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Helping students get off on the right foot in online courses

sue_frantz
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Remote work and online courses—both synchronous and asynchronous—existed before COVID, but COVID introduced many, many more people to this work/educational modality. And it looks like remote work and its educational counterpart is now a permanent part of our work/school landscape, whether employers or educational administrators like it or not.

Workers and students had been striving for something that felt like work/life balance. For those who can work/go to school from home, removing commute time and having our dogs under our desks and our cats on our laps (or on our keyboards) suddenly made it all feel more humane. While it is not for everybody, for others it has been a God send.

The Great Resignation has workers who are being forced back into offices to quit their jobs and seek employment with those who are happy to have quality employees who work from home. Career advisers have begun offering advice to people who are just starting in a new remote job (Dietz, 2022). As I read through the advice, there is a lot here for students as they start a new term with a new professor and new classmates.

“Ask how your [instructor] prefers to communicate”

As instructors, we should tell students how best to reach us—email, phone, office hours. When we have multiple options, providing some guidance on what modality to use for what can help. Short questions with (likely) short answers? Email may be easiest. Bigger issues that would benefit from discussion? Phone or office hours.

If an instructor does not share their communication preferences with students, students should ask.

“Ask for feedback sooner than later”

In the first week of the term, students should ask for a short five- to ten-minute meeting with their instructor to discuss instructor expectations. Even if no assignments have been scored yet, students can get an idea of whether or not they are on track.

For instructors who use an online booking service, such MS Bookings, YouCanBook.me, or Calendly, consider setting up a booking calendar with ten-minute meeting times for, say, the first two weeks of the term. Encourage students to make an appointment to meet with you as a quick, beginning-of-the-term check-in.

“Schedule meetings with your coworkers”

In an online class, it might be going a bit too far for students to ask a classmate for a phone call or Zoom meeting. However, if the class has a discussion board, students should take full advantage of it. Are there others in the class who have similar interests or concerns? A reply to those students—even if not required for points—can foster a feeling of connection.

As instructors, we can build our discussions to encourage connection. For example, in my weekly discussions I have a section where students are asked to share their good news from the last week. I assure them it can be anything, even eating a candy bar is good news. Pretty quickly, we learn about each student’s favorite activities: gardening, cooking, reading, sports, cars, movies, television, video games. I’ve heard from students who share similar interests connecting in real life.

“Send a quick ‘thanks’”

When students receive help from their instructor or classmates, it is good practice to reply with a thank you. In my discussion instructions, I encourage students to thank anyone who helps them. We can also help students express thanks. When a student emails me with a question, I always end my reply with “Does that help?” Most students take the time to respond with a quick “Yes, thanks!”

“Keep yourself sane with a routine”

For all students, having a routine is essential. For students who are taking asynchronous online classes, having a routine is crucial. It is too easy to not think about online classes. Students should be encouraged to set aside time in their calendar to work on each of their online classes, and then guard that time, just as they would if it were a time when then needed to be in a classroom. By looking at what is due and when in each of their courses, students can create a weekly work plan. For my Intro Psych course, I provide a weekly work plan students can start with and then adjust as they need.

If they’re able, they should create a space in their home where they go to study, even their bedroom floor will work. It just needs to be a place where going there tells their brain it is time to get to work. And turn off the phone.

Lastly, students should take breaks. Set a timer and every 20 minutes or so, get up, stretch, step outside for a little fresh air. Then go back to it.

“Be kind to yourself”

For employees, this is about recognizing you’re the new kid, and there is a lot to learn about the job and the culture of the company. For students, this is about recognizing that each instructor has different expectations and different assignments with different requirements. The first few weeks of any course is about sorting it all out and finding a rhythm. For students who are taking a full load of courses, there will be a lot of sorting to do. Assure students that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. It’s okay to say, “I can’t deal with this right now.” Take a longer break—take a brisk walk, visit a coffee shop, catch a movie.  

As instructors, we know that the skills students develop or further develop in college will help them in their careers, whatever those careers may be. If that career involves working with others remotely, taking synchronous or asynchronous online courses can only be a benefit.

 

Reference

Dietz, M. (2022, March 17). Everything you should do on the first day of a remote job. Lifehacker. https://lifehacker.com/everything-you-should-do-on-the-first-day-of-a-remote-j-1848666722

 

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.