Stay Focused During the Holiday Season

Priority – CC0 Public Domain
Priority – CC0 Public Domain

Thanksgiving approaches. The short holiday break is almost here. It’s a stressful time for all students, faculty & staff members in higher education. Here are some strategies to make for a productive and relaxing holiday season – or at least a more relaxing holiday season.

Make a List of Important Dates – November and December are prime months for term papers, presentations, and final exams. They are also busy months filled with teacher conferences, holiday parties, and winter concerts. So, list all the important dates you need to remember. Once you do that, you can start figuring out a more concrete schedule.

Prioritize – Not all assignments or events are created equal. You want to make sure you’re focusing your energy on the big-ticket items. Make a list of all the major assignments and the mandatory engagements. Figure out how much time you’ll need to devote to those obligations, and create a schedule that will allow you to make the most out of your time.

Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan – Develop a very detailed and thorough plan of attack. Allow plenty of time (hint: use your list of priorities mentioned above to create a realistic timetable). If you can, spread your work over several days. Avoid waiting until the last minute to write that term paper or study for that final exam. You’re more likely to do well and less likely to get overwhelmed if you take things bit-by-bit.

Practice Self-Care – The holiday season has a way of making even the most well-adjusted individual a little crazy. Likewise, the end-of-the-term chaos can overwhelm even the most diligent student. You add holiday madness to the end-of-the-term madness, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. What can you do to stay grounded? Make a point to do something for you. Take time for yourself every single day. You don’t need to jet off to the spa or go to a ballgame. Just set aside 15 minutes each day to relax – take a break from studying or holiday prepping. Practice self-care by:

  • Reading a book or at least a portion of a book (no textbooks allowed!)
  • Taking a walk around the neighborhood
  • Having an extra cup of coffee/tea
  • Having a nice glass of wine (only if you’re of legal age)
  • Completing a Sudoku, Word-search or crossword puzzle
  • Taking a power nap
  • Having a quick dance party
  • Work on a jigsaw puzzle
  • Meditating
  • Enjoying some holiday music

The holiday season can be a magical and joyous time. Stay focused and organized…enjoy it!


Ask Questions – If You Want Success In An Online Class

Building Community
Building Community

It happens before the beginning of every session. I will receive an email from an eager student who wants to know how to complete their first assignment. As always, I direct the student to the assignment requirements and the rubric. And I am always reminded, this is the student who will be my rock-star for the class. This is the student that asks questions…weekly and sometimes daily.

I see students from a variety of academic backgrounds, the students have a broad range of interest, goals and skills. However, the one thing that stands out to me time and time again is that my most successful students have one very important thing in common: they aren’t afraid to ask questions. 

So here’s the question: why is it so important to ask questions in an online class?

Gain clarity – most students struggle in online courses because they don’t understand the expectations or the requirements of any given assignment. As a student, if you don’t understand what’s expected of you…you can’t succeed. This is why it is important to ask questions to gain clarity.

Enhance understanding of the material – many online courses require the students to read a significant amount of material in a short amount of time. Asking the instructor some thoughtful questions is a great way to develop a more thorough understanding of the material.

Take ownership of the learning experience – online instructors try to meet the unique needs of all of their students. However they can’t provide students with the support that they require. As a student if you need an example or need more resources ask for those things. As a student you’ll be pleasantly surprised how willing instructors are to assist.

Show your instructors that you care – students are hesitant to ask questions because they’re afraid to admit they don’t understand the material. They don’t want the instructors to think they’re stupid. Asking a question can make yourself appear vulnerable, that’s understandable. However, instructors see your willingness to be vulnerable as a sign of your commitment to the course. Ask your questions to show you care about the course.

Ineffective vs. effective – not all questions are created equal. We’ve all heard that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there are questions that are ineffective, these questions will lead to less engaged in responses. When you do decide to pose a question, make sure it’s one that will get you results!

For example, avoid sending your instructor a late-night email that looks like this: “HELP! I don’t understand the assignment. What am I supposed to do?” That kind of email requires a lot of follow-up questions by the instructor. Instead, identify specific points of concern and ask about those. If you do, you’re likely to get a more engaged response.

Don’t ever be afraid to be that student, that does ask questions. Be the student who asks questions, sends emails, contributes daily….and enjoys a successful academic career!


Check-In With Students

Check-in – CC0 Public Domain
Check-in – CC0 Public Domain

There are many benefits to deploying a check-in exercise with students during the semester. Soliciting input from students can influence the students view as it relates to their roles as members of the learning community. This type of targeted feedback can also be valuable for both students and instructors about the learning and teaching that is taking place.

