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#115: Why It’s Important to Know What Online Students Are Thinking

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Many students have self-doubt and concerns about taking online classes. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares insight she recently learned from talking to a recent graduate at Commencement. Learn why it’s so important for faculty members to understand what causes students to have self-doubt and worry about pursuing an online education.

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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 podcast. This is Bethanie Hansen, your host, and I’m going to share with you a thought about what students are thinking when they’re taking your online class. Especially your adult learners who are working full time, or perhaps they’re serving in the military, but online learning is not the only thing in which they’re engaged.

This experience I had recently took place at the APU commencement. Now, our university has a sister institution, we have American Public University and American Military University. I happened to be at the commencement weekend, and I met one of our students at the evening reception where we welcome our students and celebrate with them in between the convocation day, and the commencement exercises.

[Podcast: Voices From Commencement 2022]

I met this student at the buffet table. He was getting some hors d’oeuvres, and we happened to see each other. I just greeted him and said, “Hello,” and then we struck up a conversation. And I learned two important things about what our online students are thinking a great deal of the time. I want to share them with you today to just provide insights from this one student’s perspective and also to generate a little conversation around these two ideas.

Building Confidence in Online Students

The first idea is this sense of self as a learner. A lot of our online students approach online learning with a complete lack of self confidence. Many of them are coming into their first class, their second class, even their 10th class, wondering what they’re doing there.

Their inner thinking is about self-criticism. So they are doubting their capacity to complete the courses successfully. They might even be wondering if they are college material, especially your adult learners who have been away from school for a long time. This student that I met had just completed a two-year associate’s degree.

He was super excited. And he told me that when he began the degree program, he wondered if it would even be possible for him to do this. After all, he had not been in college for several years. Now the person I was talking to happened to be serving in the military. And every time he wanted a new challenge, he would take the new challenge and move up in rank and move up in opportunity. He was out there doing things that I personally would consider very difficult.

I have not personally served in the military. I admire people who do. And I believe that is a very challenging pursuit. It takes a lot of self discipline, a lot of courage, and a lot of motivation to keep at it every day, day in and day out. And I respect greatly our nation’s military servicemembers.

This person was confidently serving in the military and did not find that too difficult. But his choice to return to school and take college classes while serving in the military, this brought a lot of fear for him and a lot of self-doubt. He said each time he took a class, he wondered, “Could he do this?” And as he got through another course, then signed up for another and took another course and signed up for another one, he would say to himself, “I think I can do this. I’m going to try my best to do this.”

And pretty soon, he learned that he could do it. And he reached the end of that two-year degree, and looked back at it and said, “Wow, look what I accomplished, I did it.” He was thrilled with himself and I could see this in his face, hear it in his voice, in the things we talked about. It was a huge sense of accomplishment in an area he did not previously think he could accomplish something. Many of our college students working online with us think the exact same things.

I have read in many research studies, many online learner tip magazines, from faculty who have engaged with students saying these very same things. And I’ve heard it from students myself, time and time again. Our online students are afraid of taking classes online. It’s a big challenge. And one thing that makes it such a big challenge is that we don’t have that sense of camaraderie that we get from classmates when we’re a student taking a class.

We’re not entering the space where we can maybe make a casual connection with someone else who we could study with or maybe feel like we have a friend or two who are going through this with us. Nope, it’s just us and that online class with those people who are also virtual, who we never really get to see in real life. And when you think about it, approaching an online class with that sense of disconnectedness and fear, can already put the odds against you, as an online student.

As online teachers, it’s our job to be thinking ahead, to understand what our students are thinking. That there is this huge sense of self doubt, some worry, some fear, taking an online class. And for some students, it happens every single time they take the class, the next one and the next one.

So, I’m bringing this to your attention to just share the experience I had speaking with this student. It was my first time meeting him and he had no reason to be bragging or self doubting or any of those things in front of me, he was just being honest and sharing his story. And it was very exciting to see him celebrate at the end of that degree.

The insight that I personally gained is about working with students when I’m teaching my next online class. I’m thinking, “How can I put them at ease? How can I review the way I write my commentary in the announcements, and the way I set up my course, to really invite them into that space?”

Sure, they signed up for the class, and they’re there. But there’s a lot I can do to invite them into the space, reassure them that they belong there, and offer a helping hand as they’re trying to learn the ropes of getting through that course.

