All posts by The Worry Free Writer

Building Relationships with Online Students

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For the past 11 years, I have been working with a company whose sole focus is helping people build relationships, both personally and professionally. I have helped hundreds of business owners develop a strategy for communicating with their customers in a way that creates long-term relationships. The secret lies in appreciation.

People want to be seen and heard; we want to be known. With the simple act of sending out appreciation to those in our life, celebrating their successes, empathizing with them when life gets hard, we tap into that core desire to be known.

Here’s the interesting thing–we don’t have to be physically present with a person to build a relationship with him/her. We can use our words to reach out in kindness to the people in our lives, and you never know what the result might be.

I try to keep this in mind when interacting with my online students. In the online forum, we don’t have facial expressions or tone of voice to convey concern, so we have to be extra careful in our communication.

In my online classes…

  • I try to be more personal than I might be in my ground classes. I have an About Me page that gives them an introduction to me, keep my profile picture current, and respond to discussion posts frequently.
  • In my interactions with students, I allow myself to reveal a little bit more about who I am than I typically do–this helps students to see me as a person. This means that I try to make connections with their experiences (Oh, I have a toddler, too!) or share stories from my life to illustrate points.
  • I use their names in my responses (both to discussion posts and e-mails) and sign off with my name.
  • When students send me a message with a challenge they are having, my first response is empathy, instead of suspicion. I’m so sorry for your loss, I’m sorry you aren’t feeling well, I’m sorry you’re confused…all of these statements help students to feel heard and known.
  • I try to include videos of myself or tutorials with my voice whenever possible–this allows students to see me and hear me. It is amazing what a difference just having a glimpse into a person’s personality can make. And our online students don’t have any other way, really, to see us or to learn anything about us that meeting us in person might tell them. (The style of our clothes, the way we do our hair, our dialect–these things give clues about our personality and identity that online students miss out on!)
  • In some semesters, I have even sent my students a series of cards–one welcoming them to the class, another encouraging them mid-semester, and a final card congratulating them for completing the semester. Not only does this provide additional encouragement, but it creates a tangible point of connection.
  • When I’m on campus, I invite students to join me. Last fall, I gave online students extra credit for visiting me in my office in costume on Halloween. I extended invitations for students to join me at a presentation on campus–again for extra credit. Not only does this help build relationships, but, even if students don’t participate, it creates a culture of connectivity in the online classroom.
  • Even using Zoom to do office hours or hold live Q & A sessions can help students feel supported and connected.

The point is that online students need us to be real people–and they need to be seen as real people. When we make the effort as teachers to connect to our students, it pays off. Students may not be buying anything from us, but they are still our customers in a way. Their success ensures the continuing success of our colleges.


How Students Inspire Me

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Every once in awhile I still have the old nightmare–the one where I wake up and realize that I am late for the final…in a class I forgot about all semester. Up until a few semesters ago, I thought that could only be a nightmare, and then a student e-mailed me the last week of class and told me he totally forgot about the class. He was hoping he could get caught up.

I know that students can have some really terrible circumstances in their lives. They have unexpected illnesses (one semester a student got a cancer diagnosis), children get sick (another student had a child hospitalized at PCH), family members die.  I’ve had students kicked out of their homes, in the middle of horrid divorces, etc.

And yet many of these students persevere through it all. Some even earn As and Bs in my class. What makes them different from the students who have a hard week at work and simply throw in the towel, never to be heard from again?

I can’t speak for all of my amazing students, but I can speak for myself. The second semester of my sophomore year at NAU was probably one of my most difficult. I got married the Saturday after the Fall semester ended. At the beginning of the Spring semester, I went to the ER for severe pain that continued off and on for months. Right before Spring Break, my dad had a massive heart attack at 49 and passed away.  After another visit to the ER in April, the doctors finally diagnosed a kidney stone, and I was rushed into surgery. In the meantime, my husband and I were supposed to be moving out of our apartment, so my family had to step in and help get us moved. And yet…and yet. I earned all As that semester (I was taking 18 or 21 hours–don’t remember which)–except for one B in the second semester of Organic Chemistry.  How did I do that? I was focused on my goals. I did what I had to do.

I like to tell my students this story at the beginning of the semester to help them stay focused: Imagine that you are at the top of a highrise building. There is a 2×4 balanced between the building you are on and another one across the street. A ice storm is swirling around you. You can feel the building swaying in the wind and icy snow falls in sheets. Would you cross that icy 2×4 for $1,000? $10,000? $1,000,000? Now…imagine that your two year old is clinging for dear life to that board just outside that other building.

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There will always be hard things. If we don’t have a strong enough reason for being where we are, those hard things will stop us. But if our reason is big enough, we can conquer anything.  For many students, having a clear vision for the future can help them keep going when the going gets tough.



