Dr. Kathryn J. Moland, PMP, is the Director of Distance Education at Surry Community College
I began teaching in the early 1990s by happenstance. I recall working as an IT professional when a colleague who taught part-time at a local college contacted me because the college needed someone to teach a new class about women working in corporate America. There were no real guidelines or even expectations provided to me, other than the textbook. I developed the instructional content based on the textbook chapters. I’d never taught before and stumbled through the first few weeks. It was very intimidating, especially considering this was a seated (face-to-face) class.
I enjoyed teaching the class tremendously and continued to teach part-time for almost 20 years before joining a college full-time as a Department Chair. Over the years, I’ve often reflected on how I’ve become a more effective teacher and the steps I have taken to ensure efficiency and classroom success.
Professional Organizations and Development
I found that by joining professional organizations, I can stay abreast of the industry I worked in professionally and now teach. I integrate my professional experiences into my lessons which generates great class discussions. Conferences and trainings help me keep my knowledge and skills updated so that I can better prepare students for their futures. I’ve even chartered campus chapters and taken students to conferences.
Research suggests attending professional meetings and conferences is great for professional development, but it’s also a great opportunity to network with other academicians. Many colleges and universities require a certain number of professional development hours each year, which instructors can obtain through professional organizations via local chapter meetings and conferences. My professional development endeavors help me to become a more effective teacher and identify the best course materials for my upcoming classes.
While I might use the same course materials for the same class from one year to the next, I do look for new course materials annually based on my professional development.
Course materials have come a long way since I first began teaching in the early 1990s. There are many options available for course materials—traditional textbooks, digital course materials, and open education resources. Some colleges and universities such as American University and The University of Texas at San Antonio have guidelines for selecting and adopting course materials.
When considering course materials, I ask myself how these materials will enable me to accomplish satisfactory learning outcomes. I prefer course materials that are realistic and interactive, while allowing me the flexibility to modify and integrate my professional experiences into the content. I have accomplished this using digital course materials and open education resources.
Irrespective of the option selected, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of the content and how you’ll use it to deliver instruction and meet learning objectives. I review the materials and modify as necessary as I prepare to deliver instruction. The review should not be taken lightly even if using the existing course materials.
Additionally, I communicate the required course materials and optional course materials to my students and explain how those materials will be used. I make sure to communicate this information in the course syllabus.
I use the syllabus as a contract between myself (as the instructor) and the student. As noted in Purposes of a Syllabus, the syllabus serves as a permanent record and a learning tool, in addition to a contract. I did not realize the significance of the syllabus when I first began teaching. My first syllabus didn’t contain sufficient detail. I omitted the assignment due dates. In subsequent syllabi, I omitted the late policy. This resulted in ambiguity and inconsistency in how each student’s situation and expectations were managed.
In addition to assignment details and the late policy, I now specify the turnaround time for assignment feedback and grades. I also include my contact information and availability, and of course, the required and optional course materials. I have gone as far as specifying required software and limitations on certain operating systems. With experience, I learned the significance of this contract and strengthened my syllabi so that all expectations are clearly defined and communicated.
Students might not always review the syllabus and may later question assignments and due dates. To mitigate this, I review the syllabus with the class at the start of the session, post syllabus review recordings in the Learning Management System (LMS), and create discussion questions and quizzes based on the syllabus to ensure the syllabus is reviewed. I communicate to students three times—three different ways—about upcoming assignments and due dates. I’ll post an announcement in the LMS, send an email, and text students using Aviso. I’ve found texting most effective.
Today, I continue to strengthen my syllabus because new situations arise that were not previously considered. For example, COVID-19 has changed the dynamics of the hard-and-fast due dates. I extend due dates to accommodate the impact COVID-19 has had on student success. Connecting with students so that they are comfortable communicating with me as the instructor is important to their success. This is especially true today when students are affected by COVID-19.
I teach today, not only to deliver the course content, but also to connect and build relationships with students. This can be a challenge teaching online. However, in order to mollify this challenge, I post my introduction bio with pictures of me doing the activities I enjoy. Students follow up with the same. We learn about one another through the pictures in our biographies, generating great discussion on a personal level. I also host virtual office hours and the occasional synchronous class for those who want to interact face to face.
I found that timely and detailed feedback is important to student success, and it bridges the gap to connect with each student. When I see students are not performing well in my class, I reach out using three different methods. I post a general announcement in the LMS that asks anyone whose grade is less than 70% to contact me. I also send a personal email, and I text students using Aviso asking them to contact me about their grade; there is still an opportunity to improve.
Respect and communication are key to student success. I communicate via the technology they are most likely to acknowledge and respond to, which historically, has been texting. I want students to know they can contact me about their class performance, as well as career advice and professional steps they can take to achieve their long-term goals.
Lastly, student faculty evaluations and feedback have sometimes been difficult to swallow. I do take the feedback personally to improve my teaching practices and course outcomes. There was a time I would not grant access to all assignments in the LMS. However, as a result of comments from students who wanted to work ahead, I now open all remaining modules after the third week of the session, allowing access to all assignments. For the classes I teach, there was no real reason not to allow full access to the modules and content.
The Journey Continues
I’m still learning after 30 years of teaching; efficiency is not always documented and sometimes learned on the go. To me, academics and teaching is a journey, not a destination, and there is always room for improvement. After 30 years of teaching, I still strive to find new ways to become a more effective teacher.
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