Posts Tagged ‘ educate ’

Communicating With Students – Creating a Comfortable, Open Environment

Sending EmailTwo recent documents crossed my desk, one a study concerning sending welcoming emails to students one-week prior to the beginning of class (I know, this is a bit late for that, but still doable). The other discussed how to set boundaries on email communication, limiting digital clutter and establishing the rules and expectations on digital communication – which is probably especially important for those teaching hybrid/online courses. I thought I’d do a “welcome back!” post combining the strategies of these two studies, as a tip for setting the tone of out-of-class communication with your students, managing expectations and possibly limiting stereotypes and prejudices.

The study was conducted by Angela Legg and Janie Wilson in 2009. They found that sending a welcoming email to students one-week prior to class increased student’s motivation, fostered a positive attitude among students towards the instructor and the course, and increased student retention. Their study builds on existing research that indicates that building a rapport with students and keeping an open line of communication can increase motivation, participation, attendance, and learning (cf. Buskist & Saville, 2004; Christensen & Menzel, 1998; Frymier, 1994). Their research operates as an extension of theories of immediacy behaviors, and was expected to be most effective along gender lines, especially appreciated by female students more than male. To read about these theories more fully, I recommend you read the full study (available via the link below), it’s not long and it’s informative about student behaviors and how we can anticipate and forestall negative attitudes and perceptions.

First impressions can set the tone – good or bad – for the rest of the semester (Nilson, 2003; Wolcowitz, 1984). Traditionally, first impressions are made on the first day of class, but a welcoming email (the authors also suggest first contact can take other forms as well, such as using a social networking platform) can build a relationship before you ever meet your students. Tips for sending a welcoming email:

  • Personalize the message, rather than send a mass, blind cc email to all your students.
  • Provide your full contact information, office hours, and preferred method of contact (we’ll return to this item below).
  • Use a professional but approachable tone in your email, avoid excessive familiarity, attempts to be overly humorous, crude, or “hip”, stay on task by sticking to the connecting factor, your course. Striking just the right tone of friendly, open availability balanced with a professional, professorial air will carry over into your classroom environment.
  • Provide pre-reading opportunities (if applicable), list of texts, where they can be found (and publisher you prefer if applicable) and any other resources that may be helpful for students to get a jump on course work and/or come prepared to class.
  • Finally, invite questions! But, be sure you have the time and inclination to answer every email students may send your way. Let’s explore this question more now.

Courtesy of National Geographic, 2003

How much communication is too much? We have to be aware that, if we open the door to digital communication and invite a relationship via email or any digital platform, there may be other expectations set. The second piece I read was called “The Low-Information Diet: How to Eliminate E-Mail Overload & Triple Productivity in 24 Hours” by entrepreneur Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week (Crown, 2009). Though geared for a business audience, I found that many of the themes and suggestions of the article seemed particularly useful in relation to the study on welcoming emails and digital communication with students. It’s one thing to say, “I want my students to feel welcome to email me and ask questions”, but what limits do you set on your time, willingness to answer every minor email from students, and willingness to be available and expected to reply quickly? In an age where instant access and instant response are the standards, it is a wise move to set some boundaries and let students know what they can expect in their digital communications with you. By sending a welcoming email, you can influence attitudes, motivation, and even control some preconceived stereotypes or prejudices, but it’s worth limiting these communications – not at the expense of the student or relationship, but to strengthen them.

Ferriss calls email “the single biggest time waster in modern life” (4). He provides the following tips for setting boundaries for your email communications:

  • “Batching” Check email only once or twice a day, at set times. Turn off auto-alerts when you get a new email; it distracts you and interrupts productivity. Establish this rule of access in a template that is replicated (like a signature line) in each email – set up as an autoresponder or as an automatic amendment to each outgoing email. Here is a template [modified for educators]:

Greetings,

Due to a high courseload and pending deadlines [or research/teaching obligations], I am currently responding to email twice daily at 12pm EST [be sure to indicate your time zone] and 4pm EST.

