recently received a frantic phone call from a distraught colleague who had just received her student evaluations after teaching her first online course. Tearfully, she shared with me sample student comments such as, “I didn’t get any feedback on my assignments until it was too late to help me with the next assignment,” and “I never heard from my instructor. It was like she was barely there.”
Frustrated because she felt that she had been doing a good job of communicating with her students, and also fearful because her adjunct position depended in part on receiving positive student evaluations, she asked for help in setting up an improvement plan for the next course.
Unfortunately, my colleague’s frustrating experience is not uncommon for instructors new to the online environment. Managing instructor presence—students’ perceptions of how instructors interact with them and guide their learning during a course—is the key to overcoming that frustration. It’s not unusual for instructors and students to have widely different perceptions of instructor presence during the same course.
For instructors who may be teaching multiple courses and spending large blocks of time answering student email, the time spent on their courses makes them feel fully present and fully engaged. To students, however, who may be looking for interaction from the instructor on the course discussion boards, it may seem the instructor is “barely there” because there is little trace of him or her in the course.
How would your students rate your instructor presence on a continuum from “barely there” to “fully present”? If there’s a difference between your students’ perception and your perception of your instructor presence, you can improve your presence with some simple strategies.
After working with online students at all levels of higher education for more than a decade, I’ve developed a three-step approach for creating a strong instructor presence. In this article, I describe those steps, giving you a clear plan that can save time, improve the learning environment, and result in positive student evaluations.
Step 1: Interact early and share your plan with the class
About a week before the course starts, send a welcome note reminding students the course will be starting. Include information they might need immediately, such as how to access the course and recapping key information, such as reminding them about the book being used.
At the beginning of the course, be transparent about your interaction plan. Planned interactions range from daily attention to questions, guidance, and problems to weekly formal feedback on assignments. Normally, the most pressing questions students have are when their questions will be answered and how soon the assignments will be graded, so addressing those up front decreases anxiety. Here’s an example:
I will normally be checking into the course twice a day, so if one of your classmates doesn’t answer, I will do so within a fairly short time. You will receive feedback on postings and assignments in time to use it for any needed improvements on future work.
Your daily and weekly times for course interaction should be on your work calendar, just as showing up for a traditional face-to-face class would.
Step 2: Check in daily and interact if needed
Check in often to the course discussion board that is set up for questions, monitor your course email, and post any announcements as needed. How often is often enough will depend on the length and level of the course. For graduate students in a seven-week course, I check at least twice a day. When students find they are getting prompt responses to questions, their anxiety levels decrease. This short check-in routine becomes a time-saver because students don’t send individual emails or create chaos by giving each other incorrect information. Even if it’s a five-minute check-in first thing in the morning and/or late at night, it should be a planned routine that is part of your work flow.
Be clear about the days you may not check in as often, whether that is on weekends or certain weekdays. Travel days may also be times when you cannot respond within your usual timeframe. Because most of our students are employed full-time during the week, weekends are when many of them focus on their classwork. For those students, instructor availability on Saturdays and Sundays is critical.
Some specifics about the “Course Concerns and Questions” discussion board
Directions for the discussion board should tell students to post any questions related to the course on the discussion board rather than sending the instructor individual emails. Some students resist making their questions public, so an encouraging note on the discussion board itself saying, “Other students will be grateful you asked” is a way to encourage those who may be reluctant to ask. Here is an example:
Please post all course-related questions or concerns on the discussion board set up for that purpose. Both students and faculty are expected to contribute to replies. Even if you find yourself a little hesitant to ask questions in a public area (for fear that everyone in the world knows something you don’t!), just go ahead and ask. I can guarantee if you have a question about something, there are at least five of your classmates wondering the same thing, and they will be overwhelmingly grateful to you for asking. How do I know this with such great certainty? Because it happens every semester, over and over! Some of our most interesting discussions sometimes happen on this discussion board, so please just jump in. (Reserve email for those events that pertain to you personally.)
Some specifics about email
Reply to any individual emails about course content by thanking the student for the question and letting that student know that since others will benefit from the response, he or she should post the question on the course questions discussion board and that you will answer it there. The only emails from students should be related to individual personal issues such as problems that interfere with coursework. Here’s a sample response to an email asking a course-related question.
Thanks for asking this question. I think your classmates may also be wondering about that and would benefit from clarification. Please post your question on the course discussion board; I will respond there.
Some specifics about announcements
Post announcements at least weekly. The announcement board is a great place to provide the following information:
- General assignment feedback—Give group feedback about an assignment, or use exemplars of student work to model an “A” assignment.
- Clarification about a general issue—If a few students have been asking the same type of question on the discussion board or it’s clear there is confusion about anything in the course, the announcement area is a great place to reach everyone.
- Encouragement—Provide calm reassurance about problems that may be beyond the students’ control, such as university tech issues.
Step 3: Grade and summarize (at least) weekly
Set aside specific times each week for grading and posting summaries/synthesis for the week. This can be a time-intensive task, depending on the number of students and the particular assignment. It’s better to set aside more time than you may need at first. I generally block the morning after an assignment is due to grade and provide feedback.
Students’ ability to improve their next posting may be based on the feedback you provide, so if the next posting is due before you provide that feedback, they miss the chance to use your feedback for improvement. Students should receive feedback on weekly assignments within 48 hours so they can incorporate suggestions for improvement into the next assignment. The interaction plan is your pledge to your students, so make sure to honor the response times you have promised.
End-of-the-week discussion board summaries are an effective way to highlight points you think are important, demonstrate synthesis of ideas, and perhaps clarify misunderstandings that have arisen.
With student satisfaction and your teaching career at stake, a strong instructor presence can produce big payoffs. By applying these practical strategies, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your “barely there” presence rating will move to “fully present,” resulting in an improved learning environment and positive student evaluations.
Reprinted from Online Classroom, 14.7 (2014): 1,3,5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Diane Monsivais is an assistant professor/advisor for the MSN in nursing education at the University of Texas at El Paso.