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Teach Online With Confidence

Helping Educators Engage More Online Students with Less Stress through Simple Strategies

Dr. Bethanie Hansen 

Teaching Excellence Strategist

This content originally appeared at APUEdge.Com

Online students often need extra help and support from teachers. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen outlines several scenarios when students need extra assistance including disability accommodations, unfamiliarity with online classrooms, and unexpected life events. Learn tips and strategies to communicate with students, extend flexibility, and provide support to help them succeed in the virtual classroom.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

A lot of students need extra help or assistance in your online class. Now, if you’re new to teaching online, this is a whole area that might also be new to you. If you’re a veteran online teacher and you’ve been doing this awhile, perhaps you’ve run into a lot of different scenarios where students need your help. Maybe you just want to brush up on some new strategies. Whatever it is, I’ve got some strategies for you today, some ideas that are going to help you with helping your students. So let’s jump in.

Challenges of Providing Help to Students Learning Online

Online students often need extra help or assistance. Now, when you have your face-to-face classes, you can speak to them often, send them emails as a backup plan. And when you have that face-to-face interaction removed and you start just working online, there are some problems that creep in that you don’t anticipate.

Adult learners, these are a high percentage of online students nowadays and they may be away from school for a long time, maybe many years. They may struggle to navigate the online classroom, struggle to maintain confidence in their academic abilities, or struggle to balance the time commitment of going to school while working, being parents, and doing all those other things that they’ve been doing for quite some time.

Some people still yet will have other special needs related to disabling conditions they might have, and they might need a disability services accommodation in their interaction with you.

As in live courses, students who are new in the subject matter you’re teaching might specifically struggle to comprehend the subject matter itself. Maybe particular concepts are just new and unfamiliar to them. They might need additional tools to understand and apply academic terminology, or maybe just to make their way through the content itself.

Online students might need general help learning how to communicate with each other and with their instructor authentically, because distance and separation of the online setting create a sense of anonymity, some isolation, and there’s no real clear way to communicate in the classroom. That is to say, netiquette does not come naturally to us when we’re taking an online class.

Especially in the world of text messaging, it’s easy to write in less formal language. Online students might need help navigating the classroom itself, or they might have unexpected life events come in, like an accident, an illness, a natural disaster, divorce, or some other surprise.

Sometimes those circumstances are anticipated and students can plan ahead. For example, if they’re in the military and they’re going to be taking a break for a special assignment for a week or two, they might know that in advance. And in those cases, they can plan ahead and work with you.

But what about those unexpected events where the student has to be absent for a short time and they don’t know this is going to happen? In every case, there are a lot of situations. It’s helpful to know that it’s possible for these things to happen. Interruptions do occur when students are taking an online class. And when you have a plan for accommodating individual needs, you can respond in a timely manner without having to consider every single case as a standalone situation.

So I’ve just gone through a whole lot of things that can happen to students when they’re taking an online class, or challenges they might face just bringing their own situation as it is. Let’s go ahead and start with the adult learner.

Adult Learners Face Challenges with Online Learning

There are a variety of difficult situations for students of course, online, but more particularly for the adult learner. For example, these students might have technology challenges finding their way around the online class. Maybe they’ll have a little bit of difficulty operating certain parts of the learning management system.

Some students, even though they’re technologically savvy in their personal lives or in their work, they struggle to learn a new system in which the course might be hosted. There’s a lot of ways to reach your students where they’re at when they’re adult learners. Maybe they’re new to the online experience, or they’re coming back to college after many years.

You could think of guidance assets, like giving them a PDF handout that illustrates steps of an activity. For example, if you’re going to have the students go to the online library, to conduct a bit of research to write an essay, you might create a PDF with step one, step two, three, four, and so forth, and screenshots of the different places they might go online.

