Education Week’s David Ginsburg posted a fabulous piece last week called, “New Year’s Resolution: Classroom Procedures, Not Rules” (20 August, 2012). Although his message targeted an audience of elementary teachers, it clearly applies to postsecondary online faculty as well. Here’s how Ginsburg’s main points translate to five tips for successful virtual classroom management.
• “For educators the new year begins September 1, which means the time for resolutions is now, not January” (Ginsburg, D., 20 August, 2012).
How many times have you heard other faculty express their wishes for students with comments such as: “I wish my students would learn to use APA documentation,” or “I wish my students could learn to follow directions.” Maybe you’re one of the faculty who agrees with Debbie Morrison’s “Top 5 Annoying Online Student Complaints,” because students just can’t seem to meet your expectations (14 August, 2012).
Now is the time to act! One classroom management technique I always found helpful was to jot down some of these issues and pet peeves as I went through a semester or listened to other faculty. Then as I set up my next class for the next semester, I would address these issues prior to and at the very beginning of a class. As Ginsburg states, the start of a new year [or semester] is a teacher’s New Year, so enact your resolutions now.
For instance, as a Writing Across the Curriculum Director, I would review the directions faculty had written for assignments, and fairly often I would find that they had not clearly articulated the need to use a documentation style. Their response to me would be: “Shouldn’t college students know that by now?” My response typically was: “Not if they are used to writing personal opinion and reflection papers,” and I would explain the need to establish the integration and documentation of sources as a regular academic procedure. Similarly, a week or so prior to the start of a class, I always had good luck sending out my syllabus and some other classroom materials with a bit of an elevator pitch, “Hi everyone, I thought you may want a sneak peak at the syllabus for the class…” Most of them would actually read it in advance.
As Morrison states, “The things online faculty “wish” their students would do are the very habits that would make them, well… better students (14 August, 2012).
• Stop thinking in terms of establishing and enforcing rules. Instead think about establishing procedures (Ginsburg, D., 20 August, 2012).
I agree with both Ginsburg and Morrison. Online faculty must jettison the idea of establishing rules that students must adhere to in their online courses. People tend to be creatures of habit, not automatons who obey orders. Most individuals go to school for their individual advancement (e.g., to improve their knowledge and skills for their careers) and to improve their critical thinking ability rather than to learn to obey commands. Online students for the most part have already experienced some success personally, professionally, and/or academically in postsecondary academia. They like the freedom and flexibility the virtual delivery provides.
Therefore, approaching your online class with an attitude of establishing rules that you will make students follow or else is no way to manage a classroom. Instead, focus on building habits that lead to success.
• “Procedures… are about giving kids the structure they need in order to thrive. You can’t do your best at anything if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. That’s the way it is in most arenas, so why would the classroom be any different” (Ginsburg, D., 20 August, 2012)?
When I’m setting up an online class, it helps me to think of establishing a regular rhythm that students and I can learn to count on. For example, I scaffold assignments within clear divisions. When teaching world literature online, I would basically divide the semester into three-week segments within which we would 1) Introduce a time period and get an overview of the type of writing prevalent at the time; 2) Complete and discuss assigned readings as examples; 3) Research and share additional representative samples that students discovered based on their own research and interests; 4) Write and share a larger research project; and 5) Take a test over the segement’s material.
The first time through the cycle, students needed some guidance. After that, it became habit for most, and I had to do almost nothing in terms of rules and follow up. Students knew what to do, and most simply did it.
• “Tell kids what you want them to do, and they’re going to be more responsible and cooperative. What a contrast with rules, which focus on what you don’t want kids to do (And of course many of them do it anyway–after all, rules are meant to be broken.)” (Ginsburg, D., 20 August, 2012).
As the first three tips imply, replacing the rules mindset with a course structure of habitual procedure involves the class in the learning process as collaborators. By removing the “professor vs. students” mentality that is so subliminally present in college and under the rules approach, students are more cooperative and engaged in learning. As Morrison states, they become better students. To her comment, I would add, faculty also become better teachers once the energy-draining distraction of establishing and enforcing rules is gone.
Furthermore, broken rules are like a smashed glass vase in that it really can’t be reassembled with the same beauty and functionality it originally had. On the other hand, within a procedure, students and instructors can stretch the boundaries almost limitlessly and with a new, even more magnificent purpose.
For example, within the world literature procedure I described, one of many suggestions made was to research and share the literature of their own ethnic background or a part of the world that tended not to be included in college anthologies. It was in those moments where I shared a work from my Macedonian background like Tasho Georgievski’s, The Black Seed or a student shared the Nigerian play, A Dance of the Forest by Wole Soyinka from his background that greater connections were made about the global, near timeless human experience. Simply put, we all learned a lot more than we would have had I established and enforced strict rules about what works could be explored in the course.
In response to some of the supportive comments made that add the need for student engagement in designing the procedures, Ginsburg accurately responds:
• “Still, teachers need to understand that while the democratic process is great, it’s the teacher who ultimately makes the decisions. The key to getting kids on your side isn’t always deferring to them, but rather conferring with them. People are much more willing to go along with ideas they don’t agree with when leaders have sought their input, dignified it, and given rationale for what they eventually decide”(20 August, 2012).
Note carefully Ginsburg’s word choices in this quotation. He says to “confer” with students “not defer” to students. Faculty must remember that ultimately though they are not the rule-maker or task master, they re the manager of the classroom. They are the ones who make the final decisions about what procedures—what learning habits—are to be developed and utilized in a course. Who had the credentials and the experience in regard to education and the subject of the course? You do as trained professionals.
This is not to discount the students. Also note that what Ginsburg mentioned in the final sentence is even more applicable to online learners at the postsecondary level because they have, for the most part, already achieved some success. Online faculty must “dignify” the “input” of these students and be prepared to provide the rationale for the procedures that are put into place. Being a good leader within a course doesn’t mean being a good follower nor does it imply being an uncommunicative or disrespectful.
Overall, sometimes it may feel like a fine line between rules and procedures, but taking the time to consider the approach offered by the five tips for classroom management as presented here should help. There is no time to start like the present.
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