Faculty convened to discuss these questions on October 31st for the second event in our Teaching Showcase, “Motivating Struggling Students.” The discussion was led by two experienced faculty members, Paul Dexter and Sharon Timberlake. Key recommendations emerged through their conversation with participants.
Make your course available in advance
Making your course available in advance means posting your syllabus in Blackboard, then changing your course’s availability setting so that students are enrolled in it, a process that can take up to 24 hours. This allows students to
- buy their textbooks before the class starts so they don’t fall behind at the beginning of the term,
- see the course workload in advance and drop the class if it’s more work than they expected, and
- plan ahead for major deadlines and get advance permission to miss class for scheduled events.
Sharon makes sure that her courses are available at least two weeks before the start of the term so students know what to expect. She noted that making your course available early also sets a tone that as an instructor, you’re serious about your role, plus it models behavior that you want students to follow, i.e., being organized and on time.
Want to learn how to prepare your Blackboard for a new term?
Record an introductory video
Both Paul and Sharon create introductory videos that walk students through elements of their Blackboard course sites and set expectations for students.
Sharon explains how to navigate her course site in her introductory video, making sure to demonstrate for students where they can find all available resources and where to submit assignments. She also posts a text version of the video as an announcement that discusses the course’s structure, weekly schedule, and assignment due dates.
Paul records his introduction as two separate videos: a “welcome to the course” one that lays out his expectations for students and a virtual tour of the course site that demonstrates the location of the syllabus and where to submit assignments.
Want to see some examples?
Establish a personal connection at the start of the term
Connecting personally with students typically goes beyond email. It can include participating in a Blackboard discussion with them or scheduling one-on-one meetings (either in-person or via web conference or phone).
Sharon shared that she sets up a discussion forum for student introductions, and she tries to respond to each student as soon as possible after they add a thread to it. In her reply, she mentions strengths the student will bring to the class and whether they’ve been in one of her classes before in order to make them feel valued.
Sharon noted that this important first interaction with a student establishes a connection and sets a tone for their conversation from the very start of the term.
Want to personalize your class discussions?
Identify struggling students early
Both Paul and Sharon discussed signs that indicate students are struggling in an online course.
Paul monitors his courses closely for early signs of non-engagement. This includes students not logging in to Blackboard in the first week of the term, not posting to discussions until right when they’re due, and showing up for class sessions unprepared.
When students first show signs of struggling, Paul recommends reaching out to them via email and normalizing challenges, giving them something actionable to do, and connecting them to resources that will help them stay on track. He added that it’s important to look for changes in a student’s behavior later in the term, as some start out strong in a course and begin to struggle after the first few weeks.
Sharon also reaches out to students via email at the first indication that they’re struggling as evidenced by missing, incomplete, or low-quality work. She shared that struggling students can also be identified when they write about challenges they’re experiencing in discussion forums.
Sharon noted that sometimes students don’t think to contact faculty directly as they’re experiencing issues; they only share personal information in response to emails she sends. She recommends meeting one-on-one with struggling students to help them get on track.
Looking for resources to share with struggling students?
Send emails and announcements strategically
Both Paul and Sharon keep their students up to date by regularly sending announcements and emails.
Sharon sends out an announcement to her class the same day every week (Sunday) that provides direction and reinforces assignments. She noted that students cannot miss what is expected. She also includes two or three outstanding discussion posts or interesting links shared by students each week.
Paul recommends not sending more than two emails per week. He regularly sends a midweek email that highlights students’ contributions to discussion forums, which reinforces the need for participation in them and encourages students who are late in posting to join the conversation. He also models good posts for his students to set expectations in his messages.
For start-of week and other messages, Paul suggests that you number action items in your email in the order in which they should be completed.
Want to see some examples?
All of the actionable steps recommended by Paul and Sharon correlate with their view of their role as instructors: reinforcing the collaborative nature of the learning environment and emphasizing their commitment to the success of each student.
To learn more best practices from exceptional USM instructors, join us for our November Teaching Showcase event, “Assignments that Engage,” or read take-aways from our September event, “The Art of Giving Feedback.”