Often, there is something of a disconnect between well-intentioned educators and their students’ perceptions. Adult learners do not seem to express quite as high a level of confidence in the caring of their professors and other educators. This paradox seems, at least partially, the result of the way many educators communicate—or perhaps, miscommunicate.
Before my well-educated readers take offense with the premise that they do not always connect with learners as well as they could, they should keep in mind that their goal is to help students succeed in their edventure. Educators play a key role in guiding students on their academic journey and in modeling good communication for future professionals. With that in mind, here are four tips for making sure that you are the effective communicator you think you are.
One of the most common communication weaknesses I have seen is a lack of focus. This is not only true of email and in-person discussions, but also in terms of course content. Particularly with virtual courses, the onus is strongly placed upon instructors to make sure their curriculum is not so text heavy or convoluted that students are overwhelmed or lost in an ocean of black and white type.
Libby A. Nelson of Inside Higher Ed discussed the tendency educators have toward “Too Much Information,” by writing about a recent Monroe Community College communication audit (29 May 2013). She explained that MCC educators knew that students who registered early have a greater chance of success; therefore, the school made sure it communicated this fact and all other such “helps” frequently with students. The irony, as Nelson reported, is that students did not respond or seem to find this information helpful.
Nelson went on to share that the school “had created 286 separate communications about enrollment. Most of those messages — 60 percent — were e-mails; 30 percent were letters and 10 percent were phone calls” that averaged about ten communications to students per week throughout the academic year. (29 May 2013). Clearly, students were overwhelmed. The solution, according to Nelson, was to focus communication in the following ways:
• Multiple communications about the early enrollment were condensed into one clearly focused message in an admissions letter.
• Action items were organized into color-coded, condensed, to-do lists that were easier for students to track.
• Emails were sent to students’ school accounts rather than their personal ones. [I would add there are many other reasons to use only the college’s email system, such as privacy concerns.]
• Postcards were sent to home addresses so that others in the students’ households would help remind them of action items.
• Information was targeted to specific student demographics (e.g., the traditional high school graduate starting in the fall vs. the non-traditional, online working adult).
With these simple steps, early enrollment has increased by 30% already for this fall and placement exams are up by 50% (Nelson, L. 29 May 2013).
Similar techniques must be applied by all educators. Online faculty, especially, must carefully examine the information they share with students in terms of the characteristics above. I would also suggest making good use of multimedia (e.g., show students with a video), graphics with links to information, and streamlining content to include only what needs to be shared with a particular student audience.
Along with a clear focus, good communication also must keep in mind that it is between people.
In a world where communication increasingly happens electronically via email, social media, telephone/video conferences, etc., educators must remember that they are still in a person-oriented profession. The goal is to help students along their edventure through academia and into their careers. It is not to utilize the latest and greatest technology in a robotic, non-human way.
There are some easy ways to personalize online classes and other communication with students. Dr. Oliver Dreon, Director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Millersville University recently shared “Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice to the Online Classroom,” in Faculty Focus (25 February 2013). These are also great ways to personalize an online course.
1. Encourage contact between students and faculty. Dreon explained that online educators should make themselves available by email, Skype, Twitter, and any other reasonable means of communication. He stated, “offering this time communicates to students that I am available if they need assistance and that I value this interaction.”
To this I would add that there is nothing wrong with an old fashioned telephone call nor should educators shy away with sharing a bit about themselves as a person. I typically advise educators to share a bit about their own academic and career experience including some of their struggles and failures along with their discoveries and successes.
2. Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students. Dreon quite rightly asserts that students need a sense of community in order to succeed, especially in online courses (c.f., Zimmerman, L. “Critical Importance of Social Interaction in Online Courses.” Educational Technology and Change. 2 January 2011).
But it also should be remembered that this socialization and community building humanizes the classroom, making students feel as if they have a welcoming place to learn. Faculty must communicate as a good host to their guests in the online course platform.
3. Encourage active learning. Online courses typically contain learning activities, such as discussions, but Dreon mentioned the importance of engaging students in a variety of lively lessons that may utilize different technologies (e.g., Animoto) or activities, such as observations and hands-on experiments.
