By Amy Erickson
The more I read about teaching methodologies and student engagement, the more I realize that one’s mastery of content only goes so far. Our ability to captivate students and get them excited about content demands more than our ability to recite facts, theories, or long passages of poetry. In her 20-Minute Mentor video, “How Can I Communicate to Engage Students and Encourage Learning?” Jennifer Waldeck discusses how we can improve student outcomes, retention, motivation, and even course feedback if we focus on something as simple as our communication.
Waldeck (2015) begins the video by posing an excellent question—one you may have considered during your own teaching career: “Why is it that despite our expertise and all this effort, do we still struggle sometimes to get our students engaged, motivated, performing well, and understanding what it is we want for them as students?” (para. 3). It turns out, years of research points to communication as the key. And, while the online classroom does not involve face-to-face communication, there are still many ways to interact with students. Waldeck (2015) recommends being cautious with all our communication because it can and will influence student perceptions of us. These perceptions, in turn, influence student success.
Waldeck (2015) discusses UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian’s research around immediacy. “’Immediacy’ refers to communicators’ perceptions of physical and psychological closeness with one another (Waldeck, 2015, para. 9). The list she goes on to share about the benefits of immediacy include increased motivation, retention, respect, and success in the classroom (Waldeck, 2015, paras. 13-15). I found it particularly interesting that when students experience immediacy, they perceive they are “being mentored, rather than just taught” and “feel like they are getting a personalized educational experience” (Waldeck, 2015, para. 14). This is exactly how I want my students to feel. It’s especially important in the online classroom, where it is easy to feel disconnected or like a number lost in cyberspace.
How Can I Be More Immediate?
“I’m paid to teach, not paid to make students like me or the material I am teaching.” Have you ever heard that before? I heard an instructor from another university say it last week. Actually, if we look at the principle studied by Mehrabian, we find that if we want to succeed at teaching and continue to be paid to teach, we certainly should consider practicing immediacy with our students. “Immediacy works based on a simply principle that Mehrabian studied – that people are drawn toward that which they like or prefer, and they move away from, or avoid, things that they don’t like” (Waldeck, 2015, para. 18). With that in mind, Waldeck (2015) recommends that instructors engage in communication that “reduces distance, shows openness” and “suggests warmth” (paras. 21-22). Let’s consider the places you interact with students in the online classroom and how you can put Mehrabian’s research into practice.
Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself
Instructors are asked to provide an introduction at the start of every class. This is a fantastic place to reduce distance and exude warmth. Waldeck (2015) recommends allowing students to call you by your first name. I do this and find that the introductory forum is a great place to share that information. Before including this information, students didn’t know how to address me and I find that giving them this information puts them at ease. If they are more likely to reach out to me because they know how to address me, that is a strong first step.
The introductory discussion forum additionally provides an opportunity to demonstrate your availability to students. Tell them how often you check My Messages or the best time to get in touch with you. By communicating my availability, I am emphasizing the kind of relationship I want with students. I tell them that I check My Messages daily and that I am here to support them and help them succeed. I want students to feel like we are all on the same team and that we are helping each other to learn, grow, and get better with every class. I also want students to know I have a sense of humor, so I typically include something in my introduction to make them smile. Remember, if they like you, they are more likely to be drawn to you and your class.
Weekly discussion boards offer another opportunity to exhibit openness and warmth. Consider starting each of your responses with the following: Thank you so much for your post. Congratulate students whose efforts and ideas are strong. Consider creating a thread directing students to another student’s post if it is enjoyable. I also like to thank students who post the first thread that gets the discussion started each week.
If posts are lacking, share strategies to help students flesh out their ideas in the discussion boards. I often find that students will answer a few, but not all, of the questions posed in the instructions. I address the content students have provided and then suggest that they number each of the questions so they are certain to address each in the forum. I tell them that this strategy has always worked for me and that I hope it works for them, too.
You’ve Got Mail
Email communication with students needs to be clear, professional and kind. If students are struggling with personal, professional, or familial issues, tell them how sorry you are to hear that. Let them know the options they have and what you can do to help them during challenging times.
As you may know, Excelsior College asks instructors to email every student regarding their classroom performance before Week 4 in an eight-week course and before Week 8 in a fifteen-week course. This is another opportunity to show your students that you care. Craft these emails carefully and consider ways to give constructive and inspiring feedback.
The weekly announcements afford you an opportunity to introduce upcoming content as well as to go over points that were unclear in the previous week. It is also a great place to recognize student achievement by sharing top-notch assignments or innovative ideas presented in the discussion boards. I have found that students appreciate additional resources to assist with comprehension of the previous week’s material or upcoming content. Finally, the announcements provide a fun place to grab students’ attention. Share information about a book you are currently reading, ask questions about a movie you recently saw, or discuss an exhibit you attended… Or maybe let them know about your new hobby of goat yoga.