It used to be that students were expected to get all of their course information from the lecture, including the syllabus and announcements. If students missed a lecture, they were expected to ask another student what happened.
But students can forget about assignment deadlines, announcements, and the like because of a lack of organization or information overload. Allowing them to fail because of missing or forgotten information helps neither the student nor the instructor, who needs to do extra work for students who need to catch up. With today's ease of communication, there are simple ways to send students information that will save both students and instructors headaches down the line.
Angela Heath, who teaches mathematics, computer science, and business at a variety of colleges, writes in her blog about how she uses a weekly email class newsletter to keep in touch with her students. Not only do these newsletters remind students of important deadlines but they also help connect her with the class by offering interesting noncourse information. Including some of this information in your own class newsletter will greatly improve student engagement in your online courses. Here are some types of information to include in your class newsletter.
Personal stories related to class topics
It is easy to lose the human element of the subject when we teach it at a purely academic level, and without that element students often lose motivation to learn. Dr. Heath addresses this problem with personal stories about class topics. I like to do the same. In one case I introduced the topic of medical privacy in my health care ethics course with a funny story about getting undressed for a colonoscopy. This led students to offer their own medical privacy stories, which illustrated the various ways in which the issue comes up in health care, thus helping to motivate the topic.
Mention a current event
Whenever possible, Heath mentions a current event related to the week's topic. I also ask the students to offer their own current events as a way to keep students' eyes open for activities related to the course. You can also note upcoming events that students can attend. I remember an instructor I had in an art course in college began each class by asking students to shout out art events coming up. Just hearing about the events made me more interested in the subject.
Give students information about the class demographics
Students in an online course can come to see fellow students as just text on a computer monitor rather than as a real person. One way Heath combats this problem is by proving some demographic information about the class each week. It could be the states in which the students are located, their major distribution, the gender distribution, etc. This helps students see one another as real people out in the world rather than as generic students. Students might even start using this information to connect with one another. I have had students from the same state or with the same interests contact one another to chat outside of class.
Give students an efficiency tip
Heath often provides efficiency tips to students in her newsletters. I have found that a great way to begin my own online or face-to-face lectures is with a “life hack.” I tell my first-year students that the surest way to improve their GPAs is to always sit in the front row. I provide information on how I use Evernote to organize my tasks, how to label files so you can easily find them later, and how to manage bookmarks with Diigo. Of course, this also encourages students to offer their own life hacks to fellow students, which creates a community of students helping one another. Beginning with something of practical value to students is a great way to get their minds engaged in the course.
I am adding polling to the list as something that I have found helpful in engaging students. People like lending their opinions when it does not take much time, and opening a class newsletter with a single question is an ideal way to get them involved. One option is to make the questions related to the week's topic, such as asking during a week on genetic testing whether students would choose to have their own child tested for traits like Huntington's disease. They might also be related to the discipline as a whole, such as asking business students about their opinions on the most effective marketing media: TV, radio, newspaper, web, etc.
Besides these weekly informative emails, Dr. Heath also sends middle- and end-of-the-week messages to keep in touch with students. The middle-of-the-week messages are supportive, providing encouragement such as “Hang in there” and reminding students of deadlines. An instructor can also provide thoughts on how the week is progressing, such as whether discussion has been sufficiently lively, or by mentioning particularly interesting discussion comments.
The end-of-the-week email is once again primarily informative, covering deadlines and what is coming up the following week. I would also add a summarizing element, reminding students about what are the most important messages to get out of the week's content.
Heath, A. (2016). “10 Tips for Creating an Engaging Class Newsletter.”