What do you want to learn about?

Faculty should ask themselves what they want to learn more about. When creating the questions to assess students consider the different areas about the type of information that you hope to gather. It might be helpful to revisit the course outcomes and the strategies that were implemented to determine what input from students would be the most helpful.

Also consider questions that encourage students to be specific and self-reflective. Some examples include:

  • What is working well for you in this class? 
  • What are you struggling with? 
  • What is helping you learn? What is not working? 
  • What could the instructor change to improve your learning experience in this class? 
  • What could you do differently to improve your learning experience in this class?

Faculty might also consider a series of Likert scale questions (1-5 with 5 = Strongly Agree and 1 = Strongly Disagree):

  • I am engaged in class
  • I learn the most from the lectures
  • I learn the most from the textbook
  • I am worried about my performance in this class
  • Technology has made this class challenging
  • I understand what I need to do well in the class

This type of information can be collected in the number of ways. For example, a quiz created in the LMS or a survey tool like Qualtrics or Google forms.

Share the responses

An important part of this process is to share the findings with the students in class. When results are reported back to students, this signals that their ideas have been considered and emphasizes that their time and thoughtful feedback is appreciated. Faculty value the students’ time and place an elevated level of importance on this exercise.

Look for the positive things that students have shared. It is important to know what is working well. Then move on to the areas of improvement. 

As the feedback is being reviewed attempt to sort the feedback into different categories. Are there common themes or overlapping comments being made? Identifying patterns can help efficiently make improvements. 

Let the students know that you’ve read the feedback, what you learned and that what you will be adjusting based on their input. Thank students for their comments and invite them for ongoing participation in helping to improve the course. Consider providing an overall summary of common ideas and areas where you’ve identified conflict between student perspectives. Ensure that you’ve provided a brief account of which of their comments are most common as you act upon them and also inform them that updates will be made to the next iteration of the course.

Of course there is no perfect time to deploy a check-in exercise. Many faculty have shared that a midway point of the courses is a good time to do something like this. Other faculty have shared that they do this 2 to 3 times throughout the course depending on a variety of factors.



Scaffold – CC0 Public Domain
Scaffold – CC0 Public Domain

What does scaffolding mean (in education)? This is the question I was asked recently during a meeting with a group of colleagues. I think this is a term that many of us have been using and taking for granted. Some entering careers in instructional design may not completely understand what the word means. I am finding that many of the folks I have been working with recently have not had the opportunity to teach a course of their own. Many instructional designers are working with faculty and subject matter experts that teach and have been for many years. So, when this question came up…we hit the brakes and had a conversation about scaffolding and shared some examples.

In the field of education, the term scaffolding refers to a process in which teachers model or demonstrate how to solve a problem, and then step back, offering support as needed. Psychologist and instructional designer Jerome Bruner first used the term scaffolding in this context back in the 1960s. The theory is that when students are given the support they need while learning something new, they stand a better chance of using that knowledge independently. Bruner recommends positive interaction and three modes of representation during teaching: actions, images, and language.

When leading in-person courses faculty may do a lot of modeling without even knowing that they are doing just that. For example, when faculty show how to solve a mathematical equation, they explain their thought process along the way. When faculty share examples, they are showing how to connect concepts for a deeper understanding. And, when faculty ask critical questions, they are modeling how those in that discipline make sense of theories and approaches to challenges.

Faculty have the opportunity to explain things, step-by-systematic-step, to help students learn and perform successfully on exams, projects, papers, and other assignments.

This kind of modeling and scaffolding doesn’t take place quite as naturally in online courses, where real-time interactions are limited.

To help students achieve success, faculty must be creative. Faculty should scrutinize their assessments, both large and small. Have the students had the opportunity to build step-by-step, as they would have in an in-person course? Do they have the knowledge and skills they will need to do well on the assessments?

Here are some examples of how faculty can scaffold activities in an online course. When possible, the faculty should make these an opportunity to give incremental feedback so students know whether or not they are on the right track:

  • Many faculty want students to record a video presentation of their research topics. It’s hard enough to give a good presentation without the video-recording element. Faculty can help their online students gain experience with the technology before they have to use it on a high-stakes project. For example, in the first module of the course, faculty can give the students a low-stakes, low-stress assignment: Ask students to record and post a two-minute video introducing themselves to the class.
  • As part of an orientation module, faculty can ask students to send a message using the LMS messaging/email system so they know how to do this later in the class if they have a question or are in need of support. Students can answer a question about the syllabus or list two goals for their learning in the course. Faculty should reply with a short personal greeting so students know the message was received and support is available.
  • During the first module/week of a course, ask the students to upload a PDF of their handwritten work related to solving some type of problem. This exercise will help them learn how to create, locate and submit a PDF file as an assignment in the LMS. It’s a good way to correct any missteps early on.
  • Another idea to consider is that of asking the students to create a concept map of what they already know about the topic of the course, during that first module/week. As the course moves along, ask students to submit a concept map to help them make sense of topics presented in each module/week.

