It’s back to school time, and along with the flurry of activity to buy backpacks and school supplies to fill them come frequent posts about how to be a good instructor. Whether you’re a new teacher or a veteran, such pieces can provide helpful guidance and reminders for faculty. I used to post a list of what students want from faculty above my desk to help me stay cognizant of my students’ needs while I worked through each day.
The down side is that these lists can become a bit long and repetitious. Therefore, I’m going to narrow my list to the top four characteristics of effective online instructors, tempered by what I have heard from students about what they liked and disliked about the instruction of a course.
Walking a mile in a student’s shoes becomes a bit more difficult in the virtual world. As faculty, we don’t see our students face-to-face, which exacerbates the difficulty in learning who they are as people. Perhaps at times we even lose awareness that there is a person rather than typed words in front of us.
The most significant example of why empathy is important of online instructors is clearly evident in the demographics of the typical virtual student whose:
• Average age is 34 with a gender ratio of 53% female and 47% male.
• Full-time attendance at school (68%) is in addition to a job (81%) and a family (60%)
• Goal is to further their education in a convenient (57.3%), doable way.
• Hope is to earn an income higher than $40,000 (74.3%).
• Accomplishments include completing some postsecondary education: an associate’s degree (40%), a bachelor’s degree (20%), or a master’s degree (2%). (2011)
Therefore, online faculty must understand the fact that more than half of their students have achieved success in a job, with postsecondary education, and/or by managing a family. When activities and assignments are designed and conducted, such experience needs to be given consideration and respect. Often a connection can be made between students’ prior achievements and the learning objectives in a course.
In general, it is vital that online faculty become audience-aware and make sure that all course activities, assignments, and communications reflect that understanding.
Another top characteristic for effective online instructors is providing regular and professional communication with students. In fact, many of the top nine Students’ Perceptions of Effective Teaching in Higher Education in a study by Memorial University of Newfoundland involve good communication: respectful, responsive, approachable, engaging, humorous (2010). “Communication” is listed specifically as the fifth most important effective online teacher characteristic.
Because virtual courses contain a majority of students who have been through the process of postsecondary education, they have clear expectations for what they perceive should occur. Conversely, the remaining students may be new to online learning and/or higher education. This group will be looking for guidance from their instructor. They may feel lost and confused by the online format. A recent Noel-Lovitz survey found that 55% of students found college websites confusing to navigate. Therefore, instructors should communicate clearly and regularly with students, letting them know where information is available, what is expected of them, what to do if they have questions or concerns, and how the course is progressing as a group and individually.
The most important example here is in the area of academic progress. Online students are frequently nervous about doing well, and faculty who regularly share updates on grading progress both with the class as a whole and academic progress individually with students typically receive high marks. The reverse is also true. I fully concur with Dr. Mary C. Clement, the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Berry College, who focused on the importance of “establishing a clear criteria for grading” and giving “formative feedback early” rather than waiting to provide only summative feedback at the end of the course (30 July, 2012). There should be no surprises for students about where their grade is at or what sort of progress is being made, especially in an online course.
Overall, make sure that you as the instructor, as well as the entire course site, communicate with students in a way that is very user-friendly.
Related to the above two characteristics of empathy and communication, effective online instructors are also efficient. Faculty face the same potential to put off online work as students do; however, it’s important to remember you are the classroom facilitator and model for your students to follow. Faculty need to be in the classroom regularly and predictably in order to maintain the pace of the class and to encourage students to do the same. Most institutions have guidelines for efficiency to which instructors should adhere.
For example, student questions sent by email or posted to the course site typically must be responded to within 24 hours during the week and within 48 hours over weekends and holidays. Faculty are typically required to check on their classes a minimum of once each day Monday through Friday and at least once over the weekend. Grading usually has some guidelines, too. Usually instructors must post in the discussion boards, for instance, a certain number of times on a certain number of days to keep the conversation going forward. Larger assignments and projects frequently have a five-seven day turnaround time.
Communicating with students about your efficiency and demonstrating to them that you are meeting your deadline and participation requirements does much to help them understand their academic progress, make them feel comfortable that they have an engaged instructor, and model good online learning.
The final characteristic is one that is reflected in a common concern both faculty and students have with leaving the face-to-face delivery format. This is the personalization of the course. The ninth student perception of effective online learning in the Memorial University of Newfoundland study provides one excellent example of wha this means and how to achieve it. The faculty member shows a sense of humor (2010).
Although students specifically like faculty to use some humor in their teaching, this also reflects a larger need students have to feel comfortable and connected socially, especially in the virtual world where everyone accesses the class from different locations. Dr. Michael G. Lovorn, an assistant professor at California State University, provided an excellent overview of the appropriate use of humor and its proven benefits to socialization and learning in his article, “Humor in the Home and in the Classroom: The Benefits of Laughing While We Learn,” (The Journal of Education and Human Development, 2008). Some general points he shares:
• Research shows that laughter is an effective way for people of all ages to release pent-up tensions or energy, permit the expression of ideas or feelings that would otherwise be difficult to express and facilitate coping with trying circumstances.
• The link between laughter and academic success is well documented.
• When it is employed as a conversation starter, tension-breaker or therapeutic intervention, laughter is a highly effective way to stimulate communication.
• When humans laugh, they experience pleasure that usually culminates in a predictable physical response coupled with a sense of openness to discussion and/or interaction.
• Evidence suggests that humor not only enables learning, but demonstrates a correlation between the development of a sense of humor and motivation to learn, mastery of cognitive material, and positive response to instructional stimuli.
Lovorn added that the benefits of the personalization of a course through techniques such as humor can follow students beyond the college classroom. For some additional tips, please see ”Personalizing Your Online Course.”
By keeping in mind the need for empathy, communication, efficiency, and personalization, your online courses should be more successful for your students and yourself.
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