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

Any educator who engages in ongoing professional development knows most of the topics written about are usually related to classroom management, technology, future trends, and even online classroom presence. Yet the one topic that is not readily available, and isn’t easy to train faculty about, is supporting the needs and growth of online students. This is not a procedural matter, rather it’s a disposition held by each individual educator.

Online teaching can be a transformative experience for educators and students alike. One of the reasons this occurs is the discourse available through online discussion boards, when both exchange ideas and engage in intellectual discourse. But then when an educator engages their heart into the process, and students feel or perceive they are cared about, learning becomes even more meaningful to them. For an educator, this transforms teaching from a mandatory function into a purpose-driven role.

I have found there are individuals who are good with the delivery of information or excel as public speakers in a traditional classroom. Others are effective with the process of facilitating the basic functions of an online class. But what is it that makes an online classroom feel much more inviting, and the instructor seem to be more supportive of their students? More importantly, how does an educator uplift their students as a matter of practice? Is it necessary for every instructor to care that much about their role? Is it important for students to interact with someone who exhibits that type of passion? These are the questions I explore further, based upon my work as an educator.

Being Present Without Being Seen

Most of my experience has been teaching adult students (and faculty as students) in non-traditional online classes. I have worked in an industry that requires classroom engagement and interactions virtually every day and evening. In other words, there may not be stated hours that are required of faculty; however, there is an expectation the students will be a top priority regardless of the day of week. Also consider in this environment I do not see my students, unless they have uploaded a photo or I hold a live seminar. This means I’ve had to learn how to take static, written communication and use it in a manner that can still convey a sense of warmth through the choice of words used.

There are three possible approaches an educator can take when managing a virtual classroom environment. The first is to be “always on” or always plugged into the classroom environment, and alert for messages or new posts. The second is to be plugged in and present on a regular basis, while also allowing for downtime breaks. The last approach is to check-in with the class only when required, which means taking a minimalist approach to the required faculty duties. The best of the three first depends upon the demeanor of the person; however, a consistent presence is beneficial for students, along with downtime for the health and well-being of the instructor.

Supporting Open and Closed Minds

When students interact with others in the classroom, they are not always open-minded to begin with as they have their own beliefs, opinions, established patterns of thought, and habitual ways of thinking. They see the world in a particular manner and point of view. They are interacting with an environment that is going to make demands of them, present ideas and information that may conflict with what they know or think or believe, and it is their instructor who is going to influence them and matter the most.

Instructors also have a set of beliefs, personal opinions, world views, and habitual ways of thinking. What an instructor sees, thinks, and feels may be in direct opposition to what a student writes or posts. It is up to the instructor to be supportive of students, and maintain an open mind, as they need to nurture and support any student who has a closed mind. There are also going to be students who do not meet the expectations of their instructor, and again, the instructor must consider what they expect of them, how realistic those expectations are, and how to support students.

Students also hold expectations about the learning process. They expect the class to conform to what they want, confirm what they already believe, meet their personal and professional needs, and operate according to their views. Sometimes those expectations are met, and other times there is a clash of beliefs and opinions. If expectations are not met, and there is a disconnect, it is the instructor’s disposition and support that matters most. An instructor must uplift and guide, not punish their students for thinking different or expecting something unrealistic.

How to Uplift and Support Your Students

For any educator reading this now, who feels a connection to what is written, you likely have a supportive and nurturing approach to online teaching already. Anyone who cares about their students can adopt this approach. From my experience, a caring instructor is much more effective in the long-term than someone who demands strict compliance to the requirements, and cannot empathize with students. What I am referring to though goes beyond caring, and I call it uplifting and supporting students.

For me, this disposition has occurred as a product of time, along with a process of trial and error. When you put your heart into a career, you stick with it during the times when you feel alive and are fully engaged in it, along with the times when it challenges you and you are taught life lessons. What I’m sharing with you are the strategies I use to be student-centered, regardless of the circumstances within the job itself. My belief is simple: I’m in this career for my students. I recognize the workload and problems many faculty like myself are facing. Yet no matter what is going on around the job, students must always come first.

Supportive Strategy #1: Care Personally

To care about your students personally means you are able to empathize with them, any time they share a personal moment with you, be it a triumph or struggle. It doesn’t mean you are adjusting rules for them, rather it means you can offer words of care and concern as needed. When students are able to perceive you as a “real” human, not just an online instructor who is “somewhere out there”, then you can build a bond with them. I have been able to develop these types of connections with students, and it is gratifying to watch their progress because of it.

