Article #7 from an ongoing Series
Lessons from Online Teaching
In the one in-class course I teach, Introduction to Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences (PSYC 5), I let my students use hand calculators and encourage them both to contact me by e-mail and to visit some helpful websites. As far as using high tech in this course goes, that's it. I don't plug anything into anything.
My experiences teaching the online General Psychology (PSYC 1) course, however, have led to important changes in how I relate to my in-class PSYC 5 students. In most cases, the lessons learned were lessons I had learned earlier (I've been teaching for over thirty years) but lessons that achieved heightened prominence from teaching online. An online course allows an instructor to meet ALL of the students in a way an in-class course does not. All of my students present a different picture than the one I get from the small subset of in-class students who talk to me.
I get this more representative picture because the format of my course requires all students to throw their two cents into class discussions and when, during the second half of the semester, they are working on group projects, I get transcripts of most of what they say to one another. This supplies an experience of the student learning process that is much richer than I have encountered with other courses. I list some of the conclusions from this experience that have affected my in-class teaching.
• If I'm sure I'm being clear, I'm almost certainly wrong.
Students seldom fail because they are unable or unmotivated to understand the material. Some fail because they cannot fulfill the commitments they have made of their time but others fail from simple confusion. Students do find innumerable ways in which to hear or read instructions in a way other than that intended by the instructor.
• Say it again, Sam.
Although I call myself "Kid" rather than "Sam," the line "You must remember this" of the Casablanca song helps me here. From my online course, I estimate that each time I refer to something previously written, about half the people who did not previously read it, finally read it. Because of absences and daydreaming, the proportion is probably less for in-class students. If the proportion is one half, I need to say something five times before 19 out of 20 students get it. Courses are like TV shows or websites. Attention to them is selective. The problem with continually repeating oneself, however, is that students who have already read or heard the material are likely to either decide the instructor is senile or tune out to more than just these repetitions. To prevent this it helps to preface the repetition with "As I earlier indicated."
• I'm not the only font of knowledge in which students bathe.
If I've constructed a sensible course for the course's material (including choosing a good textbook), cleared up confusions about the course's requirements and made clear what is most important, most students will do best if they involve themselves with the course and with other students. Involvement with other students either in study groups for an in-class course or in discussions or chats for an online course is especially valuable. Students have much to say that is valuable to other students. They also can help to mitigate the fears and anxieties any course generates among its participants. Some students do benefit from additional contributions from me but, bummer though it is to such an egotist as I am, quite few.