Thursday, June 27, 2013

Communicating With New Online Learners Means the Difference Between Passing and Failing

by Tim Herrera

Online course instructors face many challenges when working with distance learning students. Instructors must be familiar with the material they are teaching and be comfortable with their content delivery models.

However, one of the biggest challenges comes in working with online students who are struggling, not only with the course work but with their own confidence as well.

Students who are new to online courses face a learning curve regarding class content and technology. In many cases, these students have not been inside a classroom for years, perhaps decades. They are not used to studying, taking tests, writing papers and receiving constructive criticism.

In the June 2012 issue of The Chronicles of Higher Education, Jan Philipp Schmidt, Executive Director and Co-founder of the nonprofit university Peer 2 Peer U, said students can be easily intimidated in their new learning environment and need instructor support to foster success.

"It's totally threatening to beginners or people who aren't doing super well. They don't want to ask questions, because they don't want to look stupid," said Schmidt.

The challenge for online instructors is to guide students, offer constructive criticism, work with them and bolster the confidence of students without the luxury of meeting face-to-face.

This means instructors must write frequent email exchanges and make personal phone calls in order to help and reassure students needing both constructive criticism and confidence.

For online instructors, the challenge is to understand the emotional experiences of online learners suffering anxiety and lack of confidence. Online students need a steady flow of instructor feedback to alleviate feelings of frustration which, in turn, can help build confidence.

Instructors also must stay heavily involved in discussion threads to develop a sense of community and increase student confidence. If students feel comfortable with their instructors, they are more willing to accept constructive criticism.

Because verbal cues are not available in asynchronous courses, instructors must interpret what their students need through nonverbal cues, what students write in messages and posts. When students reach out their instructors have to respond to keep students engaged.

That is especially true in the online environment which is void of personal, face to face contact, and where written feedback meant to be helpful to students can be mistakenly interpreted as negative.

As an adjunct online instructor, I find each student has different needs. On one occasion, I had a communication studies student who also was an English Learner. He struggled to express himself in discussion threads, but contributed.

However, the more extensive writing assignments stifled him. He went several weeks without submitting papers and risked failing and not graduating.

After several email exchanges, he confided in me that he did not understand the writing prompts due to his lack of expertise with English. He had anxiety, lacked confidence and believed the feedback he received was negative when it was meant to be constructive.

So, we worked out a system. For each writing assignment, I wrote specific prompts using simpler words. We exchanged several messages before he began writing papers. I gave him the opportunity to submit missed assignments.

On the day he received his grades and found he earned a 70.50%, he wrote me an email which read:
"... Mr. Herrera: I really appreciate that opportunity to show my self (sic) that I can do more and you are right if I showed this from the beginning the situation would be different! Thank you for all, you give that push to not decline in this goal I had! Without that push I wouldn't be able to say I graduate from college. Thank you, Jorge ...".

His message was, by far, the most gratifying I ever received as an online adjunct instructor. I learned from this struggling student that instructors can instill confidence in any student through constructive criticism coupled with communication and understanding.

Tim Herrera is the author of the e-book "What the Online Student MUST Know." It is available as a Kindle on

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