Another idea is to actually make a screencast. There are a lot of different ways to do this. There’s Kaltura, there’s Camtasia, a paid platform. There’s also Screencastify on the screencastify.com website. And perhaps there is a built-in screencast recorder in the computer that you’re using. Whatever the method, a screen walkthrough recording is a great way to help your struggling students who don’t know exactly where they should be looking, and it could be a preventative measure that you’ve simply share with everyone.

The more you give help like this, the more students feel like you’re right there with them. You care about their success, and you really want to help them find the things they need to succeed. You could have a walkthrough of navigating the classroom. You could have a walkthrough with a screen cast showing the library, of course, clicking through those things.

Whatever you do, you want to check way the video will be accessed by students. Is it publicly accessible? Does it need to be locked down in the LMS itself? Is it private? If you’re going to upload it to YouTube, I recommend using the unlisted setting so that the video isn’t  searchable by everyone in the world, but you can give the address to your students and they will be able to find it more easily. You could also save the video to a Google Drive so they could play it from there. Or if you have a Vimeo subscription, you could also set it to private there and share the link.

Helping Students with Time Management

Let’s talk about time and task management. A lot of online students face challenges planning their work and managing their time, and then doing all of the learning tasks in a timely manner. Sometimes it’s hard to control this because students have so many other commitments. I mean, think about it. When you go to a live class, you sit there and you see the instructor, you see the classroom, and your subconscious brain has this whole recognition system for, “Yep, I’m in school.” You’re seeing that this is a situation where you’re going to be returning, you’re going to be in the classroom thinking about your academic stuff, and you’re going to do the work.

When you’re teaching online and when you’re learning online, these boundaries are so much more ambiguous. You might be the learning in your class or teaching your class in the kitchen, in the living room, or sitting on your bed in your bedroom, doing that work with the door shut so no one interrupts you.

The place that you do your online teaching or learning is not necessarily specific to academics, like it would be if you were in a live class. So when you’re there, you need some things that are going to help you focus. Your students need those things too.

One of the things you can do to help your students is to create a one-page document that just has these block sections stating what is going to be due each week. This would be like a summary of the calendar that might be more expanded in your syllabus or in your course outline area.

You could list these things such as week one, having introductory forum posts due by Thursday, and then put the date. The forum replies are due by Sunday, and then put the date. Then if there’s a quiz or an essay or anything else, list that in the week that it’s due, and put the day of the week and the due date. And then you could give students little check boxes next to each one of those things. Then in the next block, you would list week two items. This is really just a summary so that your students can see, at a glance, what is due that is graded. And they can make sure that they have covered every one of those items.

Students who suffer from time and task management challenges might reach out to you to ask for extra time to get their work done, or they might just stop participating in the course, or they could even withdraw. When you are preventative about that by sending them things like this at-a-glance planner I mentioned, or reminders in advance of due dates, or other tips to help them stay on track, you’re helping retain students in your course. You’re helping them succeed in their goals of taking and completing that class, and you’re helping them stay on top of the little things that are coming along.

Helping Students with Disabilities

What about working with students who have disabilities or disabling conditions? Students with special needs who have disabilities or disabling conditions will likely reach out to you directly to share some kind of accommodation plan if they have developed one with the university or college accommodations office. This is something that would be somewhat official and on some kind of a form or letterhead.

A disabling condition could include some kind of a mental or physical disorder or learning disability. It might be something like post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. A student might have a hearing impairment or a visual impairment. And depending on the course, these things could significantly impact their engagement in the class.

Although students don’t always inform their instructors of specific disabilities, if they have already arranged for a disability services plan, students with some kind of disabling condition may contact you and ask for these accommodations. Occasionally you might have a student who has not reported their condition, but who is asking for some kind of accommodation, and you might want to suggest they reach out to the disability office at your school to ensure that they have a plan moving forward for other classes as well.

Sometimes students will want just a little extra time to get something done, because perhaps they can stay on track most of the time, but just need a little flexibility, which is sometimes just a setting in the assignment due date that you can make for specific students. And it is pretty easy to arrange.

