Top 5 List – Ways To Be A Better Leader

Much has been written about the different ways to lead a  business or lead a team. Unfortunately some leaders underestimate the importance of leadership skills. Some leaders just don’t think it’s important or they value marketing, finance, sales, technical or other skills more highly. And other leaders simply don’t grasp what it takes to lead others in their own business or as part of a larger team – unable to judge how much others look up to them for leadership.

It’s rare to find a leader who truly cares about the people who work for them and knows how to grow a successful team or business. While at the same time building a loyal, productive, happy and empowered team. Here’s a short list of 5 things (plus a few things) that experts in the leadership development field have shared that will help leaders become better at growing their teams or their business.

Clear expectations – Everybody needs clear direction from the leader about where the business is going. Too many leaders believe that such things are self-evident. Expectations need to be articulated early and often.

Be consistent – Great leaders provide consistent messages. These leaders also make reasoned decisions without appearing to be arbitrary. This doesn’t mean they don’t change their mind. When they do change their mind they clearly communicate the reasons for the change going forward.

Relentless communication – Great leaders stay in constant contact with the people they lead. They don’t just check in from time-to-time via email or wait for others to come to them. They provide information, ask questions, and seek opinions. This does not require endless meetings, but it does require a measure of skill to make communications clear.

Seek input – Some leaders think that they have all of the answers themselves. Even if that’s true, the great leaders will still seek input from others. Successful leaders are decisive – they don’t put things off or offer half-decisions that leave people wondering what they’re supposed to do.

Avoid overload – Many teams and businesses may find themselves in the fast-paced environment with high intensity similar to that of a startup that feels like a 24/7 job. An environment with a significant number of emails and urgent projects debated all hours of the night and on the weekends, can overload a team quickly. Sometimes that goes with the territory. The great leaders are the ones who are sensitive to it and find ways to relieve some pressure by keeping meetings to a minimum and making them highly efficient.

BONUS: Culture – Great leaders recognize that most people want a work environment that’s about much more than simply earning a paycheck or collecting a bonus. Great leaders surround themselves with people who have mutual respect for each other and care about one another on a personal level. These great leaders recognize people as individuals not just as workers or staff members.

BONUS: Show gratitude – Great leaders live by the practice of “praising publicly and criticizing privately”. It’s amazing how gratitude and public praise can lift others and spur them to do more or to take on more. People simply want to be appreciated. Leaders who show appreciation by offering praise or gratitude will in return foster a team of individuals who are loyal and willing to go the extra mile to help the group be successful.

BONUS: Help others be successful – this is one of the fundamentals of great leadership. It’s one thing to praise people and quite another to constantly be on alert about what guidance and resources they need to be successful. It starts with leaders caring about others’ success as much – if not more – than they care about their own.


Say No To Being Time Poor

Like many, I’m time poor. (I actually think I may be bankrupt.) But, I’m learning a few powerful lessons during this stress test (known as the Global Pandemic) that I’d like to share.

Before You Commit to Anything, Get Clear on Your Priorities. You might think it’s crazy to take on all of these things that we do and I do agree, I’d also like to offer that all of these activities must be aligned with our top priorities. For example:

  • Family
  • Professional Development
  • Support & Service To Employer (and community)

For the record, I’ve said “no” to things recently, to make room for my “yes” replies When asked if I want to get involved in anything new, I say, “let me think about it” before I agree to move forward. Clear priorities give me guidelines on whether I should say “yes” to anything new.

You Can’t Do Everything. We all have limitations. What I’ve learned is that I can’t be everywhere at once, I don’t always make the best decisions, and there are others willing to step up and help when asked. To manage, we have to delegate and empower. Sometimes it’s hard for people to give up control as they assume more responsibility. You can delegate authority, but not responsibility. When you delegate authority, you give people autonomy – something we all crave. Any task that has been delegated can be a great learning opportunity for someone else.

Sometimes Good Enough Is….Good Enough. We’re all busy and in the greater scheme of our lives, things matter but maybe not as much as we think. When you’re busy, how you allocate your minutes is critical. During the week, there are things I spend time on and things I don’t. There are things that I perfect, and there are things I choose not to. In your world, you know when you’re trying to make perfect things that don’t matter. The key is being able to recognize when good enough is really good enough.

For all of us, we strive to feel full lives. I’ve given up on the idea that life can feel balanced – is anything ever really balanced?


Check-In With Students

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 a 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.


Online Faculty Should Be Present In Class

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.


Top 5 List: Ideas For Training Faculty

Training faculty often falls within the scope of work of those that practice instructional design and/or educational technology. This training can be challenging when it comes to the use of new digital technologies and tools. While some of my colleagues over the years have expressed how challenging this can be, I find that to be just the opposite of my experience. The training should focus on several strategies and this will lead to an effective and efficient outcome for all of those that are involved. Here are couple things to consider:

Relationship building – this strategy will offer the opportunity to apply newly acquired knowledge directly into daily practice. Building a professional relationship allows the person doing the training to better understand the baseline knowledge and comfort level of the individual receiving the training. This allows open communication that can lead to possible opportunities for collaboration in the future.

