#58: Helping Online Students, an Interview with Dr. Doris Blanton
This content was first posted on APUEdge.Com
Helping students succeed in the online classroom requires a student-centric approach from attentive and skilled faculty. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to APU faculty director Dr. Doris Blanton about training faculty to help students access and use virtual tools for research. She also provides teaching tips like the importance of providing timely feedback and focusing on both areas of improvement as well as noting what students have done well in their research and writing.
Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Pandora
Read the Transcript:
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging and fun. 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.
Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. With me today, we have a guest, Dr. Doris Blanton. You’re in for a real treat. Doris has a lot to share with us, and I’m so pleased that she was able to join us today.
You know on the Online Teaching Lounge podcast, we focus on students, on best practices, on engaging media, and your life and your work online. You’re going to get a lot of those areas today, as we focus on Doris’s expertise and what she can help us with in our online teaching and our online work with students.
Very excited to have you, Doris. Thanks for being with us. Doris, can you tell us a little bit about yourself so we can get to know you and how you came into your online role?
Dr. Doris Blanton: Hi. Thanks, Dr. Hansen. Thank you very much for having me join your podcast to talk a little bit about student and faculty success, more so, helping faculty aid in our student retention. A little bit about myself. Unknown to many of my peers, I was a high school dropout. I quickly discovered as adults were bowing their head in a sort of disappointment, because at the time when I was a high school dropout, that was back in the 70s, and what you did was you got married. So it was unlikely for a teen mom to return to high school after I dropped out.
But after overhearing a lot of these adults that were pretty important in my life, and what I’d overheard them saying as they bowed their head was, “Oh, another statistic.” I was never a bad student, but I couldn’t just quit high school. I had to manage this new season in my life. So I quit school, but I actually went back to night school about six months after having my son. And I actually finished high school six months before my original graduating class. So I knew that it was just a season of change.
What I did after I finished my high school diploma was I enrolled at the local JC. I had to do something with my time. And it wasn’t long after starting junior college that my then husband and I realized, as two young adults, we weren’t even young adults then. We really didn’t have the skills to equip us for being parents, let alone being partners. And so, that ended quickly, but I learned that school was my only legitimate thing that was mine. And it was something that I got to work for and learning wasn’t hard for me. I liked it.
But after this unexpected journey that took me from my teens through my twenties, I finished my bachelor’s by the time I was 30. Of course, working two and three jobs, which is like a lot of our students now, I ended up pursuing my Master’s by the time I was in my middle 30s. And I pursued my doctorate by my late 40s. School has always been a staple, that constant for me. And I did enjoy learning, so it was something that I’ve maintained as a lifelong learner.
I landed my job in academia by total accident. Prior to working in academia, I had worked for a large grain cooperative in the Dakotas, but I returned to California as my folks needed some help. And I transitioned from agriculture into a new industry in banking, which was really interesting.
My background prior to banking had been almost 20 years in various service or hospitality industries. I did have a really fun stint in radio, which is how I landed the job at The Elevator, which allowed me to learn how to buy and sell commodities.
While at The Elevator, I also created a scholarship program for the cooperative members there, and a communications plan, which I was able to diversify for the 13 different communities that The Elevator operated in.
Landing a job at the bank when I returned to California, it was fine, but really a slow pace from having a phone on each ear when I was buying and selling commodities to a banking job where it was Monday 9-5, so to speak, and it was a little slower. But I discovered at that bank, they had tuition assistance. So I immediately, after I finished my probationary period, that’s when I enrolled in my master’s program. And I finished that master’s in about 15 months because like I said, learning was fun. I enjoyed it. And it was something that worked really well for my schedule.
While I was going to school and still working at the bank, I was actually asked by the college if I would apply for an academic role as an academic counselor. And I thought, “What the heck?” So I landed the job. And that’s when I discovered that I had a little bit more academia in me than I realized. I loved it.
I stayed at that gig for 15 years and it ran its course. I took a break due to some life changing events, and I went to care for my then 99 year old grandmother, which was probably the best two and a half years of my life. I was decompressing from 15 years of heavy-duty work and higher education. And another life changing event transitioned me to where I am now, where my primary role now is teaching.