These also help to humanize classroom communication by increasing the opportunities for students to communicate in ways they feel most comfortable. One student may prefer to share thoughts by means of a video whereas another may enjoy collaborating on a project with a classmate.
4. Give prompt feedback. One of the main concerns e-learners have is getting regular, timely feedback on their academic progress. Dreon suggests mixing in activities that may be evaluated more quickly with the larger projects that take more time. He mentions that feedback needs to be individualized even though it may take longer than simply slapping on a grade or using auto-comments. See my post, “4 Ways to Give More Effective Feedback to Students,” (9 May 2012).
Providing regular, individualized feedback communicates to students that faculty care and that the student’s progress is important.
5. Emphasize time on task. Related to the above, Dreon explained that faculty must set clear but reasonable expectations for learning. As he said, students will not be have time to read a 500-page book in a day, so educators must adjust their expectations to allow time for them to interact with learning.
Along with this, I would add that educators also must take the time to communicate with students about course material and learning in general. This interpersonal interaction again helps to humanize the virtual environment for learners.
6. Communicate high expectations. Here Dreon focuses on making clear whatever other expectations to students. Although he did not clearly address the “high” expectations, coaching students to do the very best that they can no matter what level they may be at (e.g., in regard to skills) when they enter the course communicates that you value their educational experience and that you want them to succeed in the future by applying what they have learned.
7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning. Finally, Dreon suggested that faculty create opportunities for students to apply and develop their existing talents in ways that are conducive to their own learning style and goals. I would remind readers that most college students, especially online) already have experienced some level of success, whether it be graduating from high school or working at a job and raising a family for a couple of decades. Valuing what students bring to the course does wonders for communicating respect to students.
Overall, each of these principles is not only sound pedagogy, but they also represent excellent ways to personalize a course and to communicate to students that you care about their success.
Another tip for being an effective educational communicator is to keep messages professional and not personalize so much that you end up sharing private, unnecessary, or distracting information. Here is where it is also critical to remember that you are also modeling good communication for your students as they move through academia and into their professional lives. Certainly, your style does not have to be so rigidly formal that students get the impression the language is computer-generated; however, you should follow key netiquette guidelines and avoid common issues with composing in the digital age (e.g., wrong word choices and missing letters/words).
Similarly, be consistent with your message. I have often observed composition faculty telling students what is expected in the formatting of a paper, for example. Then as students ask questions, these same instructors start to share exceptions and variances until the students aren’t sure what is really expected. Professional communication involves having the confidence to share your knowledge clearly and concisely.
Additionally, be consistent in your professional approach. Lately I have noticed that even educators are starting to fall into the talk show or reality TV communication style of sharing feelings rather than focusing on issues. I recently contacted an administrator to see how we could collaborate to help a student facing a medical crisis. Instead of keeping the conversation professional, she wanted to share how “hurt” she felt that the student had come to me first rather than to her. I had to devote time to redirecting her to the student’s needs and away from her emotions.
Keeping all communication professional not only is more effective communication, but it also shows students you truly care about their success.
IV: Be Humble
Educators have a right to be proud. They have made it through at least a master’s degree program if they are teaching at the postsecondary level, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, only 10.5% of the population in the United States has accomplished this level of education. Add to this the number of professional accomplishments educators may have, such as publications, presentations, and other important achievements in their respective fields, and it’s easy to see why educators would feel proud.
However, increasingly when communicating and perhaps out of a bit of understandable defensiveness, educators seem to want to over share these accomplishments with students. I have heard and seen communication from faculty, for example, in which they begin with a summation of their C.V. “I have been a teacher for 30 years, and I have published 16 articles in professional journals” is no way to make a student who is already intimidated by postsecondary education feel comfortable. There are better places to share your accomplishments (e.g., within your introduction in the course) if you feel you must.
Rest assured that students understand educators have credentials. You also can not force others to respect or listen to you by simply rattling them off. Instead be modest to make communication more effective and comfortable for students.
Educators do care about student success. By using the four communication techniques described above, students will understand that more clearly, and all involved will benefit more greatly throughout their edventure.
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