Faculty should look for ways to break down complex tasks so that students can make progress in a timely manner and receive feedback on their work while there is still time to adjust their approach if needed.


Provide Directions & Explain Your Expectations

Directions – CC0 Public Domain
Directions – CC0 Public Domain

Faculty that stand in front of their students in a traditional classroom setting and assign work don’t simply hand out written directions without saying another word about the expectations. Faculty also do not simply display assignment directions on a PowerPoint slide without explaining what the expectations are or what students can do to be successful.

Unfortunately, this is often what happens in online courses. Directions often come in the form of written text. While faculty may feel that the writing is clear, but the nuanced detail that is usually provided in a traditional classroom is missing.

Faculty must remember that online students work in isolation. They don’t have the built-in opportunity to ask for, or receive clarification, while in-the-moment of first receiving assignment or project directions. This is why it is crucial for faculty to clearly explain what the expectations are in an online course.

Caution should be used to carefully create directions that don’t become overly detailed or provide pages and pages of directions that may be completely ignored by the students. Try to find that balance..the right mix. Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • If available, consider providing an example of student work that received high scores, an example that received an average score and an example that received a low score. A brief explanation of why each example received the score that it did will help students better understand the expectations.
  • Provide a rubric. In most cases, a simple rubric that outlines the EXCEEDS, MEETS and NEEDS IMPROVEMENT levels of achievement will help students achieve success.
  • Create a brief assignment overview video to go over the details that could be problematic for students. Generally, a 1 or 2 minute informal video will help students as they begin the work.
  • Create the directions in the form of a conversation that might take place with a student. Use bullet lists as opposed to long paragraphs that might be found in a text book.

So students don’t have to guess what the expectations are…provide meaningful support in a short and concise manner.


Visually Appealling

Colorful Eye – CC0 Public Domain
Colorful Eye – CC0 Public Domain

It may come as no surprise that students in a traditional classroom setting report being more engaged in their courses when their surroundings are more appealing. Students would prefer to learn in bright modern-looking spaces as opposed to older buildings that haven’t been updated for fifteen or more years, as an example. This does not mean that large scale renovations are or new construction is required on an on-going schedule that may not be sustainable. Small upgrades such as paint, fixtures and commercial-grade carpet can make a big difference in a traditional setting.

Students that attend courses online have similar needs related to being engaged in a visually appealing environment. Online courses can at times appear to be text heavy and boring to the students. Faculty and instructional designers can make some minor changes that can have a big impact in terms of presenting an appealing environment.

Faculty should give serious consideration to the look of their course, they may be surprised by what an impact a few small changes can make. Inspiration can come from favorite websites, magazines or online courses of their online-saavy colleagues. A great deal of time and energy has gone into the content for an online course, why not dedicate some additional time and energy into visual considerations?

A graphic designer or a degree in graphic design is NOT needed to make a visual impact in an online course. Text chunking is often the first consideration when addressing course appearance. Here are a couple of suggestions (Keep in mind that all visuals should be made accessible to all students):

  • Text chunking – the process of breaking down content into smaller, bite-sized bits of easily digestible information that are easy to comprehend, learn, and commit to memory.
    • Accessibility consideration – use the formatting tools in your text editor, such as heads and subheads, to enable screen readers.
  • Images – to start, look for simple images that are attractive and appropriate for the course. Many faculty will choose to use banners to introduce images in their course to help students understand where they are in a course. For example, Module 1, Module 2 etc. 
    • Accessibility consideration – images, graphs, and formulas need alternate text descriptions. For some images, when appropriate simply use an alternative tag to indicate that the image is decorative.
  • Videos –  another great way to make online courses visually appealing is to embed appropriate videos that are short in duration. For example, a 2-5 minute video that provides a general overview of the topic from TED Talks or YouTube are favorites of many faculty. Another popular option used by faculty are self-created videos for Course Tours, Module Tours and Assignment Overviews.
    • Accessibility consideration – all videos should be captioned or a written transcript provided.