But I have just over 100 faculty that report directly to me, for whom I coach. I mentor them with a consistent goal, a constant goal, of helping other peers like myself develop stronger classroom excellent strategies.
So classroom excellence for me comprises of just a few faculty standards and they fall into either social, teaching, or cognitive presence in the classroom. And what that means in a social presence is how faculty flex that social muscle. How do they develop their student-centric behaviors of getting to know their students early on, meeting them in the first few days of the online class, and then maintaining that welcoming environment, that tone throughout their term in the semester, that teaching presence?
Well, that’s what we do as faculty. How are we teaching students or providing those nuggets of learning? It’s not necessarily content driven, but it’s definitely a way for faculty to teach students by way of how faculty contribute to student learning in the faculty’s feedback.
That cognitive presence is where faculty are asking students those probing questions, often times bringing their content expertise from the industry back to the classroom where faculty are nudging the students to just take that extra step, add to their layer of learning.
I love working with faculty, especially who are newer to online teaching, just to help them get their little online sea legs going. But working with those seasoned faculty who need assistance, primarily in an online environment where more seasoned faculty might need help adapting to new online skills, I’ve discovered that one of the key things for those faculty that are more seasoned is to remind them you’re not just a content expert, but remember when that class was new to you?
Bringing that back to that entry level every class is something that I enjoy. It allows faculty to kind of slow things down because we can often expect a little too much from students at a lower level when we are definitely content experts. We need to make sure that we’re bringing it back down every term, to the beginning. And every class needs to be fresh and new for the students, even though it’s not fresh and new for the faculty. So that’s kind of where I’ve landed here.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wow, that’s quite a journey, Doris. Thank you for sharing all of that. So Doris, it occurs to me that when you introduced yourself and kind of share this background of all the diverse paths that brought you to where you are right now, that you have this recurring theme throughout this time in your life, from your youth all the way to now of helping people and of education.
You mentioned you were an advisor, and I know you’re a life coach also. And I’m curious. When you talk about helping faculty remember, “Oh, this isn’t the first thing” or refreshing understandings, what do you think about this part of you that is so helpful to other people? How do you orient yourself to thinking that way?
Dr. Doris Blanton: That’s a great question, Bethanie. I think discovering early on, and I think I really discovered it when I was in my Master’s program was I’m a servant leader. And accepting that and embracing it and not fighting it has allowed me to develop skills in other areas, not only in the classroom. But when dealing with faculty, if I can serve them, I can also lead them. And it’s a nice harmony for me.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. Thanks so much again for sharing all that. Now, what might you share with our listeners today about working with online students?
Dr. Doris Blanton: Great question, Bethanie. Honestly, working with online students really isn’t different than working with students that are attending brick and mortar institutions. And what I mean is, students no longer have textbooks, even at the brick and mortars. And that was a huge shift for me in the first three years of higher education, because I had had textbooks throughout my undergraduate and graduate. And then we went to no textbooks. So that was kind of a transition for me, but something I embraced.
So what I discovered for working with students online or face-to-face was teaching students how to use virtual tools, their virtual books, the virtual libraries. Teaching students how to do their research the same as for both face-to-face classrooms, as well as our virtual classroom. I was the student that walked across the quad to the library and pulled out all the books. That’s not necessary anymore. Assisting how to use tools that are available to everyone is invaluable.
Teaching faculty how to use those tools is equally important. Unfortunately, there’s always going to be a handful of students who spend just as much time looking for ways to circumvent finding credible resources, helping faculty discover where those students are finding these ill-advised or plagiarized sources is a way for faculty to develop their researching skills. But to also help students discover you’re not using credible research when you’re gleaning a little here or gleaning a little there, helping faculty develop their skills on how to research helps them to coach students on how to research.
Because I think a good majority of our students come in thinking that well, “I found it online, it must be good.” Teaching how to research is very, very important and helping faculty develop those skills first allows them to further help our students online.
