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Students will naturally start losing motivation in a college course over time. This is an even bigger problem in online courses, where students can easily feel distanced from the instructor and each other.  As an instructor, I notice this as a steadily deteriorating quality of student work during the course. But I found that scheduling a check-in near the beginning of the course will reverse the trend.  

I like to do the check-in soon after the start, within the first three weeks. This is to show students that I care and to nip any early problems in the bud. The check-in also helps establish a relationship with the student. From this baseline I can then follow up with more messages throughout the course, returning to issues that came up in the first check-in.

I divide my students into two groups for my check-in, those with a course average above 80 percent, and those below 80 percent. For those above 80 percent, I send out a simple email that recognizes their work. 

Congratulations on a successful start to our course! I didn't want your hard work to go unnoticed. You're doing a great job keeping up with the assignments and actively participating in the discussions. Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or concerns. Remember, I am here to help you throughout our short five weeks together. 

I will also add observations on things that they are doing particularly well and anything that they could still work on. Again, the point is to demonstrate that I am tracking their performance and am here to help.    

For the students below 80 percent, I look at what is bringing their grade down. Are they missing an assignment? Is the quality of their work below par? Are they not following assignment instructions, or omitting important components? I then send out a very simple email to those students that might have the following start. 

Subject: Is Everything OK?

I just wanted to reach out because I noticed that you did not get off to a great start in our course. Although you submitted all your assignments, your performance on them was not as high as it could have been. Please reach out to me if I can be of any assistance. Review my feedback to you on your assignments, and contact me if you have any questions on it. I want you to do well in the course, and I know that you are able to do it. Hang in there!   

After sending the message, I always find that many students open up and let me into their world. They explain why they are not performing well or why they were not able to get an assignment in. The information that they provide allows me to more effectively personalize my future communications with them. Instead of saying, “Why aren't you performing well on your work?” I can say, “I know it's tough taking care of a five-month-old, working full time, and going to school, but I know you can do it. Here are some tips for sneaking in some study time at different points throughout the day.”  

Students are always very appreciative and let me know that it meant a lot to receive that type of recognition. Here is one such response from a student. 

Wow!! Thank you!!! That means a lot. You are the first instructor to send something like this. I appreciate the positive encouragement.  

I have learned that the simple act of demonstrating your concern for students goes a long way. It can be easy for instructors to become cynical about student effort and fall into a “time clock” mentality of just going through the course motions. Students pick up on this and react accordingly. A simple check-in will make a world of difference in student performance. Since starting this practice, I find my students are more engaged in the course—posting in the discussions earlier, responding to more of their classmates' posts, and putting more effort into their weekly assignments. And to think … it all starts with a simple email.   

Alisha Etheredge is an adjunct professor of chemistry at Strayer University.