “normal” or pre-pandemic time, you could provide resources related to the specific academic problem. But now there may be a number of factors interfering with the student’s progress.

This is when your relationship with students becomes even more important. In addition to availability, and the use of reassuring words, students will benefit from something beyond the scope of your instructional practice. This is the development of a mindset of hope. It doesn’t mean hope of a better life, career, or future, which is beyond the scope of the class. It is the hope their effort and time dedicated to classwork will mean something in the long term. If they feel hope, and they persist, then completion of a course will lead to completion of another. Eventually they will complete their degree and well on the way to completion of their goals.

How do you nurture a sense of hope in your students? You can implement at least one or more of the following strategies within your instructional practice to accomplish this goal.

Happiness as a Disposition: Students develop a sense for how you are feeling, whether you teach on-ground or online. This is reflected in the tone of your posts, messages, and emails, simply by the word choice used. My recommendation is that you make happiness a choice, every day you decide to interact with students. You can be happy regardless of circumstances around you, and maintain an authentic happiness, simply because you are able to teach. I look forward to interacting with my students, even when I am feeling the most challenged, and during the pandemic I was challenged. But I was determined to still maintain authentic happiness and you can too, just by the power of your intention.

Optimism as a Point of View: If you are going to help students feel a sense of hope while they work, then somehow you must also hold a point of view that is optimistic. This may go against every personal belief you hold, and yet, as an educator you need a different perspective during your instructional interactions. This is a time to promote a sense of what may come or what is yet to be, otherwise, why should students continue to work on their degree program? Keeping your beliefs out of the classroom and remaining neutral can be challenging, but this is needed if you want to enter into intellectual discourse with students. You need an objective lens from which to frame your discussions, based upon research and data, rather than bias and subjective opinions.

Positivity to Bring About Change: While happiness is a disposition, positivity is a specific strategy to be implemented within communication, posts, and feedback. There is quite a difference between a response that begins with “Student” versus “Hello Student”. A positive approach is one in which you, as the instructor, are viewed as approachable and easy to interact with, rather than someone who is to be feared and avoided. When students feel comfortable interacting with you, from the perspective of being able to send you a message or contact you, then you are presented with an opportunity to bring about change. This is when you can learn more about their background and the unique challenges they may be facing. I’ve heard of many who were facing pandemic-related challenges, which allowed me to work with them.

Encouragement to Develop Success: There is one aspect of teaching that I always believe in, regardless of societal conditions, and it is the use of encouragement. Whether I acknowledge a student for making an attempt or an effort, there always needs to be some form of encouragement within feedback provided. I know all too well, especially having been an online learner and not physically present to interact with my instructors, how it feels to receive cut and paste commentary that offers nothing more than rote statements. But a few words that seek to uplift can make all the difference in the next attempt made, and the decision as to whether or not the student will utilize the feedback provided. It all becomes a matter of building up the student’s confidence so they are able to become successful.  

You are a Beacon of Hope

This is a challenging time for you and your students. I do not want to minimize the potential for stress that you, as an educator, are likely to experience. My intent with this post is to bring awareness to the potential influence you have on students, along with the ability you have to help them during a time when they need your guidance the most. Somehow, you need to be able to manage the stress and emotions you are experiencing, well enough that you can become a source of inspiration and hope for your students. They may or may not look up to you now, but they do expect you to be available to help them, especially when they become frustrated.

A positive disposition can become quite challenging to maintain at times, especially given how long the pandemic has been going on. Yet if you can shine a beacon of happiness, optimism, positivity, and encouragement, you will help to create a sense of hope for students, especially those who are struggling to stay engaged and motivated. I’ve found this can become transformative not only for my students, but for myself as well. As I see my students feel uplifted, and develop a sense of accomplishment or improvement in their disposition, I too feel better empowered to manage the stress of my day. Even if you only help encourage one of the most discouraged students this week, this sense of hope you’ve helped to instill within them will lead them to success 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.

Come join Dr. J’s new group, Motivation for Transformation:

Any time of the day, visit this group to find your source of motivation, to be inspired and more importantly, have your mindset transformed: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/9108352/

Dr. J offers transformative resources

Please visit the Books page and Store page for more details.

You can also find Dr. J on the following social media sites:

Instagram