The start of a new class always carries with it a sense of hope for students and their instructor. This is a time when students are the most likely to listen, read the assigned materials, and make an attempt to complete the required learning activities. From an instructor's perspective, there is an expectation that students are ready to learn and want to learn the course topics. For the most part, students will begin the class by making an effort, at least initially. After the first week of class, reality settles in and this is the time when students will either continue to try, or their effort will wane.
When students make an attempt to understand the course materials, and for some reason they cannot comprehend what they are reading, or they do not understand how to complete an assignment, these challenges can create a turning point for them. If they do not know how to ask for help, or they feel the need to express their frustrations in an unproductive manner, it may just be easier to give up.
Students who are enrolled in an online class find it even more challenging as they may feel as if they are working on their own. Their instructors may not know of their struggles until after the end of the class week, when the due date for an assignment has passed and a student has not submitted anything. By that point it may be too late to get the student back on track, especially with an accelerated degree program.
What makes getting behind even more challenging are the negative feelings associated with it. In my experience as an educator, the longer students feel frustrated, the more hopeless they are likely to become in the long term. Their attitude may shift from "I'm not sure" to "I don't know" to "I can't" as a final disposition. When students reach that point, rehabilitation becomes very challenging for instructors.
What I ask myself, and I ask other educators as well, is this: What are you willing to do to help prepare your students ahead of time to avoid this situation from occurring? How do you encourage your students as they make an attempt to be involved in the learning process? Do you recognize their struggles? More importantly, when you know they have given up, what do you do or what are you willing to do to help them get back on track?
The Hopeful Student
Every student starts out hopeful to some degree when they begin a class. A new class represents an opportunity to continue to make progress, or make improvements if the last class did not result in a positive outcome. Even if students are apprehensive about their new instructor, or what might be expected for their performance in class, rarely do they feel hopeless when the class begins. Some students may lose their sense of determination after the first week, and they find out what the reality of the class will be like. However, the initial willingness to participate and be involved is there.
The hopeful student has outward signs which include being actively engaged and present in class, along with submitting their assignments on time. This is also a time when they are likely to be the most responsive to their instructor, as to listening and/or responding to feedback provided. This is when initial impressions are made and new working relationships are formed. Students will remain in this state until the first challenge is experienced, which may be as early as the first week, when they attempt to read the assigned materials or complete the required learning activities.
When looking at the many qualities a student needs to be successful, hope may not be the first one every educator puts on their list. However, I have discovered that it is hope which motivates students in the first place to begin a degree program, whether they hope to make a change in their job, career, or life. If a student has hope, they likely believe it is possible to make the change they are seeking or want. If I can nurture that feeling, and connect it to the effort they are making, it can serve as a powerful source of motivation for them and sustain them when they are faced with challenges. This is especially important as the reality of weekly course expectations settles in and students work to complete the required learning activities.
The Hopeless Student
As a student experiences the learning process, and interacts with the instructor and class, there are going to be emotions experienced. For example, a student may feel as if this is a productive environment and one in which they can learn, and be supported while they attempt to complete what is expected. That is one of many potential positive emotions a student may experience. There may also be negative emotions felt and those feelings can have a direct impact on the sense of hope a student has about their ability to succeed, or at least complete what is expected of them.
Also consider how a student interacts with the classroom environment and the potential triggers which cause emotional reactions. The learning process is sensory by nature. Students read, listen, write, think, process, understand, and comprehend information while they are actively involved in their studies. For an online class, the hands-on aspect of learning is missing and yet the overall experience is still the same. This is a process of mental engagement and through engagement of the mind, there can be emotional trigger points experienced.
As an example, questions from a student are an indicator something has been triggered. In contrast, an aggressive tone within something a student has communicated indicates a different type of emotional trigger. Triggers are often related to sticking points and conflict. Students may not understand something they are reading, they cannot complete a required task, they may lack a specific skill, or anything else related.
If students can manage the resulting feelings triggered, and find help or answers, the problem or issue experienced becomes resolved. However, if they cannot receive assistance when needed, or find answers on their own, the negative emotions felt may continue to build. This is when frustration can turn to aggression, or feeling stuck can lead to a sense of defeat. If left unchecked long enough, students may be left with a feeling of hopelessness regarding their ability to learn.
The Helpful Instructor
Can these negative feelings experienced by students be avoided or prevented? It is likely an instructor cannot always state with certainty every student will feel happy at all times; however, there are steps which can be taken to minimize the impact of negative feelings and prevent those feelings from escalating into long term issues.
Become an Active Participant: An instructor sets the tone of the class, and this includes how accessible and responsible he/she will be for students. If a class is to be student-centered, instructors must be involved as active participants. Students need to see their instructors as someone who teaches, manages the class, and has empathy for the student experience.
Help Students Prepare: An instructor must also be looking ahead and try to foresee potential issues and problems which may be experienced, and help students prepare. For example, there may be a challenging assignment due at the end of the week and an instructor knows from prior classes the areas in which students have struggled. One method of preparing students could include posting tips and suggestions, to help them plan ahead.
Watch for Signs of a Struggle: Instructors need to also be alert for signs of a struggle within students and intervene with a caring attitude. These signs can be evident in discussion responses, missed deadlines, or the tone of communication. A challenge for instructors is upholding school policies while helping students who are in need. Whenever exceptions need to be made, and it goes beyond the authority provided as a faculty member, this is the time to contact the school and explain the situation. Acting as an authoritarian does not build relationships, but demonstrating warmth while coaching and guiding students does.
Classroom management is a matter of providing controlled guidance and maintaining active involvement in your class. When students know their instructors are available, active, and present, they are more likely to feel hopeful about the class, their role in the process of learning, and their ability to succeed. If you can nurture positive feelings within your students, they are going to be much more willing to try to complete their required tasks, participate in discussions, and even make mistakes along the way, as they know someone is there to help them. This is one of the most positive aspects of adult learning, when students feel hopeful and engaged in class.