#115: Why It’s Important to Know What Online Students Are Thinking
This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.
Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Associate 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.