When you see a new class of students for the first time, or interact with a group of online students for the very first time, what is your initial feeling about your students? Do you consider the expectations of these students, or are you more focused on helping them become acclimated to the class? What are your hopes for your students? I understand that on the first day of class there is a lot to accomplish from a procedural perspective; however, do you consider the point of view of your students and what they might be thinking as they first interact with you and others in the class?
When I am assigned a new online and it is the first day, even after working in the field of distance learning for over eleven years, I still think about the hopes that students hold for their degree program overall – and how this class is part of their overall plan. I know that each and every one of them have potential to learn, they have a range of experiences to draw upon, and their knowledge about the course topics may also be vastly different among them. As their instructor, I am being inserted into their academic lives, usually without their pre-approval, and I must somehow help all of these students find a way to function well both individually and together. My hope is that all of them will gain something of value from the class, and that they are able to improve upon and/or refine their academic skills. I do not want them to just get by in the class, I want them to discover how well they are capable of performing when encouraged to do so.
What I hope for and what students for may never fully align, especially if they never develop an interest in the class or a connection with me. Students are not obligated to tell me what they hope for or want from this class, rather it is up to me to discover their developmental needs and establish a productive working relationship with them. This is part of the art of teaching and as any educator knows, it takes time and practice. The more you learn how to work with students, the better you become at discovering what brings out the best in them. What I have discovered is that if I want students to excel and perform their best, I need to teach them self-empowerment. This does not minimize my responsibility to them, rather I am helping them learn to be self-reliant and to be able to sustain their ongoing progress from one class to the next.
Students and Self-Empowerment
I am really not a fan of clichés, and I am aware of how the word empowerment and self-empowerment has been over-utilized for quite some time; however, there is merit in the essence of the word when describing a scenario that involves an educator who is teaching students to be self-directed. In higher education, my goal is to have a student-centered classroom environment and that is in direct contrast to primary education where you will find a teacher-centered environment. I do not want to dispense knowledge to students or tell them what they need to learn. I want to find resources that will help them discover knowledge they need and how to develop the academic skills that are required. This can be challenging when you consider the expression that it can be difficult when you “don’t know what you don’t know” – or in other words, students may not know how to assess their skills. However, I never assume that students lack the desire to want to be involved and simply want to be told what to do.
When I am working with students, my goal is not to give them the answers or a grade or correct their papers for them. I want to work with them and provide resources, instill confidence within them that they can learn, increase their sense of motivation, help coach them to move in the right direction even if they make the same mistake more than once, provide meaningful guidance when I return feedback to them, and offer assistance that is actually helpful for them. Self-empowerment can be thought of as having self-reliance, which means that students know where to turn for answers and resources when they have a question or need assistance – and that includes being able to help themselves. It aligns with the principle of andragogy, or teaching self-directed adult learners who are active participants in the process of learning.
Empowerment Instructional Strategies
I have implemented the strategies below to help teach self-empowerment with my students. These methods were effectively utilized in online classes, regardless of the subject matter, and developed as a result of my knowledge of adult education and teaching practice. My goal was to teach students that they could try any of these methods at any time, with or without my assistance, as a means of becoming self-reliant or empowered to improve upon their own performance.
#1. Skillset Inventory: Develop a list of the most important skills that you believe your students should possess at any given time as related to their academic performance. For example, the most common skills could include critical thinking, academic writing, etc. You could provide a rating scale, an actual form, guidelines, or any other parameters. This activity can be implemented as part of a one-on-one activity with your students or given to your students for the purpose of self-reflection.
#2. Midpoint Summary: With online classes, my students tend to be non-traditional, working adults who are reading when they can – and often from their phones when they can access their materials from mobile devices. What this means is that the days of taking notes with a traditional notebook and pen are no longer a reality for most students, and many students do not take notes at all. I have found that a mid-week or midpoint summary is a very good method of testing retention and comprehension. This can help you (if you ask the student to submit it) and the students to determine if they are actually understanding the materials they are studying during the week.
#3. Feedback Follow Up Essay: I understand that developing feedback for a large class takes quite a bit of time, and asking an instructor to spend even more time reviewing follow-up submissions may seem to be too much; however, there is still something to this approach you may want to consider – only because most students will not return the follow up essay. My approach has been as follows: When I have reviewed an average, below average, or poorly written paper, I will return it to the student and ask them if they would like to re-write it and return it to me not for a new grade – but for an opportunity to learn from the feedback provided. I have found that those students who are highly motivated are the ones who will actually take me up on the offer and re-write the essay. To simply teach self-reliance, you could instruct students to re-write the essay without submitting it, incorporating the feedback received, use it as a learning experience.
Those are just three of the strategies I have used to teach self-empowerment. In my classes I also talk about the power of a positive mindset. I provide positive motivational quotes in all of my weekly announcements and I believe that if I can create a nurturing and welcoming environment, one where I am truly working to support and bolster the morale of my students – they are going to feel empowered, motivated, and engaged. As a result, they are going to perform better. Does every student respond to these attempts? Not always. However, my goal is to do everything I can so that I can say I have done at least one thing to have an impact on each and every one of them in some manner while they were in my class – whether it was a matter of being responsive, present, engaged, showing I cared, or providing feedback that matters.