Let’s face it, teaching adult students takes a great deal of time and energy. When you are assigned a large class size, the number of students and associated responsibilities that are vying for your attention increases and this can create a time crunch. If you teach courses in a traditional college classroom you know how much time it takes to develop lectures and grade papers or exams. Online instructors, especially in the for-profit online school industry, may not have to develop course materials – but they usually have weekly discussions and feedback expectations that demands a significant investment of time. For example, one online school expects their instructors to be involved in class discussions during five out of seven days, provide feedback for assignments within a week, and write weekly feedback reports. You can probably estimate the amount of time that instructor spends on class facilitation. Add to that the fact that most instructors are hired as adjuncts and likely working full time as well.
What does all of this mean for your students? When I was an online student, I was very independent, yet it mattered to me to “see” my instructor actively engaged in the class and interested in how I was performing. As a faculty development specialist, what I have observed is that those students who are performing poorly are the ones who receive the most attention. This is not necessarily because they are interacting with their instructors one-on-one, but instead it was due to the intensive effort required to provide feedback. This means that a student who is doing well will often fly under an instructor’s radar as they seemingly have no need for additional assistance. I’ve seen many well-written papers returned to students with only a few short comments provided, if any comments at all, and little attempt on the instructor’s part to engage them in the subject matter.
I admit that I used to feel that same way when I first began teaching online. I mapped out tasks that needed to be completed for the upcoming week, calculated the amount of time it would likely take to fully finish those tasks, and then breathed a sigh of relief when I began working on feedback and read a well-developed paper. It seemingly made my job easier, and took less time, to have perfect papers. However, I learned early on that this approach can actually work against an instructor, especially if students believe they are working on their own and no one seems to care. I quickly discovered that when students feel left alone, especially in an online class, they can easily disengage. It didn’t take long for me to realize that every student deserves my full time and attention, regardless of how well or poorly they perform, and that all students have developmental needs to consider and address – even the very best of them.
Analyzing a Spectrum of Students and Duties
Every class presents an endless possible combination of student backgrounds, experiences, points of view, and developmental needs. However, it is possible to provide a general statement that summarizes the typical spectrum of students that can be found in a college undergraduate class. I am utilizing my experience in online teaching and online faculty development within the for-profit online school industry as my point of view, as that is where the majority of my experience in higher education has been. For a typical class, ten percent of the students could be rated as above average, thirty percent rated as average, and sixty percent of students would be rated as below average. Again, these are averages that are based upon undergraduate or less experienced students.
Consider now the spectrum of duties that a typical adjunct online instructor would be required to perform each week of the class. Classroom management would take approximately ten percent of the instructor’s time, and include duties such as responding to questions, posting announcements, etc. Posting participation messages would take a minimum of thirty percent of an instructor’s weekly allocated time, and sixty percent of the time spent each week would be devoted to providing feedback. This is making an assumption that an instructor will download student papers and provide feedback within those papers. There is a reason for comparing the types of students to the time an instructor spends while facilitating a class, and it is related to the amount of time and attention that is provided for every student.
First, an instructor will spend a majority of their week concerned with providing feedback and meeting all contractual deadlines. The type and quality of feedback provided usually is in direct correlation to the type of student and the quality of the papers they have submitted. For an above average student, the quality of the paper will generally be on par with the expected response for the assignment, along with meeting the mandatory academic writing standards. For an average student, the content will likely be on target (or what would be minimally acceptable for an average grade) and any developmental issues would be related to academic writing. That is where the focus of many instructors will be when reviewing an average paper – addressing the writing issues.
Finally, a below average student will require the most time as the content of the paper and the academic writing will likely both have areas of needed development. It is easy to understand why, as a paper that is poorly written and not completely on target is going to be difficulty to read, comprehend, and assess. I remember when I was new to online teaching and I reviewed papers similar to what I have described. There was an initial sense of dread because I knew that there were many issues that needed to be addressed and that would slow down the process of providing feedback, while also taking more of my time. More importantly, if I focused on every negative element I would have little positive comments to make. Through my work with online faculty, I know there is also a tendency to focus on the writing issues first, and the content is often left unaddressed. I used to take that same approach as a new online instructor.