If you require help with something that can’t wait until either 12pm or 4pm, please call me on my [cell/office phone] at 555-555-5555.

Thank you for understanding. I look forward to working with you this semester.

  • Either in your course syllabus or in your welcoming email, set expectations of what you will or will not respond to.
    • This means letting students know that if there isn’t a question to be answered, you won’t respond to email. This can be helpful for colleagues as well. It cuts down on the back-and-forth correspondence that plagues us all.
    • Here is a template [language modified for educators, particularly those that supervise others]:

Thank you so much for your message. I make every attempt to personally respond to each person who contacts me, but due to the high volume of e-mail I receive, this is sometimes impossible. Please be assured that I have received and have read your email. If your email requires a response, I will reply between the hours of [your email schedule]. Thank you for understanding and have a wonderful day!

Ferriss addresses several other tactics for limiting or eliminating digital clutter and the consequent demands on our time that accompany digital correspondence. The full report is available via the link listed below.

By first establishing a relationship through a welcoming email, and making sure to define the expectations and parameters of that relationship, you could increase positive student attitudes about you and your course, increase retention rates, and increase student motivation. As well, you are making sure that you can maintain that digital relationship by setting communication expectations, so you aren’t disappointing or failing to respond to a student, which we all know, can sour the attitude of many a frantic student. It’s equally important to follow through on what you say. If you establish a schedule, stick to it.

I hope this proves helpful for your course and your relationship with students. I’m eager to hear your experience, so please comment or write and tell me what works for you. Have a wonderful semester!

References:

Legg, A. M. & Wilson, J.H. (2009). E-Mail From Professor Enhances Student Motivation and Attitudes. Teaching of Psychology, 36(3), 205-211. Available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00986280902960034

Buskist, W., & Saville, B. K. (2004). Rapport-building: Creating positive emotional contexts for enhancing teaching and learning. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology, 2, 149–155. Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

Ferriss, T. (2007). The Low-Information Diet: How to Eliminate E-Mail Overload & Triple Productivity in 24 Hours. ChangeThis, 34(4). Retrieved from http://changethis.com/manifesto/show/34.04.LowInfo.

New Teaching Tips Blog, Full of…Teaching Tips!

I haven’t posted since early June, so I thought I’d check in with my readers and random web surfers by sharing a new teaching tips blog:

http://teaching-snippets.blogspot.com/ 

The format of the new blog needs a little polishing, but the tips are very solid, especially the first Professor Dabney offers – invest your students in their learning experience. You can do this in several ways, by having students help develop the syllabus (lead a class discussion on what goes in the syllabus to govern the class, evaluate the learning of the students, and establish the pace and structure of assignments), by giving them choice when selecting how and what they study (such as choosing to do an oral presentation over a final paper, or selecting blog posts and blog moderation rather than response papers), and more. Dabney suggests asking for frequent feedback from students as a way to improve your own practice and validate their voice and opinion in their own education.

There are plenty of practical and provocative tips here, so please check it out.

Five Minute Video with Will Richardson

Will Richardson argues for radically changing how we teach, how we approach student learning, and integrating technology into the classroom. He’s a very compelling (though fast) speaker. This is a short video reminiscent of Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas on education and change.

Originally sourced from: http://www.joebower.org/2012/07/5-minute-video-with-will-richardson.html

Our Worst Teaching Moment

Siddhartha Bautama by Suta Sila Dham. Courtesy of Fotopedia.

Our last Teaching Circle meeting, I decided to try a more guided discussion, and asked guests to bring their worst teaching moment to share with the group. I have to admit, I think we probably had worse ones than the ones we actually shared, but that’s okay, because the point was two-fold:

  • Build community through stories;
  • Identify our weaknesses as teachers and how they’ve made (or can make us) better.

The reason for sharing our worst stories first is so we can – right out of the gate – admit that we are all human and that every educator has moments, or days, possibly a full week, when they don’t, exactly…shine.