Lemon Lavender Cookies…

Last fall, I found myself teaching on campus for the first time since Spring 2010. As prepared my lesson plans for the semester, I searched my old files and sent the online course I’ve been developing for over a decade back to its beginnings. Reincorporating all the in-class activities and instruction that are lost in the online format reminded me just how much online students are missing out on.

Yes, online courses offer students opportunities that didn’t exist when I started teaching. They can work full time and still attend classes. They can stay home with their kids and attend classes. They can care for sick loved ones and attend classes. Online classes offer students with certain challenges, like PTSD, the ability to learn without fear.

Yet, our online students are missing out. They are missing out on getting to see us face to face. On seeing examples worked out in front of them. On being able to work with groups in class–to gain understanding that might be explained by a peer just a slightly different way that finally clicks. On the hands-on activities that illustrate concepts that are difficult to explain online.

Likewise, we are missing out, too. We are missing out on getting to know some amazing students. If they don’t feel connected to us, they might not feel safe sharing what is going on in their lives. We miss out on getting to be a part of the campus culture with our students–to hear what is important to them. And we miss out on things like lemon lavender cookies made by a longtime chef who is studying to become a nurse.

While we find ways to bring more connections to our students–connections with each other, with us, with the course content–we can acknowledge both the benefits and the frailties of online learning. And, hopefully, that knowledge will help us to mindfully create a better experience for our students.


What I Learned from QM

Last fall, I had the opportunity to submit a course for QM certification, and I learned that the course was approved for certification yesterday. Since our topic this week is evaluation, I thought I’d take a moment and reflect on my experience with the process.

Though we all have access to the QM standards, and we are supposed to be using those standards as guidelines for our courses, actually submitting a course is an intense process. It is not enough to know that assignments connect to course learning outcomes, for example, you have to be able to articulate how they connect to folks who may not even be familiar with your discipline.

At times, I found myself fighting the process. I mean, how many students actually care about which course outcome an assignment connects to? Ha! Even so, as I finished the process of my course review, I found that I had a new appreciation for this intense sort of evaluation.

Seeing my course through fresh eyes also gave me several ideas for making the course easier to navigate, more interesting visually (adding tabs and using Canva for fun module and weekly navigation links), and less cluttered. It also forced me to think through accessibility issues, like having alt tags and video transcripts.

Overall, the process was a great learning experience, and I’m looking forward to applying what I learned this go-round as I begin the process of certifying another of my online courses. ?




Creating Culture in the Online Classroom–6×6 Week 2

While students who attend classes on campus are exposed to the diverse student population of their college/university as they attend classes, walk across campus, and eat in the dining hall, online students may not even have a picture of the other students in their classes. Likewise, while college campuses might strive to create community through campus events, clubs, and school spirit, online students can be left out of the loop because they are spending time in an online environment.

Whether they are returning students or first time attenders, online students likely have families, jobs, and other responsibilities that prompt them to choose to take their classes online. So, they may know about campus events, but not have the time or ability to get involved. Regardless of their other commitments, it is likely that online students are simply missing all of the flyers posted about campus, the buzz from other students, etc, that help to spread the word about those events.

Online students, who already can feel disconnected from their fellow students and their instructors, can feel even more distant from the campus itself. Since we know that being a part of the community is one of the key components to student success, it is important to help students in online classes connect with each other and with what is happening on campus.

Taking photos of flyers and posting upcoming events in the online classroom is a simple way to engage students. We might also encourage students to attend particularly important events by creating assignments tied to those events, even for extra credit. Inviting students to campus for conferences is another way to engage students in the campus community–offering ‘swag & chocolate’ for students who drop by on certain days is another fun way to get students on campus.

While this task is perhaps more easily accomplished by full time faculty with offices on campus than by those of use who live in the online realm 100% of the time, it doesn’t take much extra time to create a space for students to feel connected with the campus culture and with each other. If it supports student success, I think it’s worth doing.




Kindness Matters–6×6 Week One

Last fall, I had the privilege of bringing some of my ENG 101 students to a seminar with Dr. Rupert Nacoste. His presentation, entitled, “Respect Starts with Me–How to Handle Neo-Diversity Anxiety” encapsulated for students some of the key points in his book, Taking on Diversity: How We Can Move from Anxiety to Respect.  (I highly recommend this book, by the way!)

Dr. Nacoste points out that we are in a time of vast social change, and notes that change tends to make people nervous. Often we don’t know how to deal with situations or with folks who are different than we are; yet, we are thrust into these diverse situations every day–especially in the academic world. His solution to a very complex situation is actually very simple, something that perhaps we learned in kindergarten once upon a time–kindness.  Every human being should be treated with respect and dignity. It’s ok to acknowledge our differences; we don’t all have to look alike, think alike, etc. But we do have to exercise kindness at all times.

As faculty, it’s important to note that each of our students comes to our classrooms with different experiences that have shaped them as people and have informed their ideas about the world around them. We have an amazing opportunity and grave responsibility to model kindness as we accept students where they are and show them how to converse with others of different backgrounds and opinions with kindness and respect.