Supportive Strategy #2: Connect Professionally

I teach doctoral students and one of the strategies I use to connect with them on a professional level is to share my social media links. These are my professional social media links, inclusive of LinkedIn and Twitter. For any form of social media I share, I make certain to keep it education and career focused. I do this to help encourage students to think of what they will pursue after their degree is completed, and it also allows me to keep in touch after the class has concluded. It also allows them to build an academic community, which can help them avoid a sense of isolation while they are working on their degree.

Supportive Strategy #3: Motivation Matters

I’ve been writing and posting motivational picture quotes for many years now on social media. What I’ve found is that by sharing some of these in class on occasion, it can really help to uplift students. If you have any additional words of encouragement that you can share in a course announcement or post of some kind, you may find it helps inspire your students as well. There are times when they may feel challenged and need some words of encouragement.

Supportive Strategy #4: Manage the Details

When I write about the details, I’m referring to the word choices made when you develop a classroom post, classroom message, or email. The receiver of anything you post or send is going to perceive what you have written, as to the tone and intent, which means you want to be certain you are clear about the message. A simple strategy you can implement is to create your posts and messages in a Word document first, as a means of proofreading what you write. Why is this a supportive strategy? When you pay attention to what and how you write, you demonstrate to students you do care about all aspects of your interactions with them.

Supportive Strategy #5: Stay Vigilant

Being vigilant as an online instructor means you are aware of the potential for your students to disconnect or disengage from the course. If you notice a student has missed a deadline, send them a message. But instead of just quoting the late policy, let them know you care in some manner. The purpose of this strategy is to always be aware of the conditions of your class, and more importantly, the status of your students. You want to be ready to act as support.

Make Students Your Priority

Teaching has always been second nature for me. It is one of the first memories I had as a child, even before I knew what I was really doing, and throughout my career I found myself in a classroom no matter what my job titles might have been at the time. It was a natural progression for me to move from corporate training into higher education. I can tell you there have been many times in which I have worked as a faculty member (full-time and adjunct), and my positive disposition was challenged, simply because of the workload and nature of the institutional politics. During those times I always came back to a focus on my students, and why I love to teach.

For anyone who believes they have put their heart into their work, your students will notice it. Your support is going to make a difference for students during times when they feel challenged. Your ability to care and empathize, while being a coach, mentor, and teacher, will serve you and them well. You are going to also feel challenged at times by institutional circumstances, situations, conditions, and expectations. If you can stay focused on your ability to uplift students, and how much they depend upon your caring attitude and positive disposition, perhaps you can maintain your own balance during those challenging moments. No matter what external conditions may be, when students are your top priority, then all of the effort put into your job will never feel like time wasted.  

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/

       

A typical path for the high school graduate used to be enrollment in college, making a transition from one learning environment to the next, even if a major had not yet been determined. For many high school graduates, this may still be the case. However, within the field of higher education, there has been a shift over time, with an increase in a different type of student who is attending school. This student is known as the non-traditional learner, or someone who waits for a period of time to return to school to pursue formal education.

A non-traditional learner could be someone who doesn’t enroll in college courses right after high school. This type of learner could also be someone who completed an undergraduate degree after high school, and then waited a period of time to pursue graduate or advanced education. What I have found, through my experience in higher education, is non-traditional learners are initially motivated to enroll in a degree program for specific reasons. This is especially true for online schools, which will offer degree programs for particular career interests.

I have been teaching and mentoring doctoral learners online for some time, and these students almost always fit the non-traditional category. For many, there may have been a time gap between when they began their doctoral program, and when they had completed a master’s degree. What I have also found is most have some type of career purpose in mind, when they enrolled in a doctoral program, either to advance in a career, or begin an entirely new career. Similar to myself and my doctorate program, many doctoral students I’ve worked with have a sense of purpose or calling involved; believing their doctorate degree will fulfill a life’s mission and vision.

Teaching online students already requires a different approach than traditional on-ground students. Now what I would like to emphasize are the additional needs non-traditional learners have and how these needs can be addressed with three basic online teaching strategies. Perhaps you will find yourself utilizing one or more of these approaches already. Or it may be possible you will discover something new to add to your instructional toolbox.

What Non-Traditional Learners Need

What you are likely to read, in most of the literature and resources related to non-traditional learners, is the importance of bringing real-world problems and issues to the classroom for studying. In other words, there is a de-emphasis placed on theory, and continued recommendations made for practicality. While I understand the need to avoid teaching a course strictly about theory, I also believe for some subjects, a balance is necessary.

For example, when teaching adult education as a subject, there are basic theories I recommend students learn about to establish a foundation. An important theory to study is andragogy, which is about teaching adults. This is in contrast to pedagogy, or teaching children. Yet learning about relevant theories should only be a starting point for a course. There also needs to be practical application, providing students with an opportunity to put into practice what they have learned.

