Facilitating Student Success in Online Classrooms

December, 2020

As we are quickly approaching the end of this fully online fall semester, many of us are talking about how things have gone this fall and what we need to tweak for next term. I’ve recently had several conversations with colleagues who are stressed and disappointed with how the fall has gone so far–many sharing a common observation, “my students just aren’t engaged”. I’ve heard from more than one colleague that students are “turning off their cameras – I don’t even know if they are there”, or “their eyes just glaze over during class”. While I have had a student who has completely “checked out” of my class this fall, by and large, my students remain engaged and active participants in class. This got me thinking about what could be different in my class?  I teach a 300-level class in the College of Education, “Human Development and Learning” with enrollment of 25.  I feel very fortunate in that I have participated in several projects on campus in recent years focused on student learning and pedagogy. This really prepared me for the changes I needed to make when we moved online. I thought it would be worth sharing a few of the most relevant tips I picked up that I think have really made a difference for me and my students this fall.

1. In order for learning to take place, students need to engage with the course material in meaningful ways. For me, this means we need to do more than lecture and make students read.  With this in mind, I had already “flipped” my classroom so that I could ensure that our “classroom” time together allowed for meaningful engagement with the class material and one another. I expect students to come to class having completed the corresponding online module and any readings. We then spend our time together talking about what they learned. I do very little “lecturing”. The majority of our time together is spent in breakout rooms where I work to facilitate conversations that have students thinking about and working with the course material in ways that force them to stretch beyond what they know to what could be. For example, when we were covering content about culturally relevant pedagogy, I posed the following question to my students and gave them 15 minutes in their breakout rooms to discuss and debate before coming back together as a class to report out:  “As teachers, how can we go beyond “gimmicky” classroom activities to activities that help expand or construct meaning while taking into consideration the student’s cultural background (think communication norms, gender roles, etc.).

2. Transparency is vital. I actually created an “orientation” module in my course shell for students to complete the first week of classes that walked them through exactly what I was expecting of them, what they could expect of me, and what they would need to do to learn what was being taught in this class so that they have the opportunity to become the best teachers they possibly can be. My course shell is also set up so that each module corresponds to a week of class with due dates listed on each page along with an estimated time to complete so that students know how much time they need to allocate to this content.

3. As educators, we need to do a better job of getting students to understand the purpose and value of an education. So many of our students are still looking for the “easiest class” and are just here to check off boxes on their programs of study so that they can have a piece of paper that says “diploma” on it.  This has become abundantly clear in a fully online environment. There are no cutting corners with online learning just as there are no shortcuts to true learning in a face to face environment.  I understand that students have lots of competing obligations and that online learning can be difficult for so many reasons. However, unless we can get students to understand that they should not settle for anything less than their best effort, we are doing them a disservice. I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that I don’t expect all of them to get A’s, but I do expect their best effort throughout the semester as they could, one day, end up teaching my grandchildren.  

Christine Deacons,
Director of Academic Support Programs


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