What this presents is an instructional approach that focuses on problematic, academically under-prepared, and below average students first – leaving a majority of the above average students (and even some of the average students) having a lesser amount of the instructor’s time. This is similar in nature to the squeaky wheel analogy, where the students with the greatest needs, and those who speak up the most, are the ones who have received the most time and attention from their instructor. While this is certainly understandable, from an instructor’s perspective, it can create an environment that is not optimal for learning. It is likely that some students will not speak up or ask for assistance out of fear, feelings of intimidation, negative perceptions about their instructor’s disposition, or simply not being conditioned to ask questions. For online courses, the distance factor also creates additional barriers for students.
Providing Time and Attention to Every Student
There is no question that every student is deserving of an instructor’s time and attention. Even during the busiest of class weeks, and a time when the list of papers to review never seems to end, it is possible to demonstrate to students that their instructor has time for them and is concerned about their progress – regardless of how well-developed or under-developed their academic skills may be. From my own experience, I believe there are four key areas within an instructor’s teaching practice that can be leveraged to demonstrated availability for their students.
#1. Interactions and Communication: Every interaction with your students is important. It helps to establish a working relationship that can become productive, leading to greater cooperation and acceptance of your feedback on the part of every student. Your interactions should be professional, rational, and warm. All communication should be thoughtful, with a tone that is responsive rather than reactive and emotional. Students will sense or perceive your disposition based upon the tone of the message. If you encourage them to ask questions, and you provide helpful assistance in a welcoming manner, your students will feel valued. This is also an opportunity to demonstrate appreciation, which can boost their morale and self-confidence.
#2. Feedback for Written Assignments: I understand that an easy to read paper, with strong academic writing, may seem like an opportunity to save time; however, every paper should take the same amount of time. I start by looking at the content and after reading through the paper once, I try to understand the student’s perspective. Then I consider what the assignment parameters are and the topics that need to be addressed, along with the required learning objectives that students are expected to meet. After evaluating an assignment often enough you will have a good idea of what is acceptable and what you expect students to address.
I attempt to interact with students through the content of what they have written by inserting comments and asking questions. The goal is to engage them further in the topic, while providing my own insight to help them expand upon their perspectives. At the very least, it will affirm that they are on the right track but often it helps them understand the topics better. As to the expected academic writing standards, I have learned to make suggestions rather than correct what was written or demand compliance. I also try to coach students by prompting them to utilize the available resources, including any supplemental sources I may share to address specific needs.
#3. Sharing Your Experience and Perspective: A challenge for instructors who work with pre-developed courses is that their voice may not be present in the structured materials. I have found methods of sharing my experience and perspective through the use of course announcements and crafting substantive discussion responses. Through the inclusion of course announcements, I can summarize weekly topics, provide a preview of upcoming topics, and share supplemental materials and resources. More importantly, I am sharing my expertise through these strategies. When online students “see” an instructor actively involved in this matter, it creates an appearance (and perception) that they are truly involved in the class. It also demonstrates that the instructor has devoted the time necessary to create optimal conditions for learning.
#4. Being a Mentor to Your Students: The most engaging instructional practice an instructor can implement is to act like a mentor and coach for their students. The amount of time this requires depends upon the instructor and his or her willingness to create optimal class conditions. Some of the methods I have utilized, beyond the feedback methods described, is to send check-in emails to students on occasion. This helps to create a sense of connection with my students. If a student is struggling, or hasn’t been present in class recently, I will email and/or call the student – depending upon their availability. This lets them know that someone cares and that can often make a difference with students and their ability to persist whenever they feel challenged. I want to mentor them by being a support system and coach, helping to nurture their academic development, which in turns creates positive feelings that are internalized.
There is no question that every student needs to feel valued and know that their instructors are available for them. Answering a question in a caring manner may be all that it takes to demonstrate you have time for them and they are not just a randomly assigned student number in your class. Students also need to know that you are present and engaged in the course, and this serves as a model for them to emulate for their own level of involvement. I am certain that if you are teaching now, you care about your students. Just be sure you have allocated enough time each week to be available for them, and make extra time available when needed to help address their needs. I understand the challenge of teaching as an adjunct while you are also maintaining other responsibilities; however, consider how good it will feel for you and your students when you see them flourishing as a result of the time and attention you devote each week.
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has expertise in higher education administration, adult education, distance learning, online teaching, faculty development, curriculum development, instructional design, organizational learning and development, career coaching, and resume writing.