When Dawn Keiser shared her positive outlook, sense of caring, and the letter she sends to her first-time online students at the beginning of a semester to help boost their self-esteem, (“Boosting a First-Time Online Adult Student’s Self-Esteem,” 24 September, 2012) it made me want to share three steps that should build the confidence of online learners.
#1: Keiser’s Letter/Your Letter
In her post, Kaiser said she reaches out to her students by sending them a letter in an email that emphasizes her support as well as the realities of online learning. She provides her students with four main points:
• Guard against self-destructive behaviors. Here she reinforces the positive steps students have taken to improve their lives (e.g., by enrolling in college), and she warns them not to give in to negative behaviors and old habits (e.g., procrastination) that may interfere with their success.
• Set attainable goals. Kaiser suggests her students set long term goals in all areas of their lives; then break them down into smaller goals to be completed each month, week, and day. She also mentions the importance of tracking the goals to build momentum and confidence.
• Set up a support system. Here Kaiser describes the need for us all to have the help of family and friends. Students should build their own network of support including classmates who can serve as study buddies.
• Ask questions. Keiser tells her students that their education is theirs. They should get the most out of it; therefore, they should ask questions if they do not understand something or need assistance.
Although Keiser grants her permission for others to use her letter, I would challenge you to make this welcome letter your own. Who knows your students better than you? Add in tips, suggestions, resources, and other such points as you see fit to help your students. For some additional ideas, see my post: “4 Main Ways to Ease Fears about E-Learning,” (1 October, 2012).
#2: Extend an Invitation
Often students only have a basic understanding of e-learning, and they are typically hesitant to enter the virtual world on their own, even though they express an interest by enrolling in an online class. Therefore, do what you would do if you saw a student hesitating to enter a ground campus classroom: Invite them in.
In last Friday’s post, I gave a list of the “7 Steps Students Must Take to Prepare for Online Class Success,” (5 October 2012). In summation, these steps were:
1. To test drive an online course by means of a site, such as TestDriveCollege.com, a free orientation at their own colleges, online videos, etc.
2. To check their own equipment to make sure they have all of the needed technology and Internet access available in their own home.
3. To explore their own Learning Management System course site (e.g., Blackboard and eCollege).
4. To investigate available resources: learning centers, the university’s library, disability services, and other such means of assistance.
5. To practice the various functions they’ll need to function in the course, such as submitting assignments to the class dropbox.
6. To read important course materials, especially the syllabus, as suggested by their instructor.
7. To set up a worksite where they can have ready access to everything they need to succeed.
As an online instructor, it’s vital that you extend a welcome and provide encouragement for your students to prepare for success. A student who has the knowledge provided by a letter like Keiser’s and an opportunity to complete the above seven steps should feel more confident as their first online course begins. This requires faculty to offer easy links to resources perhaps with video clips or screen shots to show students the way, materials posted to the class site as early before a class starts as possible, and guidance on what students could or should practice.
#3: Build Trust
In order to feel confident and secure in any social situation, including education, people need to feel respected and that there is sincerity in interpersonal communication. Certainly this goes both ways: Students should also respect and be sincere in their communication with faculty. However, faculty must take the lead and model how to build trust through effective communication. Here are a few main areas faculty should consider.
• Be sensitive to student situations. This does not mean that faculty and students should over-share personal information. On the contrary, it could mean setting appropriate boundaries within the academic/professional context. Some students do not know quite how to do this because they are used to online communication with friends and family via email and social networking sites. They therefore may need some guidance and coaching on how to communicate effectively to help build trust with their classmates so that the course takes place within a safe, comfortable environment for all.
• Noticing subtle disclosures of self-doubt and responding appropriately. Most online courses provide an “introduction” area for students during the first week. As you take care to reply to each student individually, reassure them in places where they may make a comment, such as, “maybe I’m too old for college.” Then follow with some encouraging reasons why that is not the case.
• Personalize the feedback you give to students. Nothing says “I don’t care” or “Your work isn’t worth my time” like robo-comments, copied and pasted to most of the students or disconnected statements, such as: “Good job!” Student feedback should be personalized and a clear response to what the student has offered. Point out the strengths and skills they have shown, especially when you see them consistently demonstrated. Note places where they show growth and improvement. Engage them with some suggestions or questions about where they could further apply their talents or interests. You can even link them to additional resources.
• Be honest. Many students know where their weaknesses are or when they have not given something their full attention. Provide sincere feedback that acknowledges their weaknesses and shortcomings in a supportive way. Is there something they could do next time to prevent the issue from occurring? Is there something positive that can be derived from the weakness? It can help build students’ confidence to see that their shortcomings will not be glossed over because to you, your students are too important. It also helps students learn by means of your mentoring that failure is often a step toward future success.
Although these three steps toward helping first-time online students become more confident do take extra effort on the part of faculty, especially in the early stages of a course, they are well worth doing. You will find that not only do individual students respond well, but they also begin to help build the confidence of their own classmates by using some of the same techniques you model. Gradually, you can back off as your students become independent, confident learners and as your own confidence as an online instructor grows.
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