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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

#66: Increasing Your Productivity as an Online Educator [Podcast]

#66: Increasing Your Productivity as an Online Educator [Podcast]

This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com

Maintaining a high level of productivity can be challenging for online educators. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides strategies on how to improve your physical and mental energy to increase productivity. Learn tips about how to manage your never-ending “to do” list, why it’s important to unclog your mind, and the value of giving yourself time to work on your personal “heart projects.”

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. It may seem a little odd to you today that we’re going to talk about increasing your productivity as an online educator, but I firmly believe that habits and strategies are what help us get through our teaching job and our teaching career. Many of us enter this profession because we want to make a difference or distill ideas upon others, or perhaps mentor people into our profession or the area that we love the most. Maybe we even want to make a big difference in the world.

Regardless of the reason why you came into this profession, the fact remains that being an educator is hard work. There is a lot to do. There’s a lot of feedback to give others. We must be organized to make that happen. We have announcements, we have content in the classroom itself, when we’re working online. We have follow-ups, personalized outreach efforts we need to do when students are falling behind. Guidance of all kinds. And as I mentioned before, feedback.

Among these many different types of activities, time gets away from us, sometimes. Have you ever said to yourself that you would get back to a task later in the evening? That’s a great sign that productivity tips can help you a lot in your online educator role.

Today, we’re going to talk about some special tips that come from a wonderful book called “Supercharge Productivity Habits” by John R. Torrance. It’s “50 Simple Hacks to Organize Your Tasks, Overcome Procrastination, Increase Efficiency, and Work Smarter to Become a Top Performer.”

Not everyone approaches their educator job as if it is a performer productivity type of role. However, we know that unless we keep up with the day-to-day tasks, the endless minutiae of being an administrator of the classroom, we will not be able to have the kind of impact we would like to have.

These tips today are intended to help you. I want to help you really enjoy what you do and make a difference, as you want to do. So let’s jump in and talk about productivity habits. I will share just a few today to get you started. And after this podcast, I do hope you will check out this book, “Supercharge Productivity Habits” by John R. Torrance.

Increasing Your Physical and Mental Energy

The first habit I’d like to share with you today is in the area of increasing your physical and mental energy. You’ve probably heard that athletes are always thinking about increasing their energy and bringing protein into the body, drinking lots of water, getting plenty of rest. It makes a lot of sense that a person who’s out there competing physically would need to do that, right?

Of course, the mind is also one of the greatest tools that we have at our disposal. We can’t have energy, like confidence or focus, motivation, or any kind of productivity at all, if our mind is wandering or not feeling healthy. In fact, there is a lot that has to do with our physical and mental energy that impacts our productivity and our overall effectiveness as educators.

Think about it, if you were really approaching your job as if you have to be in tiptop, physical and mental condition to be an educator, what would you do to reach that goal? I’ve thought about this a little bit, and in the time that I’ve worked at American Public University, I’ve been very fortunate to have the influence of the Wellness Team. Not sure if that’s their title, but early on several years ago, there used to be this little challenge in the employee portal. It was private, no one else could see it. But you had to record your weight at the start of each year. And you had to do some exercises along the way, partially some kind of incentive to have one kind of health insurance over another.

And I’m expecting that it probably had to do with the cost out of my paycheck. And that’s what motivated me. I don’t recall exactly what the situation was, but I do remember that I had to write down how much I weighed and then I had to engage in certain health-related activities like walking, or counting steps, or something like that.

Now, when you think about it, even just becoming aware of your own physical activity level, your physical fitness, your overall health, and your bodyweight does something to you. It was a few years of doing that, and pretty soon I realized I needed to make major changes. In my own situation, I did lose 95 pounds and I have successfully maintained that for the past four to five years. And it all started with that awareness every year that was part of the health insurance plan of just working at American Public University.

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*About this image: My professional faculty photo, taken by American Public University Systems (2015, on left) and an informal photo taken at home (2020, on right)

If I took it further and thought about it every year and recorded my efforts to become a mental athlete as an educator, I would take it a lot further and increase my goals in physical and mental wellness. Over time, I want to become more confident, more focused, more productive, and more happy with myself in my role and in the work that I do with my students.

