My students participate in an activity called “Building a Learning Community” during the first week of classes. In this activity, completed via a discussion board, I ask them to share about three topics: what their best and “not best” teachers did that helped or hindered their learning, what peers have done that has had a positive or negative impact, and feedback on certain policies (e.g., late work, deadlines). The answers have taught me a lot about online teaching, and my responses on these boards provide the students with insight on what they can expect from me.
Students report that their “best” teachers had multiple ways to present ideas and were relatable and involved. They also enjoy lessons that include more than just reading the textbook and watching a lecture, lessons that, when appropriate, incorporate outside videos, other materials, or instructor-made videos to demonstrate concepts covered in the lecture and/or text. They typically define “relatable” faculty as those who make their enthusiasm for their topics and their students' successes visible even through cyberspace, who talk “to them” about topics in lectures rather than “at them,” and who invite questions in person or virtually. Those identified as better teachers were those who make it clear they read discussion boards, either through being “on the boards” with the students or via the feedback given. Those instructors also tended to send a weekly message to wrap up lessons, preview the upcoming week, or comment on a common issue that might have come up in the class. These instructors were visible and obviously “in the class” with the students, being more of a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage.” The less effective teachers read straight from slides with no elaboration during video lectures, rarely encouraged students or gave much feedback, weren't attentive to class concerns, and failed assignments for reasons such as formatting not being 100 percent correct. Students most commonly express frustration with past instructors who did not return emails or phone calls.
I began implementing these suggestions by providing students with examples of work from former students, including acceptable and substandard discussion posts and responses as well as sample papers and project video presentations. Rather than just assigning a textbook chapter, I provide them with mini-lectures, tip sheets, links to other articles or videos on the topics, and even screencast tutorials for certain technical skills we'll use (e.g., annotating PDFs, using Track Changes and Comments in Word). The few videos I have made for them build on what is read in the text and seen on the slides—students cannot just read the slides and get all of the information they need; thus, the videos are worth watching. One key to these varied materials is to determine what is essential for students and assign those pieces, but clearly label all others as “optional.” It is easy to “bloat” a course and overwork students, and I am mindful of how much time I am expecting from them each week. To make sure I am relatable, I respond to each student's introductory blog entry and share something we have in common. I also share as part of my introduction “family pictures” of my dogs, cats, and chickens (and my husband, of course!) to help them see that I, too, have a life outside of class, just like them. I am also mindful of the feedback I give to students because of their experiences with faculty who refuse to grade or give very low grades due to formatting errors, because that type of “feedback” does not help them know what to do better the next time (develop their ideas, pay attention to audience or organization, use stronger transitions, find better sources, etc.). My feedback always includes personalized comments on each student's efforts, not just a generic “great job” or “needs more detail,” and if their formatting is off, I correct it and might deduct points, but I would never dream of failing a paper because of a missing header or the like, though apparently some folks do. Last, my policy on responses to their emails and calls is clear: they will hear back in 24 hours or less. And they do! I do all of this not with the aim of becoming one of their “best” teachers but because it helps them have a better learning environment and better chances at being successful.
Students also report that they prefer true conversations about class topics rather than just unanswered postings on discussion boards. They value genuine interaction and peers who offer encouragement and help if someone is off base in his or her ideas. They say it is easier to learn when there is a true connection with their peers and their instructor and when the instructor lets the students have some say in the class conversations or choice of topics to cover. However, when classmates do the bare minimum or don't interact, or when the instructor ignores questions or keeps pushing forward in a class that is clearly getting behind, learning is negatively affected.
To cultivate the genuine interactions that students want, I am deliberate in structuring my discussion questions. For example, in my leadership course, I always have students discuss the week's concepts in relation to an experience they have had in their lives as leaders or subordinates. This helps them link the new concepts to prior knowledge, something fundamental in committing an idea to memory, and it makes the boards more personal and interesting to respond to, thus generating a truer conversation and exchange of ideas. I also give, from time to time, the option to “do this or that” to allow students to dig into a topic they connect with more than another. In my English classes, I allow students to choose the topics we'll cover from a list that I provide. Those with the most votes win, I supply articles on those topics for them to read and use in their writing, and even then, they get to choose 2–4 of the 10–12 that I share. Allowing for this flexibility helps them feel more in control of their learning, and it keeps things fresh for me, too, not teaching the same units and reading papers and discussions on the same topics each term. I have also taken time to extend deadlines if needed or to provide additional supplements if I see a class stutter on a topic—I do not simply push forward just to get through material. Again, I'm working hard to create an environment that will best support students' learning, and that might change a bit with each cohort of students.
The most common policies that students comment on are those about late work and due dates. Sometimes we make changes to the syllabus based on their ideas. I do explain to them why I don't allow late work, because that is one policy that is always questioned: students who get behind rarely perform well for the rest of the semester. An example of a change made by my hybrid class last fall concerned due dates. During the first meeting, they admitted Sunday as a due date wouldn't work for them, because they would procrastinate on their preparations for the Monday class meetings. They asked if we could change to Saturday. This worked better for me, as well, from a grading/feedback standpoint, and as a class, they decided by unanimous vote to change. That first-week conversation was mentioned in my end-of-term evaluations, too: students like being asked and listened to.
Ask your students what makes for a good teacher. The answers can only improve your teaching.
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 in Online Teaching, from Magna in September. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to https://www.magnapubs.com/online/mentor/index.html.