This does not mean that we water down our content or lower the rigor of the environment. What it does mean is that we show that we’re human beings, too. That we understand what they’re going through, and that we want to help. I can do that, through my words, through my actions, the quick way that I respond, my responsiveness. I can do that through the way I explain things in my grading comments, and in my discussion board interactions. And, I can also do that in this another way, which is the second thing I learned from the student I spoke with.

Consider Online Weekly Zoom Office Hours

His suggestion across the board for every single one of his teachers was that he would have liked to have a weekly Zoom call or weekly web call of some kind. He suggested this, because many times students have lots of questions they want to ask, and they feel very awkward reaching out with an email or even a message, just to ask that one question. And even when they do, apparently, a lot of students ask the question, and they wait and wait for several days before they get an answer.

So, to solve that problem, if students know what day and time that they can just drop by and ask all their questions, they can come to that space, ask their questions, or even listen to their classmates who are also asking questions, and learn the little tips and tricks to get through that class. Maybe someone will ask a question about the next assignment. And that student will be able to understand through hearing the answer to that other student. This student’s suggestion was a weekly 30-minute call, which really is not that long. You’re not going to sit there for a whole hour staring at the screen, you’re not going to do this four or five times a week, just once a week.

A good suggestion would be to look at your students and where they are located in the world and decide on a common time zone. Like what seems to be a range in which they could potentially meet you. If you have a lot of students on the East Coast, and you live in Hawaii, then you might need to do it earlier in your day to catch them while they’re still awake.

Whatever it takes to get your students at a day and time that seems to fit everybody, if you extend that invitation, and you just regularly present yourself on video, then you’re inviting your students even more into a conversation, something sort of informal. And, if nothing more, you could just talk about what the lesson material is for the day.

You could come with a few points you just want to share. Or you could open it up to Q&A. And remember your students are adults, they are human beings, they might even want to hear about what you’re thinking about doing in the coming week. You know, if you have a dog, or if there are things coming up for you. Anything that will bring authenticity to your teaching, as you think about the very human things that would be common and normal to share, generally speaking, maybe you’ll have conversations about that.

For example, if a holiday is coming up and you’re looking forward to a special meal, you’re going to cook or something, you can always have a little bit of small-talk conversation, and get to know your students even better when they share their own thoughts. It can even go farther, if those kind of side comments and social connection commentary goes with some of the content.

Like, for example, if you’re a Spanish teacher, and you’re going to make a special dish that comes from Spanish culture, and share it at your next holiday, maybe that’s something you just want to chit chat about during your 30 minutes of live connection.

Whatever it is, students need to need to know that you’re there for them. They need to see you as a real person and feel like you have a reliable pattern of being approachable and of responding to them. This suggestion the student made about the 30 minute, I guess, office hour, for lack of a better term there, it really sounded a lot more like his suggestion was more about having regular, open communication and responding quickly to students than it was about the video.

Of course, video is always a good thing. It helps your students to see you and trust you. There is so much more students get from a short video of you, especially a live one than they will ever get from a paragraph of your words. You’ve heard that saying, “A picture’s worth 1,000 words.” Definitely true in the online space.

So think about how you might integrate a live video connection with your students no matter how short. Or if that’s not feasible for you, how you could do some kind of videos on a regular basis where students can at least help bridge that gap and make connections to get to know you. If you think about those two things that the student shared with me, you’re going to have a lot more ideas, even beyond those that I’ve shared here.

And hopefully the ideas that you come up with are going to work for you in your online class. And perhaps you’ll share those out and tell us about how they worked for you. You can do that by visiting BethanieHansen.com/Request, and just putting a comment on that form to let us know what’s working, what’s not working. What would you suggest we try?

I love speaking to our students, especially at the end of a program when they really are thinking about what went well for them, and what could have been better. That kind of advice is priceless. And I feel very fortunate to have heard it, and to be able to share it with you here today. I hope you’ll think about it and have a great week in your online teaching coming up and also share some thoughts that you’re having about what’s working for you and we can talk about it on our upcoming episodes.

Thank you again for being here and for being loyal listeners of the Online Teaching Lounge at American Public University. It’s been a great year having you and celebrating, at the time of this recording very recently, our commencement and convocation weekend.

I hope that you have the time to pause and reflect on the past school year, what you’ve learned, what you’ve taught, what you’d like to celebrate, and what you hope your students will take away. And make note of some of those milestones that have occurred over the past year for you.