In essence, it is the everyday habit that one puts into their physical and mental abilities that come together to summatively create the performance and productivity we have in the online classroom.

There are some high-powered physical and mental energy hacks that Torrance shares in his book. And I’d like to share these with you here.

Tackle What You Dread First

First, he talks about tackling what you dread the most. It’s going to give you energy to deal with the less critical things or the less enjoyable things throughout the day because you’ve done the most difficult one.

Visualize Before You Go to Bed

Second, you’re going to visualize before you go to bed, and the thoughts that you take to bed matter. So your mind is going to get in a mood for sleep. And you’re also going to think about or visualize the type of things you’re going to be doing when you’re waking up that are pleasurable to you. So you’re actually predicting a positive day for the next day and thinking about the energy you need to begin the day.

Now that second hack there, thinking about it before you go to bed, I personally do that a lot. That’s one of my own habits. I’ll make a to-do list about the things I want to do the next day. And I’ll think about how I need to wake up.

Then in the next morning, when I wake up, I’m actually laying in bed sometimes feeling very tired and not at all interested in getting out of bed. And I’ll remember what I’m going to do first thing in the morning. And then I’ll purposely choose to jump out of bed and give myself some energy so I can get moving.

Sometimes it’s really hard. And other times it’s very easy because the motivating task is so interesting to me. Whatever you do, visualizing before bed can set the tone for the next day, but make sure it’s something positive you’re visualizing, and you’re seeing action and the motivation that you’re going to need.

Unclog Your Mind

Third, unclog your mind. So Torrance suggests that we all have a never-ending to-do list. I don’t know if you have one, but I know I do. And it can sometimes make me feel like I never really finish things. There’s always another list tomorrow and sometimes one list can go through a week or two without completely getting wiped out.

If you can unclog that list by writing it all down, setting it aside, turning off technology, and letting go of emails and all those things, at some point you’re going to have a little bit of space to think more clearly, be more mentally alert, and be able to set limits around your time.

Unclogging your mind is also going to help you think about what you can take off of your list. If you do write it down and realize it’s been there a while, maybe it doesn’t even need to get done at all, or maybe it could be delegated. There’s possibly another solution if you find that something is on your to-do list for a very long time.

Get the Right Amount of Sleep

The fourth productivity hack is getting the right amount of sleep. Believe it or not, the amount of sleep you get every day actually impacts your mental and physical functioning. Over time you can actually have long-term health effects that are negative if you’re constantly cheating yourself on the sleep.

Now, if you have dragged your work out throughout the day, especially when you’re only working online, if all of your energy is put into that, it can feel like you can never really let go and never really get enough sleep.

Think about what kind of environment you need. What kind of bedding will be most comfortable for you? Is the pillow nice and cool or warm, however, you prefer it? Would there be something you could do before bed to relax you, like a warm bath or some people even drink warm milk, or cocoa, or something like that? Is it helpful for you to read a book before you go to bed? One thing that I’ve heard a lot is no caffeine and no alcohol in the later hours of the day because both of those tend to impact the quality of your sleep throughout the night.

And then, of course, avoid screen time, two hours before bedtime. You can wear these blue-light-blocking glasses that will help you to actually reduce the impact of the screen on your eyes. And you can also buy a light therapy lamp on Amazon that’s going to help you have an experience with bright light, first thing in the morning to really set your time clock and your circadian rhythm.

These are good things to think about if you’re still having problems getting high-quality sleep, but getting enough sleep is definitely essential to give your brain the energy it needs and your body, the energy as well to get through the day.

Pursue Your “Heart Project”

Next, spend a good day chunk of your day pursuing your heart project. A heart project is something you really care about. It’s in your own goal area. It might be what Torrance calls your ultimate passion. When you focus on these things you care most about at some point during a day, this is going to give you a lot of joy, it will refresh you, and help you feel totally revitalized and energized.

So if you have a lot of grading to do, and you’re not a big fan of grading, do the grading, but be sure to give yourself time for this passion project, or heart project. You need reasons to get out of bed in the morning. And if this is it, give yourself the time after you’ve done some of the more difficult tasks of your online teaching job.

Some of the other tips mentioned here in the body and mind category are to have a sense of gratitude and to have a positive outlook on life generally. You also want to think about eating the right foods. Believe it or not, the things you put into your body impact your energy level and your mental functioning.