I’ve also learned some lessons from working with non-traditional doctoral learners. First, I cannot rely upon the course content itself to meet the needs of students. While I cannot change or add to discussions and assignments, I can help to clarify and add relevance to them. For example, with class discussions, I can share theory, practical application, real-world problems, or whatever is needed to help make them relevant and useful.

Another lesson learned is the importance of contributing something of value to their chosen field for students. This relates back to the vision and mission most have for enrolling in a doctorate program. This is why it is important for discussions and assignments to be something more than busywork. Finally, many students are interested in social causes, and this is another driving force for pursuit of their studies and doctorate degree completion.

3 Successful Teaching Strategies

Based upon what I’ve learned about the needs of non-traditional learners, especially online doctoral students, there are three teaching strategies that can help make the class more meaningful and engaging. These strategies can be used for any subject and any graduate grade level. How you choose to implement one or more of these strategies depends upon how you teach your students now, and how you could add any of these ideas to your instructional practice.

Strategy #1: Teach the Value of Advanced Education

Students know their graduate degree holds greater weight than an undergraduate degree. For a doctoral student, they are usually aware this degree is the highest level of education possible in the United States. Yet do students really understand what this degree means as a reality, when it is time to begin their program, as to what’s required of them? From my experience, most students know what the levels of advanced education are, yet few understand the increased expectations and responsibilities which come along with it.

Take for example online doctoral students. I’ve taught non-traditional learners who worked in the fields of business and education, with jobs ranging from manager to college instructor. Many believe they already write appropriately and are able to demonstrate sufficient academic skill levels. The reality is usually quite different as these skills are not routinely required. Now at a doctorate level, there is an expectation for students to be able to demonstrate higher order thinking and proper academic writing, and apply theory into practice. This requires I spend a significant amount of time helping these students elevate their writing, and reach for critical thinking and analysis.

I’m certain you have found this is one of the most important lessons students can learn once enrolled, and a true value of advanced education, transforming how they think and what they write. I refer to changes they need to make as learning to elevate their writing, to help students understand they are building from what they already know at present. What I never want to do is to make a student feel as if they are back in grade school, and just learning how to write.

Strategy #2: Teach Self Self-Efficacy and Self-Empowerment

You, as the instructor, have an ability to greatly influence what your students believe about their ability to complete the required learning activities. The level of influence you have is held with only a few words written, and occurs primarily through the feedback provided. This is where you have a choice each week: Take time to offer personalized and constructive feedback, or complete your tasks quickly and offer a few quick comments which are basically not much more than canned commentary. Should you take time as I do each week, you choose to take advantage of the influence available to you, to help shape the beliefs of your students.

The most important beliefs students hold, especially as related to completion of tasks, retention, and making it to graduation, include self-efficacy and self-empowerment. Why do I believe this to be so? It is based upon over 17 years of online teaching experience, including my ongoing research in the field of adult education. Self-efficacy, in general, refers to a person’s ability to believe they have the confidence necessary to complete something, be it a learning activity or degree program. I have attempted to use a strengths-based approach to feedback, which means I focus on strengths first, and use those positive elements when addressing areas of development. In other words, I want to instill a sense of confidence within students, about their ability to complete anything they attempt to do.

The other belief is related to self-empowerment, as I want students to know grades and outcomes do not happen to them. Whenever I read a student’s introduction and they tell me their goal is to earn an “A” average for the course, I know what their focus is, along with their locus of control. If I can help them learn they are fully empowered to be in control of how they learn, and more importantly the grades they earn, then my hope is this mindset will continue into the next course. If I am successful, this sense of self-empowerment may even extend into their own lives as well.

Strategy #3: Teach the Transformative Power of Education

I know why students enroll in their degree programs for the most part, and still, I have met few who really understand how transformative education can be, until the very end of their program. To help students better connect with their studies, I’ll emphasize the importance of growth as a student. This can be challenging for my online doctoral students at times, who are often leaders, working in an advanced capacity, or educators with extensive experience.

It relates to the idea of “going to school”, in which you “learn something new”, and then acquire a degree. The missing piece from these statements is “growing as a person”, or something related to it. It is simply not possible to enter a doctoral or graduate program and not be changed by it in some manner. What I remind students as well is that through growth, they can then become an agent of change in turn for their chosen field. In other words, you cannot enact change around you, if you alone are not willing to change.

In order to help emphasize the transformative power of education, there are two concepts I discuss when possible with my doctoral students. The first is becoming a lifelong learner. As students learn advanced higher order thinking skills, they are acquiring a method of questioning and examining, which will likely change how they read. This will translate into their career, and likely their personal lives as well. They will find themselves wanting to seek out credible and reliable sources, acquire new information, and in essence, continue to learn. This may be learning for enjoyment, or learning with a specific purpose in mind.