Staying informed – research is a very important part of training. To research the latest trends in higher education, instructional design and learning in general can serve as a starting point for training development. Many times faculty are not able to articulate what they need because they don’t know what the options are.

Walk the walk – the person conducting the training should have an inside scoop on what is involved in teaching courses prior to conducting any training. A key ingredient will be that the trainers have first hand knowledge of the entire process of building a course: designing, developing, implementing, assessing and revising.

Build bridges – instructional designers have the opportunity to view a variety of courses across different disciplines. This offers a unique perspective and can often serve as a bridge between faculty members. Many times faculty would like to collaborate across disciplines but they’re just not aware of what others are doing. Sharing information across disciplines will benefit all involved in the process.

Leadership – successful instructional designers that do training proactively support faculty and allow faculty to share experiences with each other. One of the ways to do this is to establish an online faculty learning community within the institution. In this space ideas can be shared in an effective manner. Once established,  some of the things it can be shared include job aids, quick tips, best practices and other digital tools to increase efficiency and improve student outcomes.


Top 5 List: Help Students Find Success In An Online Course

Many more students are finding their way to online courses than ever before. These students are looking for a convenient way to earn college/university credits from their home. Online coursework requires a tremendous amount of discipline and dedication and unfortunately many students are not prepared for an online learning environment. Students cite having a misconception about the rigor and underestimating the time involved to be successful as the top reasons for struggling in an online learning environment. Students may need help understanding how much time is needed to complete assignments, participate in group work, group discussions, quizzes and other assignments required in the course. It is important for the instructional team to help set the pace and the expectations of the course to help the students to succeed. Here is a Top 5 list of things that instructional teams or individual faculty can do to help students prepare for and succeed in an online course.

Use Weekly Announcements – weekly announcements are a great way for individual faculty or instructional teams to remain active in an online course. At a minimum consider an announcement to open and close each lesson. This allows for clarifying directions, reminders and motivation that will help students see that they have support along the way. Many faculty are turning to audio and video options to help communicate each week. A weekly screen-cast [lesson tour] will help students prepare for the material and be better prepared for the expectations. AND…these weekly screen-casts will help the other members of your instructional team understand the expectations as they prepare to work with their students.

Proactively Answer Questions – instructions must be easy to find and easy to follow. No detail should  be overlooked and step-by-step directions should be provided. Don’t make the assumption that your students or your instructional team will read between the lines to determine what the expectations are. Provide as much detail as possible to help complete the assignment. Consider providing a screen-cast where more detail can be shared about the type of files that will be expected, the naming convention of the files and the size of the files. Think through the questions that students might have when reading through the directions and try to address those questions by crafting well-written directions.

Utilize Peer Groups – collaboration is a new-century skill and should be encouraged as you move through the course. As the peer network starts to take form students will begin to rely on each other [the peer support network] and not rely so heavily on the instructional team. Online students often report feeling isolated and the experience does not have to be that way. Students need to learn to develop their own online support community and the instructional team  can help facilitate this. Students that report feeling like a valued member of their peer community are less likely to disappear and not complete the course.

Rubrics and Examples – in an effort to minimize questions from students [and the instructional team] and reduce course anxiety share examples of assignments from previous offerings of the course…or that you have prepared yourself. For presentations, share templates of what is expected and consider including more detail within the template. Additionally, rubrics should be provided up-front…again in an effort to reduce questions and assignment anxiety. Rubrics should be provided for all assignments and discussions that are graded. Students who have access to a rubric before they begin their work and know how they are being evaluated are more likely to successfully complete their work. Rubrics also work with you and your instructional team to help ease concerns over point deductions and grades that are being awarded.

Differing Instruction – we all learn differently and the online student is no exception to this. Students need to be given different opportunities for learning. Consider using video lectures, audio lectures and different project choices. For example, a final project might be presented as a choice between a formatted paper OR a narrated presentation. Giving the students options that maintain the rigor of the project will lead to an engaging and fulfilling experience.


Top 5 List: How To Be Human In An Online Learning Environment

Online courses can often feel like a lonely place due to the lack of presence of the instructor and other students. This lack of presence can have a negative effect on learning and lead to lower retention levels. Feedback is an essential way to create presence. Feedback can be offered in many different ways. Here are a few things that we can do to help add a human feeling to online courses by using feedback:

Discussions – instructors should participate in the online discussions at least once a week to let students know that they are there, yet being careful not to take over or steer the conversations. Simply provide feedback and ask open ended questions.

Email – send individual student emails to complement them and comment on their work. A simple question such as “How are you doing?” can go along way.

Announcements – as you find relevant resources during the course provide a link in the announcements section of the course. Additionally add a sentence or two that ties this resource back to the course content. This provides a clear indication that the instructor is active in the course.

Surveys – adding surveys or polls can add a human element to the course. For example, a strategy that I have used in the past is the one-minute survey that simply asked two questions. The first question is “What is being done well in the course?” and the second question is “How can the course be improved?”

Icebreaker – at the beginning of the course you present some type of icebreaker activity to gather student information that will be useful later in the course. For example, what are the students work experiences? Have they created a portfolio? What would they like to do in the future? These questions not only make the online course more personal it also values them as individuals by recognizing their experience.