There’s a thing called inflammation. If you’re not familiar with this, certain foods can actually cause your body to react in a way that inflames your cells and parts of your body. If you eat a lot of carbohydrates and sugar, some people react very poorly to that. You might have puffy eyes or a puffy face and mentally feel quite sluggish and tired. This will make it more difficult to be productive as an online educator, or in any other field.

Think about how healthy food makes you feel. And even if it is less enjoyable than some of those more high carb, or high sugar foods you might crave, think about how you might be able to incorporate these healthy foods to enhance your mental alertness.

Eating more calories early in the day instead of at night can also give you more energy. And then, of course, more fiber, fruit and vegetables, and protein and minerals and vitamins. These things can all add to your energy level and clear up your mind so you can think clearly and be more productive along the way.

Be Active and Find a Physical Exercise You Enjoy

And then lastly, be active, enjoy what you’re doing physically. You might be inspired through exercise, which will help you sleep better and relieve stress as well as boosting your brain. But you might also find a new habit that you could enjoy, like going for a run, short walk, working out with someone else, biking, or even dancing.

My personal favorite is putting on my noise-canceling headphones, some really peppy upbeat music, and walking on my treadmill for 30 minutes or more sometime in the middle of the day. Whatever it is that helps you to physically get active. When we’re working online, we’re sitting a lot and we’re much more prone to want to sit a little bit longer so that we can just get through what we’re trying to do that day.

If you break it up instead, you’ll find that you have more energy and you can even be more productive. So take breaks. Think about the food you eat and the exercise you do as ways to fuel the mind as well as the body.

There are many other productivity hacks and habits in this book by John Torrance. I hope you’ll check it out and try those that I’ve shared with you today, as we all work towards being more productive online educators. And I wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week.

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

#52: Effective Feedback in Your Online Teaching

#52: Effective Feedback in Your Online Teaching

This content originally appeared on APUEdge.com.

Feedback is an important part of online learning. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides tips and strategies about how to provide effective feedback to students. Learn how to garner feedback based on students’ work, tips on giving effective feedback to help students, and why feedback is a critical part of the learning process for both students as well as teachers.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher

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.

It is hard to believe it’s been an entire year since we started this podcast, and thank you for being on this journey with me. It’s exciting to finish with episode 52 today, and we’re looking forward to the coming year with plenty of guests, new topics, and a lot of help and support for you as an online educator. I hope you’ll keep with us for the journey, and again, thank you for joining us today and over the past year.

What is Feedback?

Today, we’re going to talk about effective feedback in your online teaching. What is feedback? Well, feedback is the process of taking the invitation to respond. Student’s assignments are a response to what we’re teaching. This gives us some feedback about what they can do with what they learned, and whether they learned anything from us. And our comments to them throughout the discussions can challenge them, prompt them, and help them think in new ways.

Grading online assignments is not just about marking a score, giving a letter grade to your students. It’s one thing for you as the educator to recognize what is A level work and what is not, and how to rate or rank your students on the work they’ve given you.

But it’s something else altogether to tell your students what they did well, where they needed to do something differently, and how they can improve. This effective feedback helps them successfully meet their course objectives, as well as knowing if you have taught them accordingly.

Feedback Can Help Students Improve and Reduce Complaints

With this second type of grading, your feedback is something that helps students improve. It helps them stay motivated and your feedback can even help students perform better on their next assignment. So, why should you care about the quality of grading feedback that you provide?

First, there is the practical reason that when students receive a score or a grade with no feedback to help them, they don’t understand the basis for that grade, they complain. Student complaints can raise your anxiety and stress levels and student complaints take more time to address. They also impact your job satisfaction as an educator, and they are preventable much of the time.

You can prevent student complaints most of the time by communicating well with your students about their work. After all, no one likes to be given some kind of score or rating without the idea of how to fix it or improve, especially if they took the time and really put their best effort into that project or that assignment.

Second, the quality of your grading represents part of your teaching. As an educator, you’re more than just a person who tells other people about the subject matter you teach. Although, sometimes we have this idea that a teacher stands in front of the room and lectures about a subject matter and eager students are sitting there taking notes, drinking it all in. There’s much more to effective teaching than just this idea of lecturing in a one-way direction.

