Instructors may not always know with certainty why students are struggling but at the heart of most issues is a willingness to keep trying and work on continued self-development, even when it requires them to acquire new knowledge or skills. What instructors can do is to develop a set of proactive instructional strategies that are encouraging in nature and supportive of students’ attempts and progress.
The following some methods have been implemented in my own teaching practice and what I have helped to coach online faculty with through my work with faculty development.
Build Productive Relationships.
While this should go without saying for any class, whether it is a traditional or online class, relationships with students always matters. It can have a direct impact on their ability to feel comfortable asking for assistance when needed and that can alert the instructor to potential problems. But developing this type of relationship in a virtual environment isn’t easy and a class that lasts only a few weeks can make it even more difficult.
How a relationship begins is with the attitude an instructor holds and it continues with an ongoing intent to be helpful and approachable. Students must know that their instructors care about them.
Carefully Manage Your Communication.
All forms of communication that instructors have with their students matter and must be cultivated with care that the intent of message is clearly made and the tone is not likely to be perceived in a negative manner.
When responding to a student, whether by email or a post in the classroom, it should not be done hastily or when an emotional reaction is felt. The reason why this is so important is that a negative interaction can be de-motivating to a student and a series of these types of interactions can cause a student to disengage from the class.
Be Present, Available, and Accessible.
If students are to stay engaged in the class and perform to the very best of their abilities they need to know that their instructor is readily available to assist them whenever they need help. This doesn’t mean an instructor has to be on call at all times or answer questions as soon as they are posted; however, there needs to be an established pattern that students can rely upon.
I’ve found it helpful to have multiple methods of contact that includes email, instant messaging, weekly office hours, sharing my phone number for times when students need immediate assistance, and posting a questions thread in the classroom. This allows me to develop connections with students and it can be very motivating for them to know I am accessible.
Help Make Certain that Students are Adequately Prepared.
I’ve found that academic under-preparedness can be extremely detrimental to the mindset that new students hold as they attempt to navigate the course and the requirements they are expected to complete. Even as established students make progress through their degree program they may still struggle with areas of development that can create a mental barrier and ultimately lead to a sense of defeat if they do not receive assistance.
What I’ve done is to share resources that address students’ specific developmental needs in the feedback provided and if I find sources that may benefit the entire class, I’ll share it in a separate classroom post. I’ve found that the more students feel equipped to complete their tasks, the more confident they will be as they make an attempt to do so.
Develop and Use Proactive Outreach Strategies.
It is imperative that an instructor always be aware of the classroom conditions and more importantly that they are aware of students who are not actively involved and present in class. It may be helpful to establish a mental baseline for expected performance and over time an experienced instructor develops an instinct for student engagement.
A discussion thread is one way to gauge if students are disengaging from the class. When I discover a student who isn’t posting messages or they are continuing to struggle with their written assignments, I’ll make outreach attempts. First I’ll send an email and try to engage them and if that isn’t successful I’ll make a phone call so that the student doesn’t completely disengage from class. I’ve learned that a personalized approach will go a long ways towards helping students sustain their self-motivation.