If you have a student who needs extra time and you need to plan this for the whole course, you could  go through and set the special access in your learning management system for that particular student to indicate the extra time. If you set this up as soon as you know the student needs this kind of accommodation, it’ll be a lot easier because it’ll be automated and already set up in your system throughout the course.

More common accommodations you might find requested by students who have disabling conditions are:

  • to get class notes or additional time on tests and assignments;
  • potentially a quiet setting in which to complete quizzes and exams;
  • a one-on-one office hour to check in with their instructor.

The general purpose of disability accommodations is not really to water down the course or to change it dramatically, but to level the playing field so the student can still be successful regardless of their personal circumstance. The accommodation is typically designed for specific students and intended to make their learning outcomes achievable and attainable for them. Be thinking about how you might make those things fit in more easily for you so that you can meet students’ needs the best ways possible without making it overly time consuming to make the adjustments on your end.

Helping Students with Communication or Writing Challenges

Another type of student help you might need is for students with poor communication or writing skills. Now, depending on your institution, you might come across students who have not taken a first year English class. Maybe they still need to take freshmen-level composition, or maybe they took it 20 years ago and they’re coming back to college, and they were able to somehow transfer their credit and they’re not going to take the writing class.

Many schools that offer online courses, don’t have a minimum entrance requirement for certain classes. So if you’re teaching a class that doesn’t have an entrance requirement or a writing requirement as a prerequisite, you may find that students come in and really do not know how to write an essay in paragraph style or where they should look for citing their sources properly.

Online students often need assistance and support with writing and communication, or generally need help learning how to communicate with others authentically in the online environment. The distance and the general separation online naturally create some kind of isolation. And for some students, this complicates their ability to write in discussions effectively as well.

There may be services and supports available at your institution in which you can involve your students. For example, at the institution where I teach, there is a tutoring service in the online library, and there are also lots of different writing services available in an asynchronous format. So students can look there and they can learn all about how to write a thesis, how to formulate their essay, how to cite sources, even if they have not taken their first writing class.

It’s worth your time to take a look around your university or college and find out where the resources are, what kind of tutoring exists, and what you can really send your students over to find. The more you use these services, the easier it’s going to be to help your students when they struggle with writing and communication.

Likewise, you might consider certain kinds of grading feedback comments that direct them to the same services. I saw another faculty member in their grading who also attached a handout of certain skills that students needed. For example, if students had a weak thesis or didn’t appear to have a thesis in the introductory paragraph for whatever class, this faculty member had a one-page guide on how to create a solid thesis and support it throughout an essay. So when returning the grading feedback, this faculty member would also attach this document for additional help.

If you find common errors happening with your students, it’s worth your time as well to create these kinds of assets that you can attach to grading feedback and return to your students. The more you help them, the better they’re going to be in their writing and communication skills over time.

Helping Students with Unexpected Life Events

Let’s talk about students with unexpected interruptions and life events. Students might need some flexibility or support due to unexpected life events like accidents, major illnesses, natural disasters, divorce, work or military scheduling changes and other surprises.

In some cases, students will reach out right away, as soon as they have a problem and they’ll probably work with you to try to resolve it and submit whatever missing work they have. In other cases, the students simply disappear and they stop participating in the course at all until some future time, at which point they either reach out to you or you have reached out to them. And somehow you reconnect.

If you can have a little bit of structure and flexibility at the same time, you’ll give yourself the space to accommodate students with these kinds of unexpected needs. Now, if you have a student who is just telling you they have a little problem and they need another day or two on their assignment, in the online world, it’s much better to give them one full week because the student may not be able to check their email or their messages tomorrow. So if you give them just one day, it might be a day or two before they get your answer. And by then, the time has already passed. So to make it work best for your online students, I do recommend setting that extended timeline a full week at a time, whenever you need to.

There are unusual cases where a student repeatedly disappears from a class, stops participating, and despite your flexibility or helpfulness, they really do fail the course. This does sometimes happen. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen. And you just need to know that sometimes in online learning, a student does feel that they can’t move forward and they do fail to reach out to you or respond to your messages. It’s typically not fully your fault. Sometimes it’s beyond your control. Circumstances happen in the student’s life and they will follow up at some other time.