And then begin thinking about ways to refresh throughout the coming season, and hopefully take a small break or even a larger one if you’re one of those folks who has a summer vacation. Either way, it’s a great time to pause and reflect on your teaching practice. And also consider your students’ input when you’re doing that. Again, thanks for being here. And I wish you all the best this coming week in your online teaching or whatever adventure awaits you.

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 switches this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#42: How to Increase Your Confidence and Connection in the Online Classroom

#42: How to Increase Your Confidence and Connection in the Online Classroom

This content originally appeared at APUEdge.Com

 What drives you as an educator? In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about the five dominant perspectives that motivate teachers and how these teaching styles can drive student engagement in the online classroom. Listen to learn how to adjust your perspective so you can critically evaluate your own teaching, and why it’s so important to ask students for feedback so you can adjust your teaching style to maximize your impact in the classroom.

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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 podcast. And thank you for joining me today to talk about confidence and connection. The main topic we’re going to discuss today has to do with the way we show up in the online classroom, and generally throughout our career.

There are a lot of times where various motives drive us to do what we do. Sometimes it’s unclear whether we’re having the kind of impact we’d like to have. But what if we unpack that? How can we discover what kind of impact we really are having? And how can we have a more powerful impact in those areas we care most about?

Today, we will uncover what drives us, how to have the impact we’d like to have, and also how to feel confident about what we’re doing. We’re going to do that through connecting with our students and with other people in our profession. I’m excited to share this with you and let’s dive in.

What Type of Teacher Are You?

We all show up in the online classroom in distinct ways. Our students can tell what kind of personalities we have, by the way we write things, the words we choose to use, whether or not we use highlighting, emojis or lengthy explanations.

In fact, these behaviors that we show up with, that really help our students get to know us, they come from the motives that drive us. Chances are you have, as an educator, one dominant perspective that drives your teaching. And it’s one of these five: transmission, apprenticeship, development, nurturing, or social reform.

Every one of us comes with a primary orientation to the way we teach and what we are teaching, as well as a secondary backup strategy. So there might be two of these working together in your world, and I’m going to share with you what these are. As I described them, see if you can find your own teaching motivation within these five strategies and orientations.

Transmission Type of Teaching

The first one is transmission. According to the teaching perspectives inventory, the transmission type of teaching is that effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter. If this is your primary mode for teaching, you might believe that good teaching means having mastery of the subject matter or content. The teacher’s primary responsibilities are to represent the content accurately and efficiently. The learner’s responsibilities are to learn that content in its authorized or legitimate forms.

If you’re a transmission type of teacher, you might believe that good teachers take learners systematically through tasks, leading to content mastery. This would mean providing clear objectives, adjusting the pace of lecturing, making efficient use of class time, clarifying misunderstandings, answering questions, providing timely feedback, correcting errors, providing reviews, and summarizing what has been presented.

You’re going to set high standards for achievement and develop objective means of assessing the learning so you can know that students have actually gained what they needed to gain. You might believe that good teachers are enthusiastic about the content, and they convey that through their tone to their students.

For many learners, good transmission-type of teachers are memorable presenters of the content itself. Perhaps you can think back to a time where you might’ve had a teacher who was very transmission oriented. This is a very common way to be, and very traditional way of thinking about teaching specific subjects.

Apprenticeship Style

The second orientation is apprenticeship. If this is your type of teaching, you might believe that effective teaching requires that learners perform authentic tasks within their zone of development. If you believe this, good teachers in this area are highly skilled practitioners of what they teach.

Whether in the classroom, or at a work site, or in a performance venue, they are recognized for their expertise. If you’re an apprenticeship-style instructor, you believe that teachers have to reveal the inner workings of skilled performance in that subject area and translate it into some kind of accessible way or language and an ordered set of tasks, which usually proceeds from simple to complex. This allows for different ways of entering the subject matter, depending on the learner’s capability.

If you’re an apprenticeship type of teacher, you might believe that good teachers know what their learners can do on their own and where they need guidance and direction. This type of teacher engages learners within their zone of development and suits it accordingly.

And then as the learners are maturing and becoming more competent, the teacher’s role changes, they don’t have to give as much direction. They give more responsibility as students progress from dependent learners to independent workers.

And I’ll have to tell you that a lot of music teachers might fit into this apprenticeship category. Seems a very helpful way to help people learn a musical instrument, in particular. So just a thought there that might add to understanding on the apprenticeship scale.

