Whether you’ve always taught online or are getting your first taste of online instruction this past year, you’re likely well aware of the challenges that come along with not being present with students face to face. It can be easy for students to fall behind or to feel like they aren’t really connecting with instructors, fellow students, or the material being taught.
Research has shown that one thing that can help is checking in with students. There are a wide variety of ways this can be done and you may want to use several different methods throughout the duration of your course to help keep everyone on track. Here are some ideas we think can be helpful:
Check in often. It’s not uncommon to check in with students in the middle of the term, but with online learning, it may be helpful to do it a little more often. Ask students if there are things that are making it hard to complete their work, what’s going well and what isn’t, etc. This can be especially important for students who are struggling.
Use low-stakes assessments to check student learning. If you want to keep tabs on student understanding in your course before any major work is due, it can be useful to roll out some low-value assignments or quizzes. These won’t wreck anyone’s grade, but can give you some insights into who is doing well and who might need some additional support.
Make sure students know expectations. While they might seem obvious to you, often, students are unclear about just what is expected of them in online courses. They underestimate the work they will have to put in and undervalue the time it will take to participate in online sessions or discussion boards. Make sure students know very clearly what is expected, due dates, and other important course information. You may even want to send out periodic reminders throughout the term.
Offer multiple opportunities for engagement. Students can sometimes feel like they’re all on their own when they’re taking an online course. Fostering a sense of community and giving students a wide range of chances to engage with others can be key. Office hours and synchronous sessions can help, but you may want to also try tools like Flipgrid and Perusall to offer more choices.
Use the data. You can see who is attending live sessions in Collaborate, who took your online tests and how long it took them and who watched your YuJa videos. There are other data points as well, which while they don’t give you a total picture of your students can be nonetheless useful to help you see who is engaging and who is checking out.
Be proactive. When it comes to checking in with students, early and often are the best ways. It’s much easier to help a student avoid getting off track than to help them get back on track. Additionally, while a student might be fine at one check in, things change and they may need more support later in the term.
Be mindful of technology challenges. Not all students have the latest gadgets, high speed internet, or in-depth technical knowledge. Be mindful of this and use similar tech tools throughout the term when you’re interacting with and checking in with students. They shouldn’t have to learn more than a couple of tools to complete your course. Even with that, make sure to check in to see if any students are having technical difficulties.
Build instructor presence. Instructor presence is a topic all its own, but its an essential component to supporting your students. We go into the details of it here, but it can be as simple as asking students to share their best moments of the week, meeting with them in office hours, or creating weekly videos.
Offer options for success. A certain degree of flexibility is necessary during these unprecedented times. When you are checking in with students, some may really be struggling with certain types of work or technology. You may want to offer some alternative ways to complete course work or interact with you that work better for these students.
Don’t forget about mental/emotional check ins. This has been a very stressful time for many. Sometimes, it’s nice to just as “How are you doing?” It doesn’t have to be related to the course. Your students might benefit from being able to vent or feeling that they can share their struggles with you. You may find that knowing these things helps you better understand your students and tailor your expectations of and your support.
Survey students. One thing that can be useful is asking students throughout the term what is working for them, what they want to see more of, where the class is lacking, etc. Sending out even a short three or four question survey can give you a better understanding of how the course is going and where you should put your efforts going forward to better support students.
Interact beyond the LMS. While it can be great to keep things solely in the LMS, some students would prefer support by text, phone or email. Make sure they know this is an option or take the initiative and reach out to them yourself at periodic intervals.
Schedule meetups. Conferences shouldn’t be just for K-12. Higher ed students can benefit greatly from a quick check in about how they’re doing in the course. You can set up quick online meetings to discuss grades, trends, or anything else you want. The idea is just to get some face time with every student.
Work with students in small groups. One other idea to check in with students is to use small groups. This can be helpful as it takes less time than meeting with everyone individually and some students may feel more comfortable being among their peers. You can use these sessions as a chance to talk about how everyone feels at this point in the term and what other kinds of support they might want, how projects or writing assignments are going, or to prepare for tests.
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