Another thing that I share with faculty when I work with them is that a good majority of our students already feel that imposter syndrome when they walk into the classroom. “I’m not worthy of being in school. I’m not academically ready for school. I’m not even mentally up for the challenge.”
And all of that is pretty bogus. We know those things are untrue. We’ve all felt those things. Reminding faculty that they too probably had those imposter syndromes, and to aid faculty in allowing those conversations to happen. And I do it upfront. I do it early on in the classroom so that students can let that guard down and let it be known maybe I am where I’m supposed to be even though it feels off is a way to help disarm students and allow them. That’s when the learning can begin. Over the past year, especially in COVID, a good majority of institutions have transitioned to an online environment.
The beauty of APUS is, of course, we’ve always been online, so our faculty were really able to help embrace a new student population that were impacted and forced into an online environment without making the choice, as our students make that choice upfront. And over the past year, I’ve actually read an awful lot of student feedback, especially students that were formerly in traditional environments, who shared that they felt really liberated in their learning. No longer forced to be in a class at a certain time.
It kind of reaffirmed that the student, number one, made the right choice going online. But they discovered for the first time, those students that were traditionalist before, school fit into their life at a more convenient time. It affirmed their online choice.
I think that our students are pretty acclimated to the online groove after about weeks two or three, but when they’re not, faculty are provided with the freedom and the autonomy to meet with those students. Our faculty are stewards of the classroom and they are the ones that can ensure that students are in the right place, at the right time.
Faculty have the freedom and are encouraged to meet with them one-on-one, have Zoom meetings, let the students call you. They need that reassurance that where they are is at the right place at the right time. And that’s some of the keys that the faculty can help unlock for the student.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Doris, I really appreciate all that you have shared so far, especially this idea about imposter syndrome. And when you were talking about this for our students, it occurred to me that even faculty have imposter syndrome at times, depending on what the context is and what we’re talking about.
And I’ve also coached some folks who are in the business world, who also experienced that. I think that’s a very frequent thing to have the experience personally with. And we may not realize others feel the same way at times. So I appreciate you bringing that out.
Now, as you mentioned, students have needs, and they’re not all the same. So I’m wondering what are some of your strategies for meeting their individual needs?
Dr. Doris Blanton: Wow, Bethanie, that is a great question. I like it. Well, some of the strategies for meeting our various online students can be some of the things that I do. I host a new-student orientation. I bring together newer students sharing with them who their programmatic experts are; who can they contact about content? I bring in librarians and they get a library tour. A lot of students are completely unfamiliar with it. They might know where the library is, but how to use it? The beauty of our librarians is they’re available for students almost 24/7 to help them get acclimated with library tours, I like to call them.
There are various ways for faculty to assist students through their writing, their citing, perhaps sharing with students who’ve been enrolled a little bit longer, some of the extracurricular or honor society, student clubs, student activities. Those are things that further aid in student retention, their persistence in the classroom.
But most of all, I think what I really bring to students is that they have academic advocates and their greatest academic advocate is themselves. And so I think that further allows students to feel empowered, but it also allows students to feel confident in saying, “Wait a minute, I have a question. Wait a minute, I need some help.” We possess the knowledge of where the resources are pointing them to it is without a doubt what we can do as faculty in the classroom. It’s help them find the resources that they need.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Oh, that’s super helpful. If our listeners notice that a student is ignoring the help, especially something really standard like grading feedback. And maybe our listeners get frustrated about that as the teacher or the faculty member. What kind of suggestions would you give them to help them stay focused while they’re trying to re-communicate and somehow get that through?
Dr. Doris Blanton: Bethanie, this has to be one of the greatest frustrations faculty across disciplines and institutions share. How do I get students to read the thorough detailed feedback I spent so much time providing for them? I remind faculty all the time. We can certainly lead a horse to water. We can even push their head into the water, whether they drink is entirely up to them. It’s sad, but true. One strategy that I encourage faculty to do is to ensure that their feedback is timely.
Nothing is worse than getting feedback from a faculty the day that I’m submitting my next assignment. That is neither timely, nor helpful. So being timely in their feedback is critical. The sooner I can get feedback to a student, the sooner they will be successful in their next written assessment, whatever that might be.