Developmental Motivation

A third type of motivation in your teaching could be developmental. If you’re this type of instructor, you might believe that effective teaching must be planned and conducted from the learner’s point of view. Good developmental teachers must understand how their learners think and how they reason about the content itself.

The main goal here in this type of teaching is to help your learners get increasingly complex and sophisticated mental thinking about the content. The key to changing those structures in the mental strata, where we’re learning things, lies in combining two specific skills.

First of all, it would involve effective questioning that challenges learners to move from simple to complex forms of thinking. And secondly, it would involve bridging knowledge, which provides examples that somehow are meaningful to the learners themselves.

Now, a lot of strategies that fit the developmental type of teaching would include questions, problems, cases, and examples that form bridges teachers can use to transport the learner from simple thinking to more complex and sophisticated forms of reasoning. This is going to involve adapting the knowledge, adapting the strategy, and bringing learners along with you.

Nurturing Type of Teaching

The next one is called nurturing. And if you’re a nurturing type of teacher, you might be thinking that effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart not the head.

A nurturing type of instructor believes that people become motivated and productive learners when they are working on issues or problems without the fear of failure. Learners are nurtured when they know that.

So first, they can succeed at learning if they give it a good try; that’s a belief in this type of teaching. Second, the achievement of the learner is going to be a product of their own effort and their own ability rather than the kindness or benevolence of the teacher. And lastly, the learning the student achieves, the efforts, will be supported by both teachers and peers.

Now, if you’re a nurturing-type of educator, you might believe that good teachers care about their students and understand that some have histories of failure, and this has lowered their self-confidence. You don’t make excuses for your learners, but you do encourage their efforts while challenging students to do their very best by promoting a climate that’s full of caring, trust, helpful people, and challenging but achievable goals.

So a good teacher in the nurturing mindset is going to provide encouragement and support as well as clear expectations, very reasonable goals for everyone, and also promoting self-esteem and self-efficacy along the way.

Social Reform Educator

Lastly, we have the area of social reform. If you’re a social reform oriented educator, from this point of view, the object of teaching really is the collective group, rather than every individual. A good teacher in the social reform category would awaken their students to values, ideologies that are embedded in texts, common practices in the discipline that might be biased.

Good teachers under the social reform category challenge the status quo, and this type of teacher encourages students to consider how learners are positioned and constructed in particular practices and discourses.

To do this, a social reform type of educator analyzes and deconstructs the common practice, looking for ways that these might perpetuate unacceptable conditions. The discussion might be focused less on the creation of knowledge and more on who created the knowledge and why they did it.

The text is going to be interrogated for what was said, what is not said, what bias might exist, what’s hidden, what meaning is coming out, what’s included, what’s excluded, who is represented and who is left out from the dominant discourse.

Your students would be encouraged to take a critical stance, giving them some power to take social action to improve their own lives and the lives of other people. This is going to be about critical deconstruction through the central view, and it’s not necessarily the end in itself.

What Drives You as an Educator?

So there are these five motivations for teaching. And as I mentioned before, chances are you’re highly motivated in one area, or at least your beliefs about education and about what you do in teaching are coming from one of these areas. And then you might have intentions and actions in these areas that do or don’t line up with what you actually believe. Sometimes we intend to do a lot more than actually comes across, so it’s difficult to know what kind of impact we’re actually having as educators.

So in summary, the motives that drive us in educating and especially in educating online can be found in the teaching perspectives inventory. Please feel free to check the links to this podcast in the notes, and also check it out, see where you line up in terms of your beliefs, your intentions, and your actions. And this will help you become a lot more aware of where you fit in terms of what’s driving you as an educator.

Assessing Perspectives to Understand Your Teaching Motivations

Now, how can you discover the actual impact you’re having? The first is to think about perspectives. There are three areas of perspective. One is, your own perspective of yourself, your efforts, and what you’re doing in the classroom.

 You can learn about your own perspective by simply observing what you’re doing, thinking about whether you believe it’s having an impact. From this first person point of view, you’re definitely getting your viewpoint, your perspective of your impact.

Now, what if you were to take this outside yourself to the more objective zone of a third party, so not the student and not you as the instructor. If you were to have someone enter your classroom, the online classroom, to walk around virtually, click through things and see what kind of things you say to the students, what kind of feedback you give, what kind of discussions are happening, and what kind of activities generally are taking place, what might be the impression of that neutral observer? What would the objective person say about the impact of what you’re doing as an educator?