Don’t let the need to add visually appealing elements to your course deny some students from being able to fully access the content. Universal Design Principles for Learning tell us that this additional support benefits all learners, not just those with disabilities.


Organizing Course Content

Course Organization – CC0 Public Domain
Course Organization – CC0 Public Domain

Over the years one of the things that online students share through their end-of-course surveys is that they can easily become frustrated, confused or disengaged because the course is difficult to navigate and find what is needed to be successful. When students have to use their cognitive energy to figure out where to access videos, discussions, readings and quizzes they have little energy left to engage with the content. This results in students who are less likely to engage and learn.

In both traditional face-to-face courses and online course offerings the organization and support services should be easy to locate. The sequence and the design of the content as well as activities should have some kind of system and purpose behind it. For example:

  • If students have to click out of a module and into another to simply watch a video that can be a distraction.
  • If students have to navigate away from a module to review a discussion board, it can sometimes be difficult to navigate back to the lesson.

Faculty in traditional in-person courses have the added advantage of giving additional verbal explanations and reminders about where items can be located in the course. The same advantage is not available for faculty that teach online. Faculty need to provide clarification and structure ahead of time to proactively avoid any confusion. A couple things to consider:

  • Faculty should take advantage of any functionality that allows them to view their course in the LMS as a student. Review the entire course from “student view”.
  • While viewing the course as a student, is it clear where items are located? Is there ever a time when it’s not immediately known what a student should do? Whenever possible provide additional text or guidance such as “click the SUBMIT link above to access the assignment submission area”.
  • Faculty should make the effort to provide any quick pointers or videos to help students along the way in their online courses.
  • Faculty should think about creative use of menus, modules and folders when organizing their course content. Minimizing the number of courses navigation items will help reduce any anxiety felt by students during the course.
  • Faculty should look for a way to find the perfect balance between a single scrolling webpage and an overwhelming number of folders and nested folders to hold their course content.

Overall faculty should strive for organization that is clear and intuitive. Faculty should help students move through their content easily so that the students attention will remain on the learning of the material and in being successful in the course. Faculty may ask an instructional designer for support in the area of course organization and also ask an experienced online colleague for help and simply providing an extra set of eyes on the finished course. Often times faculty are too close to the course content and are not able to see it from the perspective of a student.


Walk A Mile

Walk A Mile – CC0 Public Domain
Walk A Mile – CC0 Public Domain

When online students are in their class, they aren’t anywhere near the faculty member. The students aren’t there physically. Most online students do their coursework when they are alone, and that means either at home or in a public space such as a library or a local coffee shop. These online students are not able to simply raise a hand and ask a question or turn to another student who is seated next to them and ask for clarification. This creates a strong sense of isolation and sometimes overwhelming need for support. Much different then when classes are conducted in the traditional in-person setting.

Faculty that have taught in a traditional classroom setting can pick up on those nonverbal cues from students. It is much easier to determine if students are tuning out, becoming bored, not understanding or just confused. Faculty can make adjustments on-the-fly much easier in a traditional classroom setting. When working with online students faculty aren’t able to determine if students are puzzled over what has been presented to them or if providing simple clarification is needed. 

The question then becomes how do online faculty support online students just as they would in a traditional classroom setting. By walking a mile in the shoes of an online student faculty will be able to anticipate their isolation and plan for it in better course design.

Instructional designers will encourage faculty members to try to make sense of what is being presented on a computer screen. It’s necessary for faculty to get outside of their own head where their own online course makes perfect sense to them and everything is clear. Faculty need to try to envision how their students will experience the course. Some questions to consider:

  • If your online course uses discussions is it crystal-clear how long the students responses should be? And should students cite their sources?
  • Are there detailed grading rubrics being used for all assignments? Will students be able to view the grading rubric before beginning work on any particular assignment?
  • Will examples of successful projects, from previous semesters be provided to the students?

Faculty that are offering their courses online should work closely with an instructional designer, and if possible ask a trusted colleague to evaluate their online course and explore the course as if they were students. Faculty may be surprised by the feedback they get by following through on this course review exercise. Common feedback may include things such as course materials being presented in an unorganized fashion, intimidating tones being used in assignment instructions and a lack of clarity of what to do on the very first day of the course. Faculty should take whatever feedback is provided and consider making a few adjustments to the course.

In a perfect situation, students should know it exactly what is being taught and what they are supposed to do as a result. Online faculty must be intentional and put themselves in the shoes of the student and designing for clarity must be the priority.


