The start of the term is a critical time for any course, when students form an impression that can help or hinder them for the duration of a class. There are three key practices that can set the tone for the entire term and have an effect on retention and student success if implemented.
First impressions are important, so reflect on how you welcome students and the tone you use. Many students report feeling overwhelmed when they start online classes, and a verbose first message can exacerbate that. Ideally, your course will have some sort of “Start Here” section or unit, which might contain your syllabus; the course schedule; and links to Learning Management System tutorials, downloads students might need, or campus services that might be helpful (tutoring, financial aid, counseling). I also include a link to a quiz for students to assess if they are suited to online learning. With your “Start Here” in place, your initial message to students can direct them there; avoid being overly wordy, and instead, focus on helping them to feel at home. This helps build your presence and create trust in you, and it can establish you as a part of the learning community of the class as well. You may even want to create a short welcome video, but we will talk about videos later.
Next, consider how students introduce themselves to the class. Most courses implement a “getting to know you” activity, and I recommend that your prompt ask them to share their hopes and fears about the course. Asking students their thoughts about the course in these terms and then requesting that in their responses to one another they offer support for the goals and also for conquering worries can help them to build community and trust in one another. These simple points added to an introduction prompt can take the learning community to a new level and help students see who they can rely upon early in the course. When you respond to their postings—encouraging their hopes and soothing their fears—you build trust and establish your presence in the course as well.
You might also consider the power of some informal videos to get your course started. Studies show that students do not mind if you are at home, in a coffee shop, or in your messy office when you make a welcome video, and it does not have to be perfect. They are okay if a cat or kid runs through the background or if the doorbell rings. What they like is seeing your face, hearing your voice, and experiencing your body language and tone a bit to allow them to create an inner voice for when they read your written communications. Don't be afraid to make a quick welcome video at the start of the term literally just to say “Hi!” and point them toward where to get started when they are ready or give them any first-week reminders. You could also do a syllabus overview video (do not read the document to them . . . really, do not!) that highlights important policies or include a quick screencast of a course tour to show them what is where. You do not have to watch your videos if you do not like how you look or sound on video (I rarely watch my own!). Videos establish your presence, set you up as the leader of the community, and get that trust to fall into place a bit, too.
Another idea to cultivate the three keys is to hold extra online office hours the first week of class to help establish your presence and build trust and the learning community, too. Each day during the first week, use your favorite conferencing tool to hold some virtual hours at varying times (include at least one evening offering) where you can answer questions about the syllabus or even just say “Hi.” Some of my favorites are Google Hangouts, Skype, and Zoom, but you might have access to tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect. The sessions are “drop-in chats” and are not formal, so a student can just quickly ask a question and go—there is no requirement to attend or participate or to stay once they log in. Some students log in just to see what others ask. For students who might not be able to make it but are curious about what has transpired, you can record the sessions and post them or type up a summary of the day's questions and share the answers. After that first week, maintain your normal hours. Scheduling these extra chances for a quick chat during the first week can help nervous students more than you might think.
Finally, I am also a big believer in how the syllabus can be an important retention tool during the first week. I use it not just to communicate policies and the schedule but to offer a cordial tone and encourage questions about the learning environment that we are going to build together. After the course policies, I include a section on what students can expect from me. During the first week, I often assign a “Building a Learning Community” activity. Completed via a discussion board, this activity asks students to share about three topics: what their best and “not best” teachers have done that helped or hindered their learning, what peers have done that has had a positive or negative impact, and what feedback they have on certain policies (e.g., academic integrity, late work, the weekly due date). Sometimes we make changes to the syllabus based on their ideas. One class thought having a due date of Saturday would work better than Sunday. This worked for me as well, so as a class, they decided by unanimous vote to change. That first-week conversation was mentioned in my end-of-term evaluations; students liked being asked and listened to. This quickly established my presence and their trust in me, and they worked as a community, building trust, and came to a decision that helped everyone be happier.
These are just a few ideas to get your class off on the right foot.
Wren Mills is assistant director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Western Kentucky University. Look for her 20-Minute Mentor multipack,
Three Keys to a Strong Start, from Magna Publications in September. Magna 20-Minute Mentors are video-based programs designed to answer a specific question related to teaching and learning. They deliver actionable insights in highly focused 20-minute presentations designed to fit busy schedules. For more information, click here.
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