The second concept I emphasize at the doctorate level is that of scholar-practitioner. I remember when I was a doctoral student and was told about this concept, and the impact it had on my work. I took it to heart at the time, and have continued to view it as a responsibility that comes along with holding a doctorate degree. For my doctoral students, I talk about it from the perspective of the importance of elevating their academic writing, conducting research, developing a dissertation that contributes new knowledge to their chosen field, and developing a dissertation research topic of interest that they could continue to study even after their program has been completed. That’s what I did with my dissertation, select a topic that was a launching point for something I continued to study and write about ever since graduation.

Demonstrate Appreciation for Your Non-Traditional Learners

Every student deserves respect and appreciation. For non-traditional learners, there is an added level of appreciation you can demonstrate. It’s related to their background and experience. To provide a sense of contrast, consider those students who are enrolled in a college course right after high school. Some may have work experience, yet many have a limited number of years of real-world practical experience, as a general rule. Now consider an online, non-traditional doctoral learner who has 20 years of professional experience, as an example. When you engage with this student, you should not use any wording that in any manner discounts their experience or background. They likely know their profession very well, and could speak very eloquently about it. What this student may lack is current academic experience.

While it may seem easier to teach students with minimal life experience, I have always enjoyed teaching non-traditional learners. I find I learn as much from these students as they learn from me. Their professional experiences are usually different than my own, and I find these differences lend to engaging and fulfilling class discussions. Some of my non-traditional learners have resisted the need to change and grow, as could any student, and it comes down to a matter of their willingness to learn and adapt. I try to remain patient and willing to help students, as I too was a non-traditional learner, and I’ve always flourished most when an instructor demonstrated appreciation.

You can take an extra step, when engaging with your non-traditional learners, and acknowledge the experience these students write about in their discussion posts and papers. When you make this acknowledgement, you are demonstrating appreciation for them as experienced adults, and this helps instill a sense of positivity within them. They chose a program specifically for adult students, and as such, they do not want to be viewed as inexperienced or uneducated. While they may need guidance to reach the level of expectations required, they will likely reach it quicker with a positive focus, then one which is negative-based. Help your students remember their vision and mission as you interact with them, take time to provide developmental guidance, and then enjoy the learning process with them as they grow.

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/

       

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

       

What do you expect of your students, as to an expectation of respect for you and your position as their instructor?

From my experience, whenever you teach a class with adult students, there is an expectation these students will maintain a basic level of respect for you as their instructor. It’s a mutual process, with the instructor reciprocating back to their students that same basic level of respect. I’ve not had to think about this topic until recently, when I’ve observed a trend with many online students no longer holding respect for their instructors.

What I’m noticing is some online students feeling empowered to speak in any manner they see fit, without regard for the school’s Student Code of Conduct. Worse yet, a student who speaks with a lack of respect can also become a class disruptor, and before long, their attitude begins to show up among others in the class. We are all humans, and when you are trying to teach from a perspective of care and concern, or true appreciation for your students, it can feel unpleasant when a student is being negative and aggressive.

If this is happening to you, especially within your online classes, there are strategies I recommend you consider using. While it may not be possible to stem the tide of what is happening from a larger or societal perspective, perhaps what I recommend will help you to find a way of allowing you to continue to demonstrate appreciation for your students. Since disrespect is a negative disposition that can spread throughout the class, a set of proactive strategies is needed to address it head-on. This will help avoid reactively responding in an emotional manner.

How Disrespect Infects an Entire Class

Throughout my career teaching online classes, I’ve had an occasional student demonstrate disrespect, and it typically involved a one-time incident. For example, it may have been related to a grade a student believed was unfair or unjustified, and the student sent a message using inappropriate words. Over the past year or so, I’m noticing something more than just an occasional message, I’m observing the rise of a class disruptor. This is a student who takes their disagreement to an entirely new level.  

A student as disruptor may form a group outside of the class for other students to join, and then share their negativity with the group. It isn’t long until I’m noticing a similar disrespectful attitude from other students in the class. In other words, this disruptor spreads negativity and it catches on like wildfire. I’m not talking about a general negative attitude either. These are outright acts of disrespect, from challenging statements made on a discussion board, to disrespectful messages sent directly to me.

An Issue of Generational Differences

I’ve been teaching online for over 16 years, and back when I began, it seemed as if students held a different attitude towards their instructors. I was also an online student at the time I began teaching in this environment. It was the early 2000s, and it seemed as if there was an automatic level of respect given by students, not only for the work they were producing in class, but also for their instructors. When I was enrolled in my doctoral program, I witnessed the highest level of respect given by students, including myself, towards instructors and the work being developed and submitted. 