If you were to go through your own online class with this question in mind, of what a neutral observer might notice or say about your teaching, taking that viewpoint alone, even yourself and wondering what would someone think, that’s going to give you a lot of insight all by itself.

You’re going to start to notice things differently because you are stepping back a little bit from your own thoughts, feelings, and motivations about your teaching, and it’s going to give you a lot more observation and a lot more power to that observation to just step back one level.

And then, of course, there’s the second person point of view, the student. If you were able to take on their perspective: where they’re coming from, what they’re trying to achieve by being in your class, and what challenges they might be facing in taking your class. This second person point of view is going to give you even more data about your impact and help you to know what kind of impact you’re having, whether it’s effective, and how the students are accepting or getting something from what you’re doing in your educational endeavors.

Of course you can learn a lot more about your impact and gain confidence as an educator if you also start to observe. What are the students doing in their work? Are they diving in more? Are they participating more than is expected in a discussion? Are they asking questions? Do they reach out to you when you send out an announcement with some question or asking a follow-up? What are they looking for from you?

And if you’re getting a lot of good communication and engagement in the subject matter, this is evidence about the kind of impact you’re having. You can observe the student’s behavior, and then you can also ask them specifically.

A lot of institutions send out early surveys after the first week of the class, some send them out mid-course, and some send them out at the end. Maybe your institution does all of these, or none of these. You can of course create your own survey and send it to your students to ask them how it’s going, what they’re excited about in the class, what’s working for them and what’s not working for them?

You might be surprised, but your students will be very forthcoming in sharing with you what’s working for them, as well as where they need a lot more support or have ideas about how it could be better. If you’re willing to ask those questions, you’re going to get a lot of feedback about your impact and this’ll give you more confidence in your teaching, by connecting with your students more authentically.

And then, of course, there’s the end of course survey. If you ask your students or if your institution asks your students about their experience when the course is totally over, their grades have been filed, and they’re not concerned about the impression they give you, you’re going to get a lot of honest answers about the experience.

Students will let you know, would they come back to another class that you’re teaching? Would they recommend you to other people, would they recommend your course to other people?

Some students don’t know the difference between the content of the course and the quality of the teacher. Sometimes that’s a little blurry. And so when you get end of course survey information, you’ll want to remember that, that sometimes those things blur together for the student’s perspective.

But as you look at end of course comments and ratings that students might give you, you can understand your impact a little bit better, and this will help you also connect better with your students in understanding what they’re thinking and what experience they’ve just had with you.

Now, we’ve talked about what motivates or drives us as educators. And in our online work, this is important to know. Many folks really detach from the purpose of their teaching when they go online, because we’re not seeing people face to face anymore. Even if you do live online sessions, there’s still one step removed because we’re in front of a camera instead of in front of those live humans.

So as you’re looking at what motivates you, look through your teaching and you’ll notice, are you acting on what motivates you? Does it actually convey your philosophy? Does it lead people in the way that you care most about?

And then take some steps to discover your impact by trying on different perspectives, whether it’s first person, your own observations, third person, like what an objective observer might notice, or a second person, asking your students directly, or taking on their perspective and projecting what you believe they might say.

And then lastly, look at having the impact you want to have by actually getting real information, asking those tough questions and talking to your students. The more you talk to the individuals you’re teaching, the more you get their real feedback. And you start to create a feedback loop to let you know if what you’re doing is landing well and having that impact you want to have, the more confidence you will gain.

You never have to plan your lessons for an imaginary audience when you start talking to the real audience who is actually being taught. The more you do this, the more confidence will increase, the more you’ll connect with others, and you’ll feel a part of the teaching profession as well. This is going to bring you a lot of satisfaction as you start focusing on what those students are actually experiencing and getting the feedback from them about your teaching.

And then, bringing this full circle, all of this is going to add up to how you show up in the online classroom and throughout your career. As you increase confidence, and you get a lot more feedback, and you make the adaptations you feel you want to make, the more you’re going to have a vision of where you want to go with this, where you’d like to take certain strategies, and what more you might want to do in teaching particular subjects or in different lesson and assignment approaches.

Well, that’s it for today. I thank you for being here to cover the five perspectives of the teaching perspectives inventory in terms of what motivates us to teach, and also to think about connecting more fully with the learners that we’re impacting to learn about our impact and gain greater confidence. I wish you all the best in your online teaching this week. And thank you again for listening.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit that bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey. For more information about our university, visit us at study@apu.com. APU, American Public University.