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Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 4: Building An Online Teaching Presence

I've written before about how important it is to show students you care about their learning and about them as humans, in part summarizing Kent Syverud's excellent piece, "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers. It is harder to show students that you care about them in a remote environment than when you see them in a physical classroom every day, where you can smile at them, easily ask them how they're doing as they enter the room or when you run into them in the classroom, or notice through their body language if they are having a hard time and reach out. But we know that showing we care matters; our students try harder and engage more when they feel like their learning matters to their instructor. It takes more intention to show you care about students in the online classroom, but it's imperative that we find ways to show we do.

So what are some ways that we can show students we care in the remote learning environment?

The first is to build a teaching presence that centers on the fact that you're human, too. It's so easy for us to not see students as humans and for them not to see us as human in this environment--we all become just a name on a screen. Share some information about and photos of yourself.  Have the world's cutest dogs? Share some photos and explain you're doing so because they might show up or be heard during a Zoom call. Share that you're a first generation law student--anything that might help them connect to you. Talk about why you love teaching this course--your enthusiasm for what you're teaching will transfer to your students. They'll start to know you as more than simply a name on a screen. Have your students do the same for the first class session? They can write up or film a quick introduction of themselves (giving them the choice is one way to show you care, because they can do whichever makes them most comfortable), share what they're hoping to get out of the class, etc. Now everyone starts class with faces to the names. If your class is completely or partially asynchronous, you can film short introduction videos for that week's content so your class keeps seeing your face and hearing your authentic voice; frequent visual engagement and communication will help your students stay focused and engaged.

Second, be present. In the excellent Small Teaching Online, Flowers and Lang describe a 2013 study by R. K. Ladyshewsky measuring the impact of a regular presence of an online instructor can impact student satisfaction.[1] Do you assign discussion boards? Make sure you are engaging with student there, not just expecting them to engage with each other. In Ladyshewsky's study, one instructor posted much more frequently to student discussion posts and used more personal language, such as using students' names and giving thanks for students' contributions, than the other.[2] That instructor ultimately had a much greater social presence in the classroom and had much higher satisfaction ratings from students.[3] While this may seem like it takes up a tremendous amount of time, picking a few regularly scheduled times of the week to respond will allow you to stay engaged without spending hours each week constantly responding to students' posts. In addition, if you are doing video or written announcements each week, thank your students for the effort they're putting into your course and ask how they're doing. Maybe have a discussion post set up where they can respond to this week's videos and share how things are going, concerns they have, etc. so you can help build community (but make it clear they can share with you privately, too).

If your class is small enough, like many legal research classes are, you can also set up short (even five minute) one-on-one meetings to say hello to your students individually. This will send a strong message that you care about them as individuals. I've done this with great success with my in-person classes, but it's even more important to do outreach in the online environment, where your students may feel alone and disengaged from their classmates, their instructor, and the content. If you have too many students to do individual meetings, you could do small group meetings or you can reach out to those students who are not engaging with the course content much.

To see other parts of this series:
Part I: Considering Serial Position Effect
Part II: Prioritizing Transparency
Part III:  Limiting New Technologies to Reduce Extrinsic Cognitive Load

[1] Flower Darby & James M. Lang, Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Class 86-87 (2019).

[2]  Id.

[3]  Id.

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