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.


Help Wanted

Help Wanted
Help Wanted

Once you have set aside the time and have the energy to dig in and create or improve your online course(s)…don’t do it alone. Ask for help. Take advantage of the many resources and support teams within your institution. If need be, look for help from others that may be outside of your institution. Here are a few ideas to consider:

Mentor – Look for an individual who has some experience teaching online. This doesn’t need to be a formal mentor relationship, just someone who’s been down that path already who can share some words of wisdom. Teaching online courses is a skill that is unique from teaching classes in person. Take your time and find someone who is comfortable teaching online and learn from their experience. Be selective and look for someone who is thriving and willing to share not only their successes but some of their failures.

Colleagues – Remember you’re not the only one trying to create an excellent experience for your students. Look to your colleagues who are also trying to be excellent online teachers. A great way to discover new strategies and ideas is to interact with those who are also wrestling with the same teaching issues. If you have regular meetings with your colleagues you might consider adding a brief 5 to 10 minutes Block of time to simply share a tip or strategy related to online teaching. Another strategy that many faculty find useful is the idea of a shared reading experience or a book club. Other faculty have pursued workshops, faculty showcases, and conferences to learn more about what other faculty are doing within online education. The bottom line here is to commit to learning and learning and other faculty members.

Instructional Designer – While you are the expert in your field you might consider seeking help from an instructional designer or a learning designer. Individuals that work in these roles are experts in effective online teaching and learning. This relationship could consist of a conversation over a cup of coffee, a 15-minute conversation to brainstorm new ideas or a longer meeting(s) that include a complete course design or redesign. Designers can significantly improve your experience and enjoyment with online teaching. Your students will be glad that you invested the time and energy.

Teaching online for the first time may feel overwhelming. Start with the basics and take your time. Once you have that first course completed it’s time to improve. Start with small things to improve upon… pick just one thing. When you’ve completed that first thing, simply move on to the next. Experienced online faculty will tell you that your course is never perfect. Take your time and commit to constant revisions. Seek new and better ideas…always!


Myth Buster


There are many online teachers that are dedicated to the modality and have figured out some great strategies and best practices. However, there are a few myths about online teaching and learning that still exist. Here are a few:

Teaching online is not an enjoyable experience

Many teachers in higher education don’t see online teaching as a rewarding experience. In fact, many teachers report that teaching in-person is a much more rewarding and enjoyable experience. Perhaps this is because teachers that have made the switch to on-line teaching find they are doing much more administrative work than expected. If teachers simply log on, grade student work, review discussion posts, and manage other basic functions it may seem that this modality is not going to be enjoyable.

Teaching online courses can be very rewarding. From my own experience and experience of some of my closest colleagues, I would say that a majority of the online students are not only working but are also caring for children or other members of their families. These students take online classes because it’s the only way for them to pursue higher education. Many online teachers report getting a closer glimpse into the personal lives of their students, those experiences, and those challenges that the students choose to overcome when taking online classes. An experienced colleague of mine recently told me that the opportunities provided by a classroom without walls and across great distances are how they find joy in teaching online.

Teaching online classes doesn’t work

In 2017, EDUCAUSE conducted a survey on faculty and information technology and discovered that approximately one-half of these faculty didn’t agree that online learning was effective. There is plenty of evidence that online courses can produce student learning outcomes that are comparable to those in-person courses. This evidence continues to roll in year after year. Just like any in-person class, the high-quality on-line versions will require excellent on-line teachers. It is the responsibility of the teachers and the designers with which they work to create a highly engaging and effective on-line classes.

Students that take online classes are lazy

Some students that take on-line classes may put in a minimal amount of work, and just enough to get by with. Does this mean that lazy students are more likely to take an on-line class? Or have we as educators created an environment on-line that contributes to this type of student disengagement? Things to consider:

  • Are we offering these courses to a student population that is more likely to be working and raising a family?
  • Are we offering these courses to students who do not have the adequate equipment to be successful?
  • Are we asking faculty without experience in on-line education to lead these courses?
  • Are we presenting an unorganized and confusing course design that is less than appealing to the students?

Any one of these items can make on-line learning a challenge. A combination of two or more of these items can be a disaster.

Successful online learning requires a certain level of skill that some students simply do not possess. This means that on-line students must be able to manage their time well, motivate themselves, direct their own learning, and seek help when it is needed.

Successful online teaching requires that faculty make an extra effort to help those students persist. This takes awareness of the challenges of on-line education as well as careful thought, expert planning, empathy, and a high level of comfort with technology.