I was raised in a generation that valued hard work and absolute respect for those in authority. The fact my father was a police officer also influenced my outlook and work ethic. I would never think of being disrespectful to anyone. This may also be a quality of a Baby Boomer, which is the category I belong in. I’ve read a number of research studies that point to certain newer generations as having an attitude of entitlement, or being difficult to work with in general, yet I find it hard to imagine how respect would not be a fundamental aspect of a person’s make-up or set of characteristics. But I’ve observed it does at times, and that is why it must be addressed as an online teaching strategy or set of strategies.

Strategies to Help You Respond to Disrespectful Students

There are some forms of disrespect which you must address quickly and with procedures established by your school. However, the type of disrespect the following strategies are designed for involve the ongoing challenges that make it difficult for you to remain positive. For example, I had a student who sent messages with an abrasive tone, simply because they received two points deducted from their assignment. It wasn’t easy at times, yet I did my best to continue to show this student I cared about them and appreciated their efforts. Perhaps these strategies will help you as well.

Strategy 1: Adjust Your Mindset for Appreciation

Whenever I have a student who uses abrasive language, or an improper tone, I first have to determine if it has crossed a line and must be reported. If not, I then have to center myself and use my own emotional intelligence skills to monitor how I’m feeling. I have to make certain my mindset is well-adjusted before I respond. I had to stop, breathe, and remind myself of my core beliefs, which is to help students learn and grow. To do this, I must always be appreciative of their efforts, regardless of how they behave in class. I want to address their performance, not behaviors.

Strategy 2: Appreciation Comes from the Inside Out

I am someone who can tolerate a lot from students, and over the course of 17 years I have tolerated a lot of strong wording from students. Yet this new form of student as disruptor, and someone who comes right up to the line of what is not acceptable, is really quite stressful. In fact, I find when many in a class begin to act like this, it can feel overwhelming at times. I have to really be aware of how I am feeling and if I become too personally affected by the stress of the class, I need to provide myself with some downtime, even it is a matter of a few hours. That break away from the online class can help free my mind and give me a renewed perspective. I can then go back to feeling appreciation for my students, knowing it comes from the inside out.

Strategy 3: Remember to Appreciate and Respect Your Role

Now this may seem to be counterintuitive for demonstrating appreciation; however, this strategy is about showing appreciation for your work and care for your position. If you have a disrespectful student, or more than one, be certain your communication is done through proper channels. For example, if you are expected to communicate through the classroom messaging system, do so to make certain there is a record.

If a student would like a phone call with you, and this has been an ongoing problematic student, then offer something such as Zoom, so you can record the conversation. You may not need the documentation; however, it is better to have it than be put in a situation where words are disputed. This strategy is not meant to inhibit how you work with your students, but rather ensure you have properly worked with them. Appreciation is necessary for you and your students.

Strategy 4: Establish Expectations and Show Appreciation When Met

Remember you can always tolerate students and their behavior, but communicate your expectations. The Course Syllabus typically has a statement about the Student Code of Conduct, which you can refer to when or if needed. I know many instructors like to remain popular and more importantly, they are afraid to make their students mad, simply because of the potential for negative end-of-course evaluation scores and commentary.

Yet you have to remember that disrespect can and likely will escalate if you do not address it. What I recommend is you establish your expectations at the start of the class, and show appreciation to students when they have met them. Any time you can demonstrate appreciation for something students have done, be it a milestone, goal, or adherence to what you expect, it helps build positive emotional feelings within them.

Strategy 5: Evaluate Situations to Demonstrate Care and Concern

There is always something to be learned after you have addressed a student who has demonstrated disrespect. For example, what was at the heart of the student’s frustration or cause for concern? From my perspective, most instances occur because of grades and points not earned.

What I have learned over time is the importance of weekly instructional videos, conducting webinars, providing video feedback, and reviewing the grading rubrics included with the learning activities. In other words, I’ll try to proactively address the areas which are most likely to cause upset for students. My goal is to demonstrate care and concern for the entire class, and offer guidance to help them succeed.

Remember: You are Human

Any time you experience disrespect it can feel personal, as it seems like an attack, on you, your credibility, authority, subject matter expertise, and/or professional experience. What I want for you to remember is that you are human. If you find yourself in a situation in which you feel a sense of ugliness or mean spiritedness, take a break. Walk away from the laptop or computer, and find a space to regroup. Perhaps you can walk outside, speak with a family member, call a colleague, or do anything but go back into that environment. You need to do something that will distract you long enough to let your emotions settle down. Then your rational mind can begin to help address your feelings, and you can develop a plan for what to do next. What you don’t want to do is react in anger or while you are feeling negative. Show your students you appreciate them no matter what they have done, and care for them during the best and worst of times. As a result, you’ll feel good yourself, and the work you dedicate so much time and effort to complete. 

