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Helping Educators Thrive while Teaching Online, so They Can Help Students Develop Their Potentials and Promote Resilience and Lifelong Learning in Their Communities

Dr. Bethanie Hansen 

Strategic Educational Leader and Coach

#58: Helping Online Students, an Interview with Dr. Doris Blanton

#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.

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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.

#54: Work Life Balance (Part 1 of 3): Engaging With Students First

#54: Work Life Balance (Part 1 of 3): Engaging With Students First

This content initially appeared on APUEDGE.COM.

Teaching online can be overwhelming and cause a significant amount of work-related stress. In the first part of this three-part series, Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses teaching strategies to help online educators prioritize their time by engaging students first. Learn about using a Community of Inquiry framework, keeping written notes about students and your interaction with them, and the benefits of using backwards mapping to ensure you’re meeting objectives and connecting regularly with students.

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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 episode today for the Online Teaching Lounge. We’re in year two of this podcast, and it is very exciting to support you in your online teaching efforts. You’re not alone here. You might feel alone teaching online as it can be very isolating to do that, but we’re here for you and hopefully you’ll get some tools and strategies and encouragement by listening to this podcast today.

We’re at the beginning of a three-part mini-series. Today is part one. We’ll talk about work-life balance and how you can set priorities for your very top priority as an online educator. This will be about engaging with students first.

Next episode, we will talk about work-life balance in setting priorities to produce assets that can guide your students to manage themselves.

And lastly, also in work-life balance, we will talk about setting priorities to use time management strategies effectively, managing your workload.

These three areas are going to support you a lot in your work-life balance. As online educators, we know that we can teach any time anywhere, and it’s very easy for us to have the online classroom follow us to all places that we go and kind of pop into all places in our lives.

There’s been a lot of research done in online teaching, and even though it offers attractive flexibility for you as the instructor, all kinds of instructors out there report high teaching workloads, feeling isolated, having high stress levels, and having generally poor life-work balance.

There’s a lot of assumptions about online learners out there we can use to our advantage, especially when we’re working with adult learners, and those come from andragogy theory. There are also some frameworks that help us as online educators and we’re going to look at the community of inquiry framework to give us some practical application as we’re taking this tour in our three-part mini-series.

We can also look at some areas outside of online education, like the work-life balance theories. There’s been some research done in that area. And then lastly, we can think about the kinds of boundaries that would support your work and simultaneously allow you to focus on your student success as a priority. I personally believe that when you set boundaries in the online classroom and in your online teaching generally by prioritizing what matters most, developing assets to help your students guide themselves, and managing your time efficiently and carefully, you can have better definition to your work. And you can also focus your efforts, which means you’re going to do a better job as an online educator and you might even enjoy it a lot more. So here we go with part one, engaging with students first.

When we think about engaging with students first, there are some things about work-life balance for online employees that also apply to our online educators here. In some of the research done about working online, there was a little collection of strategies people were using to have good work-life balance.

Of course, there were some that were provided by the employers, but those were pretty few. The most successful strategies came from the employees themselves. These are called employee originated solutions. Now, employee originating solutions means that you have the locus of control. You’re the boss of what you do for these solutions, how much you use them and how you manage them. And the most popular employee originating solutions for online workers that were effective, were mindfulness strategies, self-reflection, and meditation. And these could be either prompted by the employer or just come up with by the employee themselves.

These are going to increase your mental and emotional presence in the online classroom and just working online generally. It’ll also increase your mental and emotional presence in your personal life and reduce the interference of work-related stress.

Now, when I say there’s interference from work-related stress, I mean we might be thinking about our online work when we’re not actually doing it. We might have emails pop up that stress us out because we think, “Oh, we have to go online right now.”

Chances are this has happened to you if you’ve worked online very long. It’s pervasive and we think because we can read those messages anytime, we should do it to keep our workload under control. But we don’t realize that when we’re doing those things, the stress is creeping in and we’re feeling all that stress all day long in our personal life too. Before you know it, we think we need to be working all the time throughout the day just to keep the workload manageable. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Really there are a lot of ways we can reduce that stress and create less pressure in our work life.

So thinking about this, we’re going to talk about connecting with our students first. This is going to be the top priority for us as online educators. And I’m going to share just a few tips with you today. Then I encourage you to come back next week for episode 55 when we will talk about producing assets that guide your students to manage themselves.

Understanding the Community of Inquiry Framework

Now let’s look at the framework that is really common or popular in online education, the Community of Inquiry framework. This framework gives us a practical model that we can use to design how we involve ourselves in the classroom. How we engage with our students.

The Community of Inquiry framework focuses on teaching, social, and cognitive presence as priorities. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. If you’re in higher education, it’s very likely that you have. Each of these presences within the COI model, the teaching, social, and cognitive presences, work together in an interrelated way. So they work together in ways where we often are meeting two or three presences all at once through our activities. And we’re going to support our students in their learning experiences by focusing in these areas even more precisely.

