When students are assigned to an online class there is a general expectation that they will perform in a fairly uniform manner, which means they are expected to follow the rules, adhere to the school policies, and complete what is expected of them within the timeframe established. As instructors know, not all students are fully prepared to engage in the class or have all of the skills necessary to perform their best. There will likely be students, especially new or newer students, who will need to adapt in some manner and make changes of some kind. They may not even recognize that there are changes needed until it has been brought up by their instructor, through feedback or interactions in class.
The process of learning itself requires change regardless of the experience level of the student or the number of classes that they have taken. The very transition from one class to the next requires adapting to a new instructor, new expectations, new students, and possibly new procedures. When students are involved in learning it can easily change what they know, how they think, how they perform, and how they interact - especially in online classes. For example, students may believe they can communicate effectively in a virtual environment because of involvement in social media; however, that is a different form of communication and one that is often completed in short, abbreviated sentences. While you may not know every developmental aspect of your students, which is more challenging without the face-to-face interactions, you can still develop an approach to online teaching that helps reduce their resistance to needed changes.
The Self-Directed Nature of Students
The principle of adult education that explains how adults learn is known as andragogy, and it holds that adults are independent and self-directed in their ability to be involved in the learning process. However, that doesn't always mean they know what to do or what is best for them as students. For example, if I were to ask a group of students to tell me what they need to work on or their most critical developmental needs - they may or may not be able to accurately articulate what is needed unless they were to refer back to feedback I've provided. The next consideration then is whether or not that self-directed nature helps or inhibits their ability to adapt and change when needed. What often occurs is that it can create initial resistance, or stubbornness as some educators might call it, if they believe they know best or read something received from their instructor and it does not seem to apply to them. The attitude that a self-directed adult student holds is generally influenced by the relationship they have established with their instructors, which can be productive or antagonistic.
Why Change is Intimidating for Students
When students become aware of the need to change in some manner, especially when it involves changing habits, patterns of working, and/or established routines, they can have a variety of reactions. If they have been working in the same manner throughout their classes and received positive outcomes, they may question why they need to alter their approach now. Some students may have an emotional or reactive response, express their feelings tactfully or otherwise, or they may quietly withdraw and disengage from their class - if what they need to change seems unnecessary or too difficult. At the heart of any type of change is performing in a new or different manner, and it often can be challenging. It is also an admission that something is not being done now in the most effective manner. The instructor's approach has a definite impact on how students respond. If the tone of the feedback or communication is stern or threatening, students will likely feel intimidated and that is not the best approach for coaching them.
Three Change Management Strategies
Ongoing Instructor Support is Needed: At the center of most change initiatives by students is a behavioral process that occurs through a series of steps. The first step is to comprehend and understand what they are going to do, why they are going to try something different, and believe it will benefit them in some manner. To do this you need to help relate the need to adapt to the potential for positive outcomes and improved performance. The first attempt they make is usually the most important step in the process. If they experience positive outcomes, such as encouragement or new results, they will likely try again. This process will repeat itself until a new habit has been formed. However, if they make the first attempt and experience a negative outcome, such as criticism or nothing has happened that benefits them, they may stop, give up, quit, or disengage from their class.
Set Students Up for Long Term Success: If you are going to propose that students do something new or different, prepare them before they begin. This may include offering them resources or creating an action plan with them so they know the steps to take. You can establish checkpoints as a means of follow-up and checking in on their progress so they feel supported. If the suggestion you've made was noted in their feedback, offer to have a follow-up conversation with them to clarify the purpose and intent of your ideas. You also want to be available to answer any questions they may have and that extra effort on your part is particularly important given that they cannot see you in this virtual environment. Most of all, never give up on them even when they want to quit. Some students need a nudge or put in extra effort to get past mental barriers or a lack of self-confidence.
Provide Feedback that Coaches Students: One of the most effective and engaging methods of feedback is an approach that is focused on student strengths rather than deficits. Yes there will be issues to address so perhaps the sandwich approach to feedback can assist you and that begins with something positive, then addresses developmental issues, and concludes with another positive aspect - even if the only positive aspect of their performance you can find is the effort they have made. You can provide details to outline how you have assessed their performance and a rubric to provide a breakdown of how points were earned. If you have many issues to address, try selecting the most important or critical issues first so you don't overwhelm them. You want them to view the process of change as something that is done in steps. Instructors often believe that students don't read and implement the feedback provided so be sure to make yours meaningful and ask follow up questions as a means of engaging them.
The duration of most online classes provides instructors with a limited amount of time to get to know their students and work with them. They may not really develop a sense of their students' potential until they have had time to interact with them and review their performance. It is unlikely an instructor will know about prior feedback that students have received or if their performance is better or worse than it has recently been, which means an assumption should never be made that they don't know, they aren't trying, or they haven't been making any improvements. Instead of focusing on generalities, address the specifics of what you believe they need to change and present it in a manner that causes them to want to act - while knowing you have their best interests in mind. If you are asking students to adapt to your personal preferences and they do not see the benefits of trying what you've suggested, you may find yourself at odds with them. Every student has a potential to try something new but it is a matter of whether they will resist or make an attempt. Your relationship with them, and disposition about their development, will go a long way towards helping them adapt and learn that changes can benefit their work as a student.
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has developed expertise with adult education and distance learning and his background includes work as an innovative online educator, college professor, writer and author, corporate trainer, and instructional designer.
To learn more about Dr. J's work as a professional resume writer, along with the resources that are available for educators and career development, please visit: http://tinyurl.com/qgaym29.
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