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

       

What causes a student to want to learn? Is it the same reason why students want to seek out course-specific knowledge?

The standard formula in higher education is to add students and an instructor to a pre-built curriculum, and the result is the creation of a learning environment. To bridge the gap between students and the learning process are planned activities, along with resources to help students engage with the activities. But intellectual curiosity, a process which cannot be controlled, is either inherent or prompted by completion of planned activities or involvement of an instructor.

Learning within a formal classroom environment can be an intellectual activity. When the intellect of a student is engaged, cognition is elevated from automatic thinking to higher order thinking, and possibly critical thinking. Intellectual curiosity then, becomes the desire to understand why, when reading new information, the search for an underlying or fundamental premise within what is read that may be new or different, the desire to seek out challenging views and perspectives, and a time when existing beliefs may be questioned.

As an instructor, you may find it important to understand why students need intellectual curiosity while engaged in your class, and what you can do to help prompt it. While teaching as a traditional instructor, it was easier for me to observe the engagement level of students who were present in class, and ask directed questions to help them think further about the course topics. However, as an online instructor this type of strategy needs to be adapted, and it’s something I’ve learned to do with time and practice. I’ve discovered you need to do more than just ask questions, there needs to be thought given as to how questions are asked, along with the perceived tone of the message posted. What you read next may help provide your teaching practice with new ideas and strategies.

Why Learning Activities are Important

The two most common learning activities built into a traditional online class are asynchronous class discussions and written assignments. The reason why these are the most commonly used activities are twofold. They provide engagement from an individual and group perspective. The purpose of an asynchronous discussion is to guide students to specific information and answer targeted prompts. The assumption built in is that the reading associated with the discussion will prompt reflection and warrant further investigation, leading to intellectual curiosity.

As to written assignments, the same underlying assumption applies. Students are guided to specific information and then the belief is they will reflect upon the information, and through the engagement of their cognition their intellectual curiosity will be prompted. This should then lead to a well-researched, well-developed, and carefully thought-out paper.

For discussions, the reality is that a majority of students write a reactionary post without having read the assigned materials, which means more is needed to prompt an interest in reading the material and an intellectual curiosity. As to written assignments, students who are newer to writing, or want to take the quickest route to completion, either use minimal sources, over-use sources with too many direct quotes, or use inappropriate internet sources. This is why the need for an instructor’s guidance is required, to help direct the attention and focus of students where necessary.

Why Engaging Intellectual Curiosity Matters

Consider first the perspective of casual reading. While the purpose may vary, the intention typically isn’t to gain extensive knowledge or acquire information for long-term memory. In contrast, formal learning is sought with a specific purpose, and the intellect takes on an important role in the acquisition of knowledge for the long-term. First engaged is cognition and mental processing of information while materials are read, once students read the assigned materials and then seek out supplemental readings.

When a student becomes highly engaged mentally, they are more likely to demonstrate critical or higher order thinking, or an ability to reason logically, and write at an elevated level. For example, they can take and process information, and synthesize its meaning. This leads to another condition, mental acuity, or having a sharply focused state of mind. This also comes about as a result of being intellectually curious. However, the ultimate goal of this type of curiosity is to seek knowledge, for the purpose of learning.

How to Prompt Intellectual Development Among Students

For any class, especially an online class, the person who has the most influence on the development of a student’s intellectual development and interest is an instructor. I’ve found it occurs as a result of my direct involvement in the classroom, regardless of the amount of time spent. I say this as I’ve learned to make every interaction with students matter, from demonstrating appreciation for their effort, to prompting their intellectual development. In other words, you don’t have to spend every day in the classroom to be effective. You can take time off and still engage effectively with students for the days you are online.

To prompt the curiosity of your students, perhaps the following strategies can be added to your list of teaching strategies.

#1. Leverage Your Expertise

A pre-built curriculum should never be viewed as something which replaces your experience and background, even if there is nothing additional for you (as the instructor) to initially add to your class. Where your expertise is most needed is with course discussions and feedback. In other words, all aspects of the course in which you are involved in can benefit from the knowledge you hold. What you know can help to make the course topics more interesting and engaging, and create further interest within students.