Social Presence

Social presence is about the way your learners can engage in a comfortable learning environment and feel supported and trust you as the educator and feel like they can collaborate with others in that environment.

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence is about your ability as the educator to design and facilitate the online class. So what you run and put announcements out there and guide them in their assignments and all of those things is part of your teaching presence.

Cognitive Presence

And lastly, cognitive presence is the way learners can construct new meaning through the process of learning. So that means they’re doing some things that draw the points together, connecting the dots, making even more connections to the subject matter. And you can promote that as an educator in a lot of different ways.

When you are designing and facilitating a course online and you’re thoughtful about connectedness to what the learners need and what they already know, you can use the CoI framework to plan what you’re going to do thinking about your social, teaching, and cognitive presence. This is going to give you a lot of space to prioritize what’s really important and make the best of your time spent in the online classroom.

Now, if you take a thoughtful approach like using a framework such as the CoI I’ve mentioned here, you can plan your activities around those key areas. If you don’t do that, it’s very easy to resort to a to-do list. Maybe we’ve got a to-do list of things to grade, things to post, comments to write, announcements to post.

And when we have that to-do list that’s just a checkbox approach, it’s really easy for us to lose track of the bigger picture, what we’re really trying to accomplish as the educator. The framework helps us to ground ourselves in the goal of connecting with our students, promoting the cognitive aspects of what we’re doing and also helping them get to know us as faculty or as instructors. So our first priority is to engage with the students first.

Engaging with Students First

There are some strategies that will help you engage with your students first. Some of these could be posting and replying early each day in the discussion. Of course reading messages and emails that your students send you early in the day will also help you to address any serious concerns that your students have. This is going to build trust. If you make weekly notes about your students and add some things that you’re figuring out about them, it will help you get to know them better.

You can also use a strategy called backwards mapping and use it to plan your workload. The workload’s pretty high when you’re teaching online. There’s a lot to read and write and grade and a lot of time to spend because when you’re not meeting face to face, you’re going to replace that with a lot of written work and other types of online interactivity. So there’s more to grade, more to do, more to read.

Because of this kind of workload, you want to decide where to start in your teaching tasks. This will help you avoid being overwhelmed and quickly burning out. When you engage with students first as your top priority, this is going to help you establish your teaching presence and your social presence. If you don’t have those two areas when you’re creating your course, when you’re engaging with students, it’s very difficult to bump things up to that next level of cognitive presence to help students adopt critical thinking and really be engaged in the underlying aim of all those educational activities that you’ve planned.

Consider Posting to the Classroom Every Morning

So you might consider starting the day with a post in the discussion forum for each class you’re teaching and responding to all the messages and emails. If you post early in any class you teach every work day, this means you’ve been responsive, you’ve got a presence that is regular, and you’re not going to forget to engage with your students. After all, the more you engage, the more you build relationships and you guide them by teaching them in that subject area.

Most of the institutions with online learning have some kind of expectations of you as the instructor. Maybe they want you to be in the classroom a certain number of days or in the discussion area a certain number of days. There might be some kind of guideline to that where you’re working now or where you’re teaching now.

In my own work, I’ve noticed that if students haven’t participated in the weekly discussion yet, I go in there and post an initial thread with some kind of encouragement to get started in the discussion. Maybe a current event that ties to the topic or something else of interest. This helps my students to just start getting into that discussion and readily engage in the dialogue. So we’ve got the academic community and it’s growing because I’ve created the starter and I’ve also helped them to see me and feel like I’m there helping them out.

This is true when my post asks them to reflect or apply the topic or connect to some kind of current event. These all satisfy andragogy theory and meet the needs of adult learners, and also they build cognitive presence.

Maintain Collection of “Starter” Threads and Written Notes about Students

Now, if you’re teaching the course repeatedly, you teach that same topic over and over again each time you teach this class, you might want to maintain a collection of well-developed starter threads that you can use every time students don’t appear to be engaged. So when you need to start a thread for the week, it’s nice when you’ve already researched one and you can kind of further tailor it for the class at hand and meet the needs of those students, but you’ve got something to start with.

Another tip to engage with your students first is to keep anecdotal records. When you post early each day and you build that priority of instructor presence and connecting with your students, you get to know your students as a priority. You’re applying andragogy throughout your teaching. And when you record notes, typically called anecdotal records, about your students, this will help you keep track of who they are. Especially if you’re teaching a lot of sections with a lot of students, it’s difficult to do this.

Some of them may not have a photo online and it’s difficult to get to know them or associate their name with their work. Keeping a written record of your students and things that you’re learning about them and also who you’ve replied to each week can help you to manage the touch that you want to have with each student effectively.

Your notes might include something like where the students are living, their backgrounds and interests, maybe their academic major, whether they’re in the military or working, whether they’re new parents, and any other pertinent details that you noticed that you care about.