Sharing our stories was cool, and I mean that in the sense of Chester Cheetos-like cool, because we laughed at ourselves without feeling our stories diminished us at all as educators. How we handle these moments became the take-away from this meeting, and how they can form, and inform, us as educators became teaching philosophy fodder. Because this is the point: none of us is perfect and it’s important for us, and our students, to know that. Don’t lose your cool! Students love it when they can bond with you over a little SNAFU in class, come to your assistance, or otherwise pull together as a group to solve a problem (I’m quite surprised technology implosions didn’t feature much more largely in our discussion – we did have one instructor discuss her experience with full system failure though). Though some students may view it as an opportunity to dismiss you as an authority with knowledge to share, most students will rally around you if you show a sense of humor and some humility about life’s little jokes.

Here is a brief rundown of the funny and humble stories featuring times we felt less than great about our teaching or inter-action with students, with each of us presenting different moments revealing our unique yet 0h-so-common teaching bonds. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, how well you know your topic, how utterly fabulous you are as an instructor, you will at some time have the teaching gods frown upon you. I began by owning up to a particular lesson in a high-school economics class, where my students ended up schooling me on a simple math equation. Don’t remember the context, the exact lesson, or the math I couldn’t do that day, but I distinctly remember the embarrassment. We then talked about how to handle these situations; I handled it badly by NOT addressing it with my students and pretending I wasn’t a complete math ignoramus, but it was okay, because eventually I could look back and recognize how I should have handled it, and how I would be better prepared for these moments in the future. Something to write about in my teaching statement, which I have done. Nothing says, “I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from them” than an honest story that reveals what we don’t know about teaching and what we want to learn, yes?

Next came stories of language barriers – especially relevant for our international scholars and professors who struggle with accents and pronunciations in front of American students ( and for the record, I myself have practiced pronouncing many words that I don’t speak regularly but are difficult for any English speaker; for example, homogeneous is often mispronounced, still can’t confidently say the names of Tacitus or Aeschylus; just about any word with a lot of vowels…); “things students say in class” that catch us unawares -forcing some quick thinking and instant ability to react wisely! (“Oh, prof, I won’t be here for that class; I’m going to Coachella.”; “Oh, okay. <long pause> Have fun.” = awkward!); lapses in basic knowledge (see my math freeze above), inability to answer a student’s question coherently, razing by jerky students who know you are “fresh” – this WILL happen to you as a new or younger teacher. We heard a story about a mathematician of renown, possibly still teaching, but the story is of old, who simply shrugged off his calculation errors in front of students, and put the onus of knowledge on the students (that is, he let them figure out the problem; he already knew how to do it, why should he do it for the students?). Would that we all had that confidence and aloofness, yes? We discussed our frustration when students don’t “get it” and how we struggle to make meaning for them – is it us? them? How can we make it clearer? It seems so OBVIOUS!  We decided that we – yes, us teachers – are of the homo sapiens species after all, thus prone to error. We were able to turn these mini-crises into really pivotal and critical teaching and learning moments, ones that we ALL share as educators.

We also talked about the Flipped Classroom, Google+ versus Facebook, whether or not we should interact with students on social media sites (that was a resounding NO as I recall, but we did agree that setting up professional “teacher/colleague” profiles were a good idea when you did want to create a space online with your students). We ran out of time before we got to some writing exercises for tying all of this into our teaching philosophies, but I hope we can get to that next time.

For our next meeting, I plan to guide us to the flip side of the teaching coin-  our best teaching moment – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and we pictured Cate Blanchett playing us in the Oscar-winning movie of 2026 on inspiring teaching stories that bring a tear to the eye (dream sequence)…so, I thought, let’s end our semester with some positive stories and experiences, and what they can tell us about our teaching, about our students, and how these experiences (good and bad), are integral parts of being awesome educators.

We’d love to hear from you out there: what was your best or worst teaching moment? What did it teach you about yourself as an educator? Join us!

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