#2. Ask Frequent Questions

The use of questions can be an effective tool for prompting further thinking about course topics, if utilized in a strategic manner. For example, when I’m involved in course discussions, I always conclude with a question to help extend the conversation. I understand this follows the Socratic form of dialogue; however, I try not to be quite so direct in my approach, given the online class format. I’ve found it is very important to consider the perceived tone of the post and to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible. I’ll also ask a question that draws in the entire class, as I may not always post a response to every student each week.

#3. Become Familiar with the Course Materials

As a Faculty Development Specialist, one of the most common errors I’ve observed is a faculty member who does not refer to course materials during class discussions. I’m not suggesting there is a need to integrate course materials into every discussion response you post; however, it can be helpful to refer to specific points which are important to main topics for the week. I’ve found this useful whenever I find students have not reviewed the assigned materials or missed important points. In addition, if I can help to make the course materials seem interesting, I may be able to help engage students in those materials.

#4. Always Be Curious Yourself

Here’s something to keep in mind: You lead by your example. If you are curious about the course topics, and demonstrate a true excitement for what is being studied, it is likely to influence your students. You will often hear educators talk about being lifelong learners, and this is what it’s about, maintaining a curiosity and interest for acquiring new knowledge. It’s also about asking “why” whenever you read or hear something, along with wanting to learn new information about the subject or subjects you’re teaching. For me, it has been some time since I completed my degrees, which means I need to stay up-to-date in my chosen profession, and I do this by always seeking out new knowledge.  

#5. Use Feedback as a Prompt for Engagement

The task of providing feedback does not have to be straightforward, with a completed rubric and a few rote comments. Instead, you can use this as another opportunity to ask questions and share insight, and continue to prompt interest within your students. I’ll ask questions within my feedback, something as simple that begins with: Have you considered? What you want to think about is the student who has written the paper and made an attempt to understand what was assigned, and then process it in a manner which meets the required prompts. You can continue their thought process with your own prompts, and this includes a question or two. I’ve found some students will send me a message and respond directly, while most will continue to think about the topics and use what I’ve written as a point of reference.

Developing a Highly Engaged Learning Environment

All of the strategies provided above are done with the sole purpose of helping you to develop a learning environment that becomes one in which your students want to read the course materials, seek out information about the course topics, and become curious about what they are learning. I understand that students, as adult learners, should be self-motivated and have their reasons already for wanting to acquire their degree. However, as we know, the reality is online students are often non-traditional in that they are also balancing other responsibilities and likely trying to complete the minimum necessary as quickly as possible.

This means it is going to take the prompts of an instructor to help them become deeply interested and want to devote extra time. The good news is when I’ve made the effort, students do become curious and time becomes less of a factor as they do want learn more about the course subjects. This in turn makes the course more enjoyable for me to be involved in as an instructor, the discussions become more engaging and meaningful for all of us, and suddenly the spark of curiosity leads to a transformative learning experience. While there will always be some students who just want to get by, most students are going to respond positively, and become intellectually stimulated, by an instructor who is highly engaged and eager to share knowledge.

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

       

When you think about what it takes to be an effective online instructor, you may consider how to efficiently complete the many duties required each week. This would be a normal response as the online instructor is task-driven. From a purely classroom management perspective, there are always questions to answer, papers to evaluate, discussions to be involved in, timelines to meet, and so. Beyond the typical duties, an instructor will find themselves nurturing the developmental learning abilities of their students, and stimulate their intellectual curiosity. To be highly effective in the online environment, the instructor must have basic qualities, such as empathy and emotional intelligence. These are the qualities that are responsible for helping an instructor respond to conditions in the most appropriate manner.

Then there needs to be a quality or characteristic of an online instructor that is not dependent upon conditions, a basic human trait which can be applied to all situations. I believe that characteristic is kindness, which is an ability to have a positive disposition with all those you interact with each day. It’s a state of mind that has a direct impact on how you feel and perform, just as it does for your students when they interact with you. It’s also directly related to another quality I recommend every instructor demonstrate for their students, and that’s showing appreciation for them. But being kind should become an automatic response to everyone encountered, no matter how nice or aggressive their initial tone may be. If this isn’t a natural state of mind for your now, it is possible to cultivate it through intentional practice.

Kindness in a World of Strong Emotions

I’ve chosen to focus on kindness as we all need a reminder from time-to-time about the importance of our basic humanity, especially when this is a time when it is so easy to experience strong emotions from events of the world around us. I have found within my online teaching practice now, more than ever, there are pre-conceived ideas about who I am, what I will be like, and what it will be like to work with me. This is all based upon my photo and introduction, which clearly shows my race, gives an indication of my age (likely older vs. younger), and possible sexual orientation (there is no mention of a wife and children).