If you write those details down, you can be sensitive in your responses. And when they reach out for extra help, you also have some level of context around who they are and what their situation in life is. Knowing their backgrounds can help you also remember that you’re working with real human beings, not just some names that show up online. This can help you to understand their problems and also their challenges when they reach out to you for special help. They are real. They do care about learning from you and knowing them a little bit better will help you to approach them in a way that lets them know you care about them.

When you connect students’ experiences and backgrounds to what you say in the class, this helps even more to establish your social presence because it helps the students feel known and it also gives you that human element as you communicate with them.

Your weekly student contacts are a best practice because these give you the space to identify any students you haven’t connected with recently or touched in the online class, and you can also determine who has become inactive in the course. You can follow up and reach out to help students re-engage in the class.

Anecdotal records of your contacts with students will help you to vary who you reach out to, who you look for, and who you follow up with, and eventually you’re going to touch everyone and remember the students you’ve taught long after the class has ended.

You might even benefit from using a notepad like EndNote Online or maybe an Excel document where you kind of use a spreadsheet approach. You could put these notations about your students there to keep track of them and even begin with week one when they give you their introduction so you’re just getting to know them.

Whatever process you use, the main goal is to really establish a relationship and keep yourself focused. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but I used to go to a dentist who would remember things about me when I hadn’t seen him in six months. I would sit down in that dentist chair, I believe I was 16 or 17 at the time, and he would ask me all about how school was going and different activities I was engaging in. At the time, I thought that man was a genius. Now that I’m older and I understand how those things are maintained, I realized that he was keeping anecdotal records so that he could follow up with me and build rapport. It’s difficult to work on someone’s teeth, as a dentist, if they’re afraid of you. But when you build rapport, trust is created and fear can reduce. That’s my estimation of what happened at the dentist, but it also happens in online education.

The more you convey that you know the student and you’re relating to them, and the more you connect socially by sharing your expertise and your thoughts about what’s going on as well, the more students build trust for you. They’re more than likely to reach out to you when they do have concerns instead of just dropping the class or disappearing and disengaging.

Backwards Mapping Techniques

The last area I want to share with you in this priority of connecting or engaging with your students first is to practice backwards mapping. Now, you might’ve heard this term before. Backwards mapping is something that Wiggins and McTighe came up with in a curriculum design process. The goal is that you’re going to look at what you want to achieve at the end of a class, you create this big picture view of the goals, and then you break them down into smaller tasks that need to be planned ahead of time to reach the goals.

Public school teachers use this strategy a lot when they’re choosing learning goals for their students. And of course, as I just mentioned, plan the desired date, the goals to be achieved, and move backwards to decide when to start the project, when to start the lesson, and when the bigger benchmark measurements need to happen.

Backwards mapping is a great strategy that can be used in planning your online teaching engagement productively. So not only is it a curricular tool, it is also a good planning tool for your involvement and your time management.

You can use backwards mapping to ensure that the requirements or goals you have for yourself professionally as an educator are met on time. For example, let’s just say you’re teaching a class of 50 students. That would be a pretty large class. And if you’re teaching a class of 50 students and you need to respond to everyone at least once during the week, if you’re online for five days of that week, you’ll probably want to make sure you’re connecting with 10 students per day. If that works for you to spread it out that way, then you could backwards map in that way and then on the last day of the week, check in and see if you have met your goal.

You can reply, you can grade this way by backwards mapping your approach to grading as well. You can also backwards map different things like posting announcements, logging in, and doing other follow-up pieces of your online teaching.

Backwards mapping assignments to be graded can really help you anticipate how many documents you’re going to evaluate and how many you would need to evaluate each day to return the graded work in a pretty timely manner and with the expected grading quality that you’re wanting to return to them. Take a look at backwards mapping. It’s a great strategy to help you reduce the overwhelm of the teaching load that you might have when you’re teaching online.

So, in summary, your priorities would be to post in discussions every day, early in the day, as your first priority to connect with your students. So engage with students first. Reply to messages, emails, and students questions before any other task.

Take anecdotal notes about your students from week one forums and throughout the course as things come up. Track the students you’ve responded to or touched each week and then follow up with missing or disengaged students. You can also use these strategies as you’re engaging with students first.

The first one is to set time management priorities. You might use a checklist to ensure that there are things that must be done and that they get done. Plan time for each commitment that you have on a schedule or in some kind of a planner, and then backwards map your engagement and your grading.

When you do these things by setting priorities and following strategies that work for you, you’ll be able to have work-life balance because the work is getting done in a focused manner and at a quality that helps you really connect with students and make a difference in your online teaching.

I appreciate you being here today. Thank you for listening to part one in our work-life balance three-part mini-series. Come back next week and we’ll talk about producing assets that guide your students in self-management. And I look forward to seeing you then. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching.

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.