Outreach Strategies to Help Students

When you use your outreach effort and your communication with students who appear to be missing or less engaged in your course, this might actually prompt your student to re-engage, especially if the student was simply discouraged and they started to think they were too far behind to complete the class at all. The more you reach out to a student, the more they are likely to re-engage and eventually finish the course. Your outreach could be an email. It could be a message in the classroom. It could be a phone call. When you reach out to your students, hope can be restored for them and you might even be able to remove some roadblocks to their success.

If you have a pretty harsh late policy, you might consider waiving it in cases like this where the student really has given up, they’ve lost hope. They think they cannot get enough credit to pass and you’re trying to work with them to get back on track.

Most academic institutions actually request that their instructors do reach out to some kind of academic advisor or student services or academic support or some other early-warning team to follow up with the student and help him or her in their future direction. So be sure to contact those departments as you’re doing these outreach efforts.

When you contact your students early the first week of the class, before things are really underway, this is a really effective way to help get a connection right from the start before any problems arise. Now, by the second week, you might notice that a few have stopped participating. And that’s also a good time to reach out and ensure that students know they can contact you, they can move forward, and you can help them navigate between decisions they might be making about dropping or withdrawing or persevering.

There are a lot of messages you can send students in cases like this. One would be a sample outreach message that I’ll share right now. My message might say something like this:

“Welcome to the class. I’m so glad you’re here and I hope that you enjoy our new course. We recently wrote a new textbook and redesigned the learning activities to help you have a better experience in the class. I might occasionally send you a note here in the messages area to share information with you or to communicate about the course. Please reply to this message to let me know you received it so I can be confident this is a good way to communicate with you.”

And then I’ll check back to see if the students have replied. I might send it a second time to their email if they don’t respond soon in the messages area. So I want to make sure from the very beginning of the class, that I have a really great way to contact them that’s reliable and that they got my messages.

Nothing’s worse than you and the student reaching out to each other over and over, but missing each other because one of you is using one platform and one’s using the other. For example, one of you is sending it to email and the other one’s using messages and you’re not checking those places. So be thinking about how to get a response before anything comes up.

Then in week two, if you see somebody missing, you might send something like this message:

“I noticed that you didn’t post or reply to peers in the week two discussion. Please go back to the forum and participate. It’s very important to post every week in our discussion forums to keep making progress in the class. I’m worried that you might be falling behind. If something has come up, I’d love to help you out. Please reply to let me know if I can be of help. I want you to succeed.”

The more you contact your students, again, as I’ve mentioned, the more you have a good chance of connecting with them and reengaging them in the class.

So we have a lot of different tips today that I’ve shared with you on helping adult learners, helping students manage time and task, and trying to follow up with students who have unusual experiences that take them away from the classroom and might interfere with their success.

Focus on Being Proactive, Flexible and Supportive

In summary, as you’re teaching a variety of online students, it’s normal to have to work with your students who have special needs, experience interruptions in their progress, or somehow go missing from your class. This can be discouraging for you if you haven’t experienced this. And at first you might wonder what’s wrong, but the most important thing is to reach out to these students. Focus on being proactive, flexible, and supportive so you can communicate and also follow up as much as possible.

When students have challenges, you might also have other departments that can support you with a whole team effort to refocus the situation and help the student deal with whatever problems they’re having as well. There are so many steps you can take before losing a student in your online class, as well as before the class even begins to already reach out to your students and connect with them. Take the time to look ahead and think about potential problems. It’s well worth the effort, and it will help you have a more successful experience with your students as well.

Thanks for joining me for this discussion of how to connect with your students so that they can be more successful in ways that will also work with you and the way you’re teaching online. Hang in there. It’s a challenge to reach out to struggling students, but you can do it. And the more you do, the more you can help. Best wishes in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week and your online teaching journey.

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