I am also sensing an immediate hesitation among certain ethnic groups to work with me, believing I will not be open-minded. Or I may be automatically viewed as “one of them” because of my race. This is very different than when I first began teaching online 16 years ago. Those who are willing to speak with me find themselves surprised that I can be very easy to talk to, get along with, and always accepting of others. I rely upon a basic act of kindness to begin with, which I believe every person is entitled to, regardless of how strongly their initial words may be. I know the learning process can be challenging for some, and the simple act of kindness can go a long way towards helping someone overcome their frustrations and begin to listen to the advice being offered.

Is Kindness Always Reciprocated?

I believe we know the answer to that question and it is a resounding no, and I never make my approach to working with students based upon a condition they must act the same way in return. While I do expect a level of professionalism and respect, in accordance with school policies for student conduct, I know that basic kindness is not always going to be a natural response for some students. In fact, if a student does not receive the grade or outcome they expected, believed they earned, or thought they were entitled to, they may act in every manner but kind. This is when I will continue to show not only kindness towards them, but empathy as well.

I’ve found there is an interesting reaction to my approach which has occurred over the past couple of years by students. I can be as caring and understanding as I possibly am able to be, listen to the student as they continue to explain why they were owed a perfect score, and yet some of them will not back down unless they receive the perfect score sought. It doesn’t matter if I try to explain the learning process to them, offer to spend time one-on-one with them, or any other strategy to help them from a developmental perspective, if they do not receive what was expected, I become their enemy.

This is frustrating for me as I know it shows up on the end-of-course evaluation, one metric used to evaluate my position. There will likely be comments written in retaliation, and a low rating score given. Then I’ll find myself having to explain why these comments were written, regardless of how many positive comments were received. There’s only one way to prevent this from happening, and it’s to grade without giving proper consideration to the scoring rubric. But to me, that is not the best approach and it is a disservice to the students in the long-term, from a developmental perspective.

Cultivating Kindness

Regardless of how I believe students may perceive me, or the disposition they may hold when I interact with them, I always want to be kind while communicating with them. The characteristic of kindness is a form of caring, and it is applied equally to all students. It’s also a form of patience, and when you make it part of your disposition, it helps create a measured reaction to classroom circumstances. The following strategies can help you cultivate this important quality.

Keep an Open Mind: Within an online classroom it can be easy to pre-assess a student simply by their name, which is the first visual clue an instructor has about them. But this is where a self-check is needed, a reminder to be open-minded and conscious of any filters that may interrupt your ability to be kind. What you want is to approach any student, in any situation, and be able to listen while expressing your support. You must be a role model for your students and demonstrate that you’ve created an inclusive and safe learning environment for all of them.

Invest in Direct Communication: The idea of speaking directly with students may seem to be something they would not want, and a commitment of time you do not have to offer. While both may be true to a certain degree, I’ve found that speaking with students, those who are willing to communicate with me directly, offers incredible value. I provide office hours that includes weekdays, weeknights, and one weekend day. When a student calls, I have an opportunity to start the call with a warm welcome and immediately set a welcoming disposition. No matter how the student feels, my goal is to make certain they understand I want to help them.

Never Respond When Strong Emotions are Felt: There will always be situations in which a student is going to send a message and use improper communication techniques. If you feel a strong emotional reaction in any manner, this is not the time to respond. You must give yourself time to find your sense of balance, so that you can approach the student in a kind and calming manner. If the student were to contact you direct, and they are extremely upset, do your best to remain calm. If you find the student will not change their tone, the best suggestion might be to ask them if you can look into the matter and respond back by a specified date.

Develop Kindness in all Communication: There are cues you can insert into your communication to demonstrate your ability to have a kind and caring disposition. Take for instance an email you’ve received and it is addressed only to your first name. Now consider the same email and it is addressed to your first name; however, there is the word “Hello” inserted before your first name. Can you tell the perceived difference in the tone of the two messages? The second message gives an impression the sender is starting the message in a much more open and inviting manner. The first message sounds much less personable. The same holds true for classroom posts, especially discussion posts. The manner in which you word your messages and posts can create an impression of what it might be to interact with you.

Don’t Mistake Kindness for Leniency

One of the challenges for being perceived as someone who can be easier to get along with is it can be mistaken for someone who is also lenient when it comes to due dates and missed work. What I’ve found is I can maintain a balance between a caring individual as a personality, and still be strict when it comes to upholding academic policies. I always keep in mind my students are people too, which means I recognize the fact with online students they are often non-traditional learners and have other responsibilities. Many of my students have pressures from life beyond their classwork, and they need someone to care about how well they are doing, is able to support their growth and development, and be patient with them. If you can develop a disposition that puts students at ease, you are going to find yourself approaching your work with much more enjoyment, and they in turn will soon discover how much you care about them.

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