You Do You – Just Be Yourself

You Do You – CC0 Public Domain
You Do You – CC0 Public Domain

Many faculty that enjoy teaching in-person report that they like to interact with students, share their experiences, passion for their field and be present when understanding takes place with their students. Faculty will often feed off of the energy from their students during classes that take place in a traditional in-person setting.

With online classes faculty may lose some of these built-in opportunities to connect with their students. This is starting to change. However, the primary vehicle for communication and online courses is still written, in one form or another. Presenting students with just a page of text can create high levels of anxiety and do very little to motivate students. How can we make this more personal and enjoyable four students and for faculty.

Video is a great option to deliver messages, lectures and class expectations to students in an online course. The best practice is to simply do what you would do in-person,  just be authentic. In other words, You Do You.

It will be difficult to avoid using any written content and an online course. The goal is to try to use your own unique voice in the course. Consider this for any lectures, course tours, lesson tours, assignment tours, answers to questions and weekly announcements. Here are a few things to consider in your online courses:

Support – when writing to your students be supportive. For example, DON’T SAY: “You won’t pass the class if you skip the quizzes”. An alternative here might be something such as: “Thank you for all of your hard work in this class. I know it can be tough to juggle online courses with other responsibilities. Don’t forget to take all the quizzes to help you be successful. Please contact me with any questions, comments or concerns. Looking forward to your future contributions. Thank you”.

Be Yourself – sometimes the obvious distance between the faculty member in the student and online courses comes across via written communications. Don’t add to this inadvertently, be mindful of your tone. Use a sense of urgency. For example at the end of your instructions you might consider using something such as: “please reach out to me at anytime with questions or comments of any nature related to this assignment. You can do this!” This will come across as being much more supportive than: “Questions – use the Q&A discussion forum.” 

A great way to bring your presence into an online class is to simply record yourself. This could be a simple as an audio recording, an informal video recording, or a more professionally done video created in a fully functional media studio. Your understanding of their needs will come across better using this type of technology rather than written communications. The audio and video recordings do not have to be professional. Many faculty will simply use a handheld smartphone to capture their thoughts in the moment and quickly share that recording to the LMS or video server if one is available.

Your online students will appreciate seeing you or at least hearing your voice as you talk about the content within the course. Many students have reported that they enjoy the informal nature of recordings as opposed to the highly rehearsed videos created in a fully functioning media studio. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake or allow a pet or child into the room while videos being created. This simply lets your students know a little bit more about you as a person and helps to build rapport which ultimately leads to retention. The goal is to simply find ways to be yourself in an online class using technology just as you would do you in a traditional in-person classroom.


Online Faculty Should Be Present In Class

Be Present – CC0 Public Domain
Be Present – CC0 Public Domain

In general, effective teaching requires that faculty be present with their students. When faculty are teaching in-person they don’t leave their students. In fact, in a traditional classroom setting faculty engage their students in a number of ways. For example, by answering questions, offering explanations, asking questions, providing leadership and guiding them through the course. Many faculty may arrive early to get ready for class and even stay afterwards to talk 1:1 with students who may need extra support. The bottom line is, these faculty are present and available to their students.

For many faculty who began their careers in traditional classrooms and have made the transition to online courses, being present in the class has been a challenge. Without a regular block of time to meet students in the classroom, prepare content and review student work many faculty may go several days without being present in a class.

A colleague of mine shared a simple suggestion for faculty that may be looking for opportunities to be more present in their online classes. This suggestion was to create a very basic calendar and consider how many hours a week is spent teaching them in person course. Perhaps it’s 10 to 15 hours a week if combining actual in-person classroom time with the time that’s needed for preparing content and grading assignments.

The idea here is to schedule the same amount of time to be present and engaged in the online class. Here are some tips that will help faculty be more present in their online courses:

Weekly announcements – this is a great way to provide an overview of what is expected during the week. This can be done in a couple different ways including a basic email or an informal video. For faculty that are comfortable with an informal video, a video of 1 to 2 minutes is suggested.

Response time – clearly articulate at the beginning of the class and during every weekly announcements that any questions that are received via email or through a question and answer discussion area will be replied to in a specified time frame. Most faculty report that they are comfortable responding to students in 24-36 hours.

Availability – holding regular Office hours and scheduling Time with students by appointment are both going to let students know that you’re available and willing to help if need be.

Discussions – be involved, engaged and talk with students in discussion forums available in the class. This is critical when working with students who have never participated and online class previously. Many faculty members make the mistake of assigning discussion items without clearly explaining or modeling what the expectations are.

Something to consider…faculty who self-report being more present and engaged in their online classes, also report having students who are more present and engaged in the class.