Connecting with Students in an Online Class

Relax. Deep breaths. It is going to be okay. How many times do you say something similar in face-to-face classes? After giving out assignment directions, what kinds of additional verbal instructions or tips do you offer students? These unplanned pep talks and additional information help reassure students and provide needed additional guidance beyond the written directions.

How can these spontaneous communication moves translate to an online course setting, especially if the course is asynchronous? We have found a variety of ways to incorporate additional snippets of communication into an online chemistry course. The proactive, anticipatory communication practice implemented in this fully online, asynchronous course helped reduce student concerns, address assignment questions, and foster an encouraging learning environment. These strategies, described below, apply to many different disciplines and modes of online classes, including synchronous and hybrid courses.

Initial communication

Setting the tone with early, regular, open communication is important in an online course. In our chemistry course, we contact students after registration with a syllabus draft and explanation of how to complete labs in their homes—a major and understandable concern. This initial email also includes descriptions of course materials, deadlines, and encouragement to message questions throughout the course. Email response time—within 24 hours for the chemistry course—is clearly stated, and we remind students to resend questions if the window of response time elapses.

Depending on your institution’s learning management system (LMS) and LMS settings, your students might not automatically know when an online course is open. For the chemistry course, the instructor emailed students with instructions on how and when they should start working in the course, as students do not always recognize the start of an online term. This email included specific examples of situations where students might contact the instructor in order to model how to use this communication opportunity. For example, chemistry students might want to ask about a questionable experimental result or need guidance to determine whether a source is appropriate for use in an assignment. Moreover, the instructor sent out daily announcements, including course reminders, assignment tips, and personal stories about the instructor. Sharing personal details, ranging from experiences as an undergraduate to stories about current summer travel, helped put students at ease with both the instructor and the course.

Student communication

Communication can go beyond professor-student interactions. In face-to-face courses, there is considerable formal and informal communication among students about assignments and other course elements. Asynchronous classes need not forgo this communication, as coursework can incorporate student–student, student–friend, and student–family interactions. In the online chemistry course, students receive prompts detailing what and how to share something about their experiment. For example, early in the semester students must write a paragraph summarizing their lab observations, read the paragraph to a friend or family member, and then write a brief reflection about their experience. Giving nonmajors opportunities to practice talking about chemistry eases their concerns, boosts their confidence, and improves their communication skills. The development of communication skills is important for any discipline, and online courses present a good opportunity to provide students with guided practice, such as through a series of scaffolded communication assignments that gradually reduce the amount of structure and guidance.

Discussion boards

Discussion boards offer additional opportunities for instructor–student and student–student communication. Requiring discussion board posts is a long-standing tradition for online courses, and they can be effective ways to engage students, develop class community, and promote student learning. One need not be limited to the traditional “post one, respond to two” discussion board scheme to mimic an in-class discussion. Chemistry students were required to post once and then respond to the post immediately above theirs. Students did not have to wait around for their peers to post, and all students except the last to post received a response. Moving away from the “post once, respond twice” norm helped the discussion boards become more like an authentic in-class discussion in which students would most typically respond to the previous student comment rather than cherry-pick an easy post for a response. With all but one post receiving a peer response, each student was an integral part of the larger discussion, and because of that inclusion, each subsequent discussion board became a place for easy, productive conversation about course material.

While the posts and responses are good modes for practicing communication, the prompts can require additional dimensions of communication. For the chemistry course, each discussion board prompt linked to a prior course assignment and had a scientific literacy component to it, such as finding a reliable internet source or interviewing a peer about a scientific topic. Each prompt included an example post so students could see the expectations and not have to guess what the instructor wanted. Students practiced their written communication in crafting their posts and response but also were required to perform communication-rich tasks prior to writing their posts. This level of communication practice arguably rivals or exceeds that which occurs during an in-person classroom discussion.

Acknowledging potential trouble

Another way to use intentional communication with students is by proactively addressing potential course issues, which may be a particular assignment or type of coursework. Just as one would with a face-to-face class, online instructors should employ regular check-ins with students about assignment progress as the absence of regular in-person reminders means students are more responsible for their own course management. In the daily announcements to the chemistry students, a check-in might include a suggestion of what progress a student should have made on a multiday experiment.

The online format of a course may itself cause students trouble. Instructional designers and experienced online instructors recognize the different workload an online course can place on students compared to face-to-face classes, but students inexperienced with online courses may wrongly believe that the online format is easier. Reading through course instructions without real-time feedback puts a greater workload on the online student. For example, when our chemistry students perform a lab at home, they have the same written instructions as in a face-to-face class, but they cannot ask for real-time assistance on a confusing phrase or seek immediate help identifying equipment or chemicals. The online instructor compensates for this additional workload by removing exams and reducing some course content. The additional work that results from having to perform experiments independently is directly acknowledged to students in course announcements. Being up-front with your students about challenges they may encounter will help increase their opportunities for success while maintaining clear communication.

Kathryn D. Kloepper, PhD, is an associate professor of chemistry and the director of Research That Reaches Out at Mercer University, and Marcia Owens Kloepper is an instructional media specialist in the Center for Digital Learning at the University of New Mexico.

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