Teaching and learning work together, it’s a two-way street. Whatever your teaching methods are, students provide you with an essay, an assignment, or other items and they help you know what they’re learning, and your feedback is part of that exchange. It’s where you keep teaching and it keeps the conversation going back and forth.

And third, feedback in your grading provides you and your students the ability to adjust on this learning journey together. Your students learn about where they are related to the objectives they need to achieve in your class. And you, as the instructor, learn what you need to do to alter your approach so that your teaching is much more effective.

And as you provide feedback, you can see some feedback to you about your teaching approach and your students’ work. This is really one of the most important parts of revealing your students’ work, and one that we often overlook when we’re teaching online.

Ways to Get Feedback from Your Students’ Assignments

When you’re evaluating students’ online assignments, how can you get this feedback about your teaching? Well, you can review students’ work to identify the ideas you taught and see where they appear. For example, are your students able to comfortably use any of the special vocabulary that goes with your subject? And, do they communicate about the ideas with some clarity? Second, in the work they have submitted, do most of your students seem to be learning what you’re teaching?

Based on your teaching methods and your subject matter, you can look for even more evidence of learning in your students’ work, and you can directly connect their work with the course objectives to determine where they stand in relation to where they should be by the end of the class.

Robin Jackson, who wrote, “Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching,” said, “It’s one thing to collect feedback about your students’ progress, but if you simply collect the feedback and never use it to adjust your instruction, then you’re collecting it in vain. The data you receive will give you feedback about the effectiveness of your own instruction.”

It’s important to remember that feedback is information about how we’re doing in our efforts to reach a goal. If we’re teaching other people, we’re putting effort into the goal of educating them. I’ll give you an example of this whole idea in action. When I was a freshman in high school, my chemistry teacher, Bruce Fowler, returned the results of our assignments at the end of a learning unit.

He spoke to us pretty candidly and told us we all failed that assignment. And he realized that he wasn’t really teaching it well, it wasn’t possible for every single person to fail if he had taught it effectively. So, he scrapped his plans for the coming week and he retaught all of that material in a totally different way, and then he reassessed us.

He expressed a lot of care for us as human beings, and he focused on his own continuous improvement in teaching throughout the year. It was pretty obvious, this was a man who focused on feedback for both of us. He gave us the feedback to help us know where we were as learners in our own performance, and he used our performance to give himself feedback about his teaching. Now, this chemistry class was many years ago and obviously not an online class, but we can use the same principle in our online teaching, even if the course is standardized and designed by someone else.

Adapting Your Teaching Based on Feedback

I’ll give you some examples of how this might be done. As a faculty director, observing the teaching of many online educators, I’ve noticed that some instructors adapt after evaluating students’ work by creating videos to address the entire class. And in this whole class feedback, a few of the instructors I’ve seen have mentioned some of the bigger errors students have made in their assignments. Then they give their students additional explanations, guidance, and teaching on those areas to help them adjust so they can move forward for the next unit or topic.

I’ve also noticed some other faculty members have done the same thing in a course announcement, and still, others have added resources and documents with tips, additional information, and reteaching. Whatever the format, you can give your students guidance and feedback to help them understand what they all seem to miss or what a great majority of them seem to miss. And this is a great way to use your students’ work as feedback in your own teaching, and then respond in ways that help your students keep moving forward.

Ways to Give Effective Feedback

What kind of feedback do students need in your grading and your comments? A well-known education writer, Grant Wiggins, shared seven keys to effective feedback. And these keys are:

  1. That it is goal referenced
  2. It’s tangible and transparent
  3. Actionable
  4. It is user-friendly
  5. Timely
  6. Ongoing
  7. Consistent

For online teaching specifically, I’m going to focus on four of these areas today, which are even more important and I’ll share some special ideas with you.

Goal-Referenced Feedback

First, let’s talk about goal-referenced feedback. Goal referenced feedback means that it’s tied to the course objectives. We have some kind of clear goal to be achieved in what students are learning, and when they complete the assignment, it’s tied to this goal. Then the feedback comments we give them about their work while we’re grading it, should also relate to the goal.

