When you teach online, you’ll “meet” students from all walks of life.
They’ve arrived in e-learning territory for many different reasons.
You’ll probably find your students are a pretty diverse group!
Even so, it’s useful to know that many online learners tend to share three common characteristics:
- They’re overcommitted (they often work, and/or have family demands)
- They’re anxious (many have been away from study for years, and/or have never learned online)
- They’re isolated (they don’t know how to tap into networks of support in this new environment).
These characteristics often lead to specific kinds of behavior.
And when you’re new to online teaching, some of that behavior is completely baffling.
So let’s demystify things a little, by looking at some of the behavioral challenges you’re likely to encounter.
The 5 Most Challenging Behaviors of Online Students
(And How to Handle Them)!
1. Extremes of communication frequency
Some students express their anxiety by emailing you five times a day.
Others go to the opposite extreme: they respond to your messages with resounding silence.
What to do:
The Frequent Emailers are nervous.
They’re usually overcommitted, so rather than search for the answer themselves in the LMS, it’s easier for them to reach out to you every time they hit a snag.
The best way to deal with this kind of online learner is to read their multiple daily emails at the end of your day.
Then respond with a single message.
You’ll often find they’ve answered their own question by then (and there’ll be an email to tell you that, too).
Answering five messages a day from individual students is simply not feasible.
Unless you want to create a second full time job for yourself – one that doesn’t involve a salary.
The Silent Students are likely to be anxious, too.
The difference is that this group is unsure of how to ask for help.
Try sending out a bulk email to all students about ¼ of the way into the course and remind them you’re available to help them if they’re stuck.
A quick check-in mass email can winkle out the silent students, and get them moving forward again.
But be aware that an email like this will trigger an unpredictable number of student responses.
Don’t send it at the busiest time of your semester.
Try customizing this simple template:
We’re now about 1/4 of the way into the semester.
It’s fantastic to see the high quality of the work that’s been submitted so far.
I wanted to remind you that if you’re having problems with the course, please reach out to me with a quick email, and I’ll do my best to help you.
In the meantime, keep up the great work!
Sometimes student rudeness is the result of pure and simple panic.
Students may lash out because they’re stressed, disorganized and behind schedule.
Other times, rude student emails are simply the result of plain bad manners.
Either way, it’s unacceptable for students to be less than polite – to you, or to their fellow students in the forums.
What to do:
Try role modelling in the first instance.
Show them by example what polite, effective communication looks like.
This often has positive results.
I’ve had many students apologize after I send them a civil email answering their rudely-phrased question.
If role modelling doesn’t solve the problem, try pointing out that good manners are a basic requirement in your courses.
If this still doesn’t help (or makes the behaviour even worse) it’s time to refer the student up the ladder to your line manager for a formal warning.
If you need more hands-on help dealing with rude students, here are some additional tips:
3. Students with unrealistic expectations
There’s a common e-learning myth out there that new students often swallow hook, line and sinker.
They’ve heard that online learning will be easy, and relatively effortless – a little like an extended session on Google.
And so some students are genuinely astonished to discover that online learning involves a workload that must be managed, and assignment deadlines that must be met.
What to do:
In your welcome email, outline the level of work required in your course, and the approximate time investment needed. Point out that there are indeed deadlines for assessment, and these must be observed.
Explain the realities of online learning ASAP to students who were under the impression that e-learning will be just like browsing the internet for fun.
4. Students lacking the necessary study skills
Many online learners have been away from formal study for some years.
Others have had negative experiences with education in the past.
This subset of learners are worried about their ability to cope with the course, and rightly so. They commonly miss deadlines and are offended by even constructive criticism because they’re so frightened of failure.
What to do:
Direct them to the additional sources of support available to them.
These include Student Support services and Library-based resources.
Make a note on your class roll that this student needs extra support – and then ensure that your feedback includes plenty of encouragement where possible.
5. Students from particular demographics
Depending on what subject and level you’re teaching, you may find that challenging student behaviors relate to particular demographics.
For example, some of my students come from a trade background.
This group is highly practical, and used to solving problems hands-on in the workplace.
They often struggle with the more theoretical side of my courses.
E-learning can also attract many more older students than you may be used to teaching.
As online learning makes education more widely accessible, you might find yourself interacting with a range of different generations.
How do you engage students who are more used to being on the end of a spanner than a computer? Or those who have been out in the workforce (and doing just fine, thank you) for decades?
What to do:
Try to provide opportunities for students to relate the course material or assignments to their own, first-hand experience.
This enables theory to take on real-world relevance.
And at the same time, you help your students feel respected, by acknowledging the wealth of personal and professional experience they potentially bring to the table.
Older adult learners have some specific needs – here are some tips for helping them enjoy your course:
Yes, online students are all different…
But as you can see, there are still common patterns of behaviour you’re very likely to encounter.
When you understand where some of these behaviors are coming from, it’s easier to respond positively to a student who’s displaying signs of anxiety or fear.
With the right support and a little understanding, many of your students will be able to engage productively with the course, and achieve their learning goals.
At this stage in the course, you’ve learned a lot in a short space of time.
We’ve covered many of the basic survival skills you’ll need to make it on your own in an e-learning environment.
There’s just one more skill we need to look at – the art of self-preservation!