Another strategy that I recommend to faculty is if they’ve taught the class a few times and they can see where students tend to experience that muddy point, create a little mini-lecturette prior to the assignment being due so that you can walk students through that muddy point, to help them get to it before they submit the assignment. So that what they submit to you is more in aligned with the quality work that you’re expecting.
Another tip that I provide faculty is I encourage faculty to pick one or two items. If they’re turning into an editor, that’s definitely not anything that a student wants to read. Their paper, in some instances may look like the faculty bled all over it.
So I encourage faculty pick one or two things that you can focus on. And then in their paper, one of my pet peeves is contractions, so I might point out a few contractions and maybe I’ll point out a few syntax or grammar areas. But then I go look for the content.
And I think we can definitely summarize what the student has missed in their paper and what their shortcomings are. But if we’re not highlighting what they’ve done well, why would they read their feedback? If all I did was something wrong, they didn’t even notice what I did right. It’s important for us to tell students not only where you have opportunities to make improvements, but look at all the things you did right.
And there’s a nice, delicate balance. And I think it’s important that faculty embrace not only where they can help students make corrections, but there’s no reason to edit an entire paper. Pick a few things. Students are pretty consistent with their errors. I don’t need to point them all out.
Focus on the ones that are important so that they can make those improvements and then focus on something different the next time. But ensuring that you are identifying both the good and the opportunity is invaluable for students to be affirmed. “Yes, I’m doing some things right. And okay, I don’t mind making those improvements where I have opportunities in areas where I missed the mark.”
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Doris, that sounds like great encouragement to help faculty and instructors who are teaching online to really strategize preventative ways of reaching students. So by giving that positive, as well as the critical feedback, you’re giving them a complete relationship with you and a reason to keep looking back for your comments and your communication. That’s just beautiful. Thanks for sharing that.
And thanks for all that you’ve shared with us about working online and working with online students. Is there anything more you’d like to leave us with today to help us in our online teaching?
Dr. Doris Blanton: Thanks, Bethanie. Maybe a couple of things. I thought about this for some time. And I think one thing that’s important to leave our listeners with, is that in every class we teach, especially those classes that we’ve taught repeatedly, we know the content inside and out. We know the assignments. We know the rhythm of the course. I remind faculty that students don’t. Students don’t know the class. To be student-centric, we need to keep in mind that when students enter our classroom, they do not possess the knowledge of the course.
Every time we teach, we have to be mindful of our learner. For example, I’ve had some of the most brilliant faculty who teach at the doctorate or master’s level. They’re phenomenal. But those are the same faculty who I might ask to teach one or two classes at the undergrad level. Unwittingly, they expect those undergrad students who are just diving into like-content as the masters or doctorate level, they don’t have that level of experience, and faculty sometimes are unwittingly expecting undergrad students to possess those same skills and knowledge and ability that they come to expect from their master level students.
So ensuring that when faculty start every class, it needs to be rinsed and then repeated. So bring it back to the beginning every term. Being student-centric is a behavior we work on. It’s leaning in. It’s working with students and being mindful that not all students need that additional nudge. It can almost be like the Pareto principle where 20% of your class needs 80% of your time.
Preparing every class by the way of reviewing the materials as if it was fresh and new will further ensure that your classes are playing on a level field. It comes down to being mindful of your learner and their learning level.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Doris, thank you again for being here with us. You’re very student-centric and I am certain that your faculty and your students really benefit from your approach. And I could tell also that you care about them and that you have a lot of warmth in what you do and how you communicate. I just appreciate you sharing with us today. It’s been a pleasure to meet with you.
Dr. Doris Blanton: Thank you, Dr. Hansen. The pleasures been mine. Have a great day.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: You too. So thank you for all of our listeners also for being here. Joining me for this interview with Dr. Doris Blanton, who is a faculty director at American Public University. We hope you’ve enjoyed all that she shared today and wish you all the best in your online teaching this 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 in your online teaching journey.