Helping Students – One Email at a Time

Can one email really make a difference for a student?  I’m pondering that question after reading this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I will be teaching an online class this Fall – for the first time in several years – and I am spending a lot of time thinking about how I should craft my course.  Crafting a course means thinking through not only the assignments and assessments, the due dates and course rhythms, the policies and support links – it also means thinking through the communication plan.

I took the eight-hour Quality Matters training earlier this summer and found it to be very helpful.  While I have taught in an online setting for . . . probably 20 years, there are still things I can learn about effective, engaging, and active online teaching and learning.  I also took training in July on using VoiceThread – another interesting and creative tool for the online teaching toolbox.  Can I take advantage of these professional development opportunities to craft an effective approach to communication?  Absolutely.

It’s easy to be an effective communicator in the classroom – that’s why we love the classroom.  It’s more challenging to be an effective communicator in an online setting.  How do you communicate (effectively) about course navigation?  Learning objectives?  Course activities?  How you will measure students’ learning?  How students should use the available instructional materials?  How students would benefit by actively practicing learning in a particular course?  How students should participate in the course and engage in learning the materials?  How they can find help with their learning (e.g., learning labs, accessibility services, technical support)? There are multiple answers because I just listed multiple questions.  Course navigation can be communicated initially with a “Start Here” button.  Active learning can be instilled with a discussion board or a blog or a wiki or VoiceThread.  In some instances, the communication possibilities are numerous.

But most importantly, how do you communicate your interest in each student and in their learning?  How do you communicate when a student seems to struggle with a course assignment?  What do you say when a student fails to submit work?

The latest idea is “nudging”.  Can you help a student by a nudge?  A nudge is a gentle push, a reminder, a slight prod to action.  Will nudging make a difference?  Don’t we offer nudges in the classroom?  Don’t we say “this is only the first exam, and you can each learn from this experience so that you can adjust your approach to studying”?  Don’t we say “please come see me during office hours and we can talk about how you did on this assignment”?  Don’t we nudge by our very presence in the classroom?

So my question for myself is “how can I nudge” in a way that helps my students in an online setting?

I’m going be intentional in my communications plan for the semester.  And my plan will include some personalized emails.  Calling students by their names, helping them to connect with their classmates as well as with their professor, sending out reminders of due dates, gently nudging students to assess their approach to learning in the class – all of these things are something I can and will do this Fall.  And I’ll let you know how it goes.

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