Online learning is challenging at the best of times.
Students have many demands on their time and energy, and study must be fitted in around those.
But a pandemic adds a new level of anxiety and overwhelm to the online study experience.
As teachers, what can we do about that?
How can we offer support to our online students, and actually make a positive difference for them?
Here are 7 techniques I’m trying right now.
1. Soften your language
Students are feeling more vulnerable right now – and criticism is always hard to hear.
The way you phrase your emails and feedback can have a big impact.
It can be strategically encouraging – or it can be a real de-motivator.
When giving feedback, make sure you include some positive feedback along with the constructive suggestions for change.
Offer specific recommendations, and explain how and why change is needed.
And critique the work, not the person.
Try saying: “The assignment needs to cover…” rather than “You haven’t covered…”.
This keeps the focus on the work itself, and stops it feeling like personal criticism.
2. Understand that anxiety levels are higher
My volume of student emails has definitely increased as the pandemic continues. Widespread anxiety translates directly into the study experience.
Students are asking more questions, double checking requirements, and worrying about deadlines.
This is the time to make sure all information is very clear and accessible in your LMS.
And an upfront welcome email that lays out requirements and deadlines can be a great way to orient your students and make them less anxious about what to expect in the weeks ahead.
3. Be friendly and accessible
If students need help, they need to know that you will offer it.
That welcome email, and an open invitation to reach out when they need help can make a massive difference to helping students feel they’re not alone.
You can change the course of a student’s year (and future) by offering support when they need it.
It can help them stay in the course, and eventually complete their qualification.
4. Offer extensions when appropriate
Under current conditions, many more students are needing extensions.
Last minute changes to work arrangements, more family obligations, or their own health mean that deadlines can’t always be met.
So it’s helpful to be flexible, when the reason is sound.
There are still deadlines and rules to be followed, of course.
Deadlines structure the course, and guide students to manage the assessment in manageable stages.
So deadlines are still necessary.
But sometimes – when it’s warranted – they can be stretched a little.
5. Use visuals strategically
As well as feeling more anxious, online students are often feeling more isolated than usual right now.
There’s an easy way to add some warmth to your exchanges with them – use visuals.
If you’re communicating mostly by email, make sure you’ve loaded a photo of yourself into your email client.
When your messages to students come through with a thumbnail photo of your face, it reminds them they’re being guided through the course by an actual human being.
And the strategic use of emojis can also add warmth to communications.
Keep it professional, of course – you don’t need to send unicorns and hearts. But a simple smiling emoji face can add a level of friendliness, and connection that reminds your students they’re not alone on this learning journey.
6. Point to other sources of support
Often students have no idea that there are many life rafts out there if they need them.
In addition to the one-on-one support you offer your students, there are many resources on call, such as:
- For IT problems, there’s the Help Desk.
- For academic issues, there’s Student Support.
- For health problems, there’s Student Health.
- For research help, there’s the library.
- For personal issues, there are student counsellors.
Students don’t have to struggle through any of these issues on their own.
But too often, they don’t know that.
So make sure they do.
7. Fear of technology
Not all online students are digital natives – especially adult learners.
My students come from a vast range of industries, and some have been in the workforce for decades.
Many have never studied online before.
They may be on Facebook (and they may not).
But many of them are certainly not tweeting and snapchatting all day.
And to some of them, learning technology is a definite barrier. It ranges from being a source of minor frustration, to a significant challenge.
So make sure your LMS is structured to be as intuitive as possible.
And be prepared to be a virtual tour guide through the course pages.
When helping overwhelmed students who are lost in the LMS, remember they need to calm down before they can ‘hear’ you.
I use this kind of wording for students who can’t find what they need:
- The assignments are under the Assignments tab.
- Due dates are in the Calendar.
- Study guides are in the Course Materials tab.
This simple approach not only calms the panic, but also underlines that things are structured in a logical way. What they need is right there; they just need to be calm enough to find it.
This approach is clear and reassuring, and it gently explains that everything is where they might expect it to be.
These are stressful times for everyone.
But if your students know what to expect and where to get help, they’ll feel less anxious and more empowered to achieve.
Graphics used under license from Deposit Photos.