For example, if students are supposed to write an argument paper, our feedback might remind them that the argument paper needs to cover how well they take a position and effectively support it with evidence and commentary. And then we’re going to give feedback about the degree to which they did this and how they could do it even more effectively.

Actionable Feedback

Actionable feedback means that it’s concrete, specific, and useful. Wiggins said that effective feedback is concrete, specific, and useful. It provides actionable information, thus “Good job,” and “You did that wrong,” and “B+.” These are not really feedback at all.

We can easily imagine that the learners are asking themselves in response to these comments, “What specifically could I do more or less of next time, based on this information? I have no idea.” They don’t know what was good or wrong about what they did. This includes feedback about what they specifically did right and what they did well. This feedback is objective, rather than your opinion or your judgment of them.

User-Friendly Feedback

User-friendly means that feedback can be easily understood by the person who’s receiving it. It’s not highly technical or confusing and it is focused. Wiggins tells us an example that’s really good at illustrating this: “Describing a baseball swing to a six-year-old in terms of torque and other physics concepts, will not likely yield a better hitter. Too much feedback is also counterproductive. Better to help the performer concentrate on only one or two key elements of the performance, than to create this huge buzz of information coming at them from all sides and at too high of a level.”

Timely Feedback

Lastly, timely feedback. Timely feedback means fast feedback. The sooner our students get the feedback from us about their work, the more they can adjust and improve. If there’s another assignment coming up and students are busy preparing for that, they can’t really do this effectively without getting feedback from the previous assignment. And even more difficult, if several weeks pass before their feedback is received. By that time, they have moved on.

Giving helpful feedback can really take time on your part and it might be a large part of what you do when teaching online, but it’s also still part of teaching, not just support for the grade. So, to keep teaching in a way that helps your students the most, giving timely feedback is essential.

Make Sure Students Receive Feedback

Now, how can you help your students see this feedback and actually stay connected in this cycle of teaching and learning? After getting some feedback about your teaching, through your review of students’ assignments, and then giving them feedback about what they demonstrated in those assignments, the process completely fails if students cannot see the feedback you gave them. And online, it’s entirely possible students will miss your feedback completely.

To help you make your feedback have an impact, we’ll close today’s podcast with some practical tips about making sure your students can find it and how they can keep moving forward because they’ve received this feedback.

Tell Students to Expect Feedback on their Work

First, before the assignment starts, before it’s even launched, give your students help to prepare to complete this assignment successfully. This help might include guidance about what to expect, what to include in their work, and then how to submit the assignment.

I suggest also stating exactly how this assignment relates to the course objectives and how it relates to the real world so students can have more context and more buy-in. You might provide this guidance in a course announcement or in an email to the class. Either way, you want to ensure that everyone receives it.

Announce When Feedback is Available and How to Find it

Second, when you’ve evaluated students’ assignments, send out an announcement to let them know your feedback is available to them. You can include screenshots of where they will find this feedback in your online classroom and what it looks like. If your feedback is outside the platform, like maybe it’s in Turnitin GradeMark viewer, you might even need to include a short video showing them what to click on to get to the viewer. And when they get there, what to click on to make the feedback visible.

Be Receptive to Requests for Feedback

Never assume that students know where to find this feedback. And throughout this whole process, third, always be open to students who reach out, asking for more feedback. As Errol Craig Sull wrote in his faculty focus article on the subject, even if the student’s primary reason for asking is to receive a good final grade in the course, this gives you an opportunity to teach a bit more. So, be sure to respond to the student in a timely manner by email, audio message, or phone.

Sull reminds us that when students ask for clarification or more feedback, it’s not about you or whether your feedback is good enough. It’s about the students being interested in improving their work. If we keep this in mind, we’re going to be able to have the space to respond enthusiastically and not take it personally.

So, there you have it. What is good feedback? What should it include and how do you take this to improve yourself and your teaching, as well as how do you ensure your students find all of this feedback so they can use it and keep learning.

I hope that as you move forward in your online teaching this week, you’ll think about feedback in all of these ways and use one of these strategies to improve your practice. Thank you, again, for being with me for the past 52 episodes, this first year of the Online Teaching Lounge. Come back again for the coming year when we’ll have guests and new topics that will help you continue working and teaching online and achieving balance in your work and life. Best wishes in the coming week and the exciting year ahead.

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.