Online courses can run on auto-pilot

Some on-line teachers subscribe to the idea that on-line courses, once created, can simply be run by themselves and students can successfully meet the objectives. Maybe this is because online courses take such a tremendous effort to prepare before the very first day. In theory, all assignments, activities, discussion prompts, and the gradebook should be created in advance so that students can see everything from the first day. Unfortunately, some online teachers feel that students should be able to walk themselves through the on-line course without much engagement or guidance from the teacher.

On-line teachers should plan to guide their students through the course by being active and engaged weekly. Best practice includes blocking out time on the weekly calendar as if you’re attending the class in person. Be available, post announcements, reply to discussions, and grade students’ work on a regular basis. Just like an in-person course, teaching online requires continuous involvement from the teacher.


Continue to Improve

Top Five List – CC0 Public Domain
Top Five List – CC0 Public Domain

Good teaching, like any other profession, requires continuous improvement in order to create the best experience for students and faculty. A small investment of time and energy will help faculty develop as a professional, regardless of the modality in which they teach. The smallest of efforts can lead to BIG impacts.

Teaching online is still a relatively new method of delivery when compared to teaching in person, here are a few things to consider to improve the experience:

  • Use a RSS feed or email to subscribe to articles related to teaching and learning
  • Seek out best practices be used by other faculty members – ask what others have done 
  • Read books and consider joining a book club that reviews effective strategies to be used with students
  • Enroll & participate in workshops that are offered by your institution or technology vendor
  • Get Help – ask for student volunteers to help run discussions, manage technology, and assist other students that may have questions

Pursue your own professional development as a commitment to yourself and student success. Sharing what you have learned with other faculty and your students will not only engage those involved, but will also energize you.


Invite Students to a Pleasant Place – Your Online Class

Smiling Faces
Smiling Faces

Faculty are faced with a few hard questions about the online classes that they lead. If being honest, many would admit that they do not enjoy being online as much as the in-person environment. This might explain why less than 10 percent prefer to teach online exclusively.  Here are a few of those questions:

  • Do you enjoy being online?
  • Do you prefer interacting with students in an online environment?
  • Do you look forward to communicating with students online?

If you don’t enjoy working in an online learning environment, imagine what this might be like for some of the students.

Faculty that teach in-person do many things to help make students feel comfortable in the physical classroom. Smile, greet students, use eye contact, and answer questions. Even when the physical space may be less than attractive, there are many ways to make the space more welcoming and comfortable for all.

The same strategy can be applied to online learning environments. Making the effort to ensure an inviting, comfortable, and  pleasant online learning space will create a more favorable learning environment.

Students will be comfortable and enjoy being in your online class if you:

  • Use interactive tools for engagement such as media and visuals.
  •  Minimize the amount of text being used in general. Streamline course navigation and organization. Less is more.
  • Encourage participation and create a positive/optimistic experience that speaks to student success.
  • Show compassion and care for your students in both a private and public way.
  • Be respectful of the students’ time by being present, engaged, and punctual.



Don't Tell Me - Show Me
Don’t Tell Me – Show Me

Faculty that have taught an in-person course(s), have had the experience of students raising their hands when they don’t understand something. It is during these times that faculty rely on examples to help the students better understand the content. Faculty come up with examples from different areas of life. For example, their own personal experience, professional experience, or current events that are taking place. These examples help the students to better understand the information in a way that is meaningful to them. The examples used in online teaching are even more important to your students.

A variety of examples can also benefit students that are completing their courses online. A couple of suggestions are:

  • Locate existing videos that present topics from a different perspective.
  • Record a brief conversation with a guest speaker that allows students to hear from an expert in the field.
  • Create opportunities for students to explain/explore the content together. Students are more likely to develop explanations that make sense to their peers A good example of this is to create small semester-long study groups (or community of learning groups) that will allow the students to discuss course concepts along the way.

Faculty will need to find the right balance, when it comes to the numbers of examples provided. Whether the examples are presented in the form of videos, slide presentations, or additional readings faculty should make it clear what is required and what is optional material. There will be need to be careful so this isn’t received simply as “busy work”.

Showcasing the work of students that have taken the course previously is another way to help students better understand the content. Examples of work submitted by students in previous semesters can be done in a couple of different ways. Perhaps, the less complex projects can be shown in full, while the more complex projects can show examples of certain segments of the overall project.



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.