Sherri Singer is a professor and Department Head for Social & Behavioral Sciences at Alamance Community College in North Carolina.
Online courses present a unique challenge. How do instructors connect with students across the internet?
Many students view their online courses as paced homework that can simply be completed during the week at a convenient time, with little class interaction. These types of asynchronous courses are recommended to work within student schedules, but they create the illusion that there’s no class or instructor interaction. Some instructors have developed this viewpoint too—once their class is set up for the semester, the majority of their work is completed and all that’s left is to grade assignments. But as we respond to COVID-19 and transition to predominantly online learning, we have the unique opportunity to blend our classroom presentations with the popular asynchronous nature of online learning.
While designing your courses for Fall 2020, consider these five strategies I’ve used to bolster student engagement levels:
Be Ready to Teach on Day One
Regardless of the class format, students judge us on the first day. They ask basic questions to see if you’re prepared and check assignment dates to see if it’s an old, copied class. By being organized and ready on the first day, you will send a loud-and-clear message that you’re excited to begin and help them succeed. To ensure engagement on day one, students should complete the required course mechanic components—such as ice breaker assignments, enrollment verifications and a syllabus agreement—as well as be ready to begin classwork. Students appreciate hearing instructors say, yes the syllabus agreement is important, but let’s talk about the material.
Create an Organized, Intuitive Class Format
As classes move online, it’s imperative to lay out your coursework in a consistent, structured and intuitive manner. Moving between tabs to hunt for assignments and searching for due dates can be frustrating. Students need an easy format where all their assignments can be found in one place, with due dates clearly posted in a calendar—a printable course calendar to help them manage their time is even better! Starting your semester with an organized course shows students you are prepared.
Be Proactive with Your Communication
Communication is key to the success of every online course. General best practices recommend that instructors post welcome messages, weekly questions and assignments and testing announcements. However, effective communication must run in both directions. You need to create an atmosphere that encourages student interaction and questions. This starts with your profile in the LMS, which should include a headshot or image, a brief bio and answers to students’ most popular questions like how and when they should communicate with you, when they can expect a reply and what happens if they have an emergency. By attempting to answer their inevitable questions early on, you open the course up to begin with high-level discussions.
Offer a Variety of Assignments
Students appreciate creative assignments that force them to analyze the course content and apply the concepts in different formats or across disciplines. Asking students to communicate their responses in various ways or to craft unique assignments engages them on different levels. Try providing scaffolded assignments that encourage participation or ask students to submit paper proposals, rough drafts and final copies to allow for additional communication and opportunities to engage.
Be Present and Personable
Simple announcement emails are great for quickly pushing out class information, but if students are taking multiple online courses, much can get lost in the inbox. Being present and communicating inside the LMS is sometimes more valuable because you are communicating at the same place/time that your students are working. Try posting discussion forums, short video clips or other resources to help with their weekly assignments or offer one-on-one time with students for additional help. When posting, don’t forget to be personable! As an online instructor, I have developed a reputation for posting content-related memes. They’re silly, but they connect with students so much so that every semester, they’ve started emailing me some of their online favorites.
Carefully laid out courses and communication plans are a starting point for student engagement, but being a constant presence that teaches the material, directs discussions and interjects humor is the real secret to success. As instructors, we need to show our love for our discipline in our courses—whether they’re in person or online.