Recommendation 3.3: Maintaining Presence
Plan and provide a variety of ways to communicate with students in order to maintain an active presence within the course.
Synopsis from Self-Review
Avoid unnecessary frustration by using effective communication strategies to connect personally to the learners, to identify and meet individual students’ needs, and to encourage students to participate. By communicating frequently with your class, you can begin to build and maintain a strong teaching presence throughout the semester. Teaching presence (i.e., the sense of an instructor actively guiding and supporting both the social and cognitive aspects of a course) can seem much easier to create in an in-person classroom where visual and auditory cues are abundant. Without these cues, we must attend more carefully to the frequency of our outreach to ensure students feel supported, included, and engaged.
How to Put Into Practice
Plan for and commit to regular communication with your class, ideally in a variety of media, to humanize you and provide consistent guidance for your students. Many practices can help you sustain a positive, pro-active teaching presence in your course. They are especially crucial in online courses, where students often miss out on the feedback cues available through facial expressions and body language, as well as the informal feedback of conversations after class or in corridors. But they can also ease the teaching in-person courses by reducing misunderstandings and encouraging students to reach out appropriately and proactively for help.
- Plan to reach out regularly: weekly messages or Canvas Announcements can establish a course rhythm for students and situate you as an active guide during the semester. While it may be tempting to wait to communicate until major deadlines or exams, this can create anxiety for students and ultimately be more work for you as last minute questions multiply.
- Clearly communicate the best ways for students to get in touch with you, and when they can expect a reply. (See Recommendation 3.2: Expectations for Communications)
- It’s important to acknowledge when you receive feedback, a submission or another message from students by email, particularly if it is time-sensitive. Reply to let them know you received it.
- If your schedule allows, arrive for synchronous meetings (in person or online) 5-10 minutes early and offer to stay 10 minutes late to address questions that come up. Let students know you will be available during these times.
- Check in with students via Canvas Announcements or Canvas Inbox throughout the term. Reiterate how to get in touch with you, and remind them that you are happy to help.
- Hold regular online office hours (including short slots for individual students), and use a mid-semester survey for students to share what is and what is not working well.
- Consider which communications should be for the full class vs. individualized (e.g., use the “Message students who…” tool in Canvas Gradebook to communicate with students who did not submit a particular assignment or scored below a certain level).
- Consider reaching out to missing students to encourage their participation. Review the “People” navigation link to see the date and time of the learner’s last interaction within the course.
- When sending a message to individual students who may be struggling, clearly communicate your reason for reaching out—for instance, to offer resources, encouragement, or (potentially) accommodations, rather than to reprimand.
- Use assignment feedback, grading rubrics, and the Canvas Gradebook as forms of required regular and substantive communication. (See Recommendation 3.4: Providing Feedback)
- Encourage and allow for honest and direct feedback on what’s working, what’s not working and whether assignments are too little / too much / just right. (See Recommendation 1.5: Collecting Student Feedback)
- Many instructors use Canvas Discussions or Piazza to set up a community discussion board for frequently-asked questions, muddiest points, and more. Q&A forums like these bring the advantages of allowing students to answer one another’s questions, and compiling all your communications in one place.
Bringing your personality into your teaching presence can help motivate students and contextualize your future feedback. Appreciate that this will likely look different for instructors of different backgrounds and identities. Be mindful of your needs when considering your own strategies or observing fellow instructors. Ultimately, building personal connection into your interactions with students can make a big difference for their sense of belonging to the course or field.
- Be conversational and personal, to the extent that feels appropriate for your presence in the classroom.
- Include personal information that you feel comfortable sharing (i.e., hobbies, work experience, family, pets, etc.) in your instructor profile on the course website. Personalize your course introductions, announcements, or grading with audio or video. (Remember to include transcripts or captions.)
- Address class participants by name and use their pronouns correctly.
- When you make mistakes pronouncing a student’s name or using their pronouns, acknowledge with compassion, correct yourself calmly, and move on.
- Take note of, and touch base with students who are not participating. If you can relate to their struggle, consider sharing. If you cannot, it’s all right to acknowledge that, too.
- Provide individual support as needed/possible to help students with the course and technology questions.
- Direct students to outside resources (e.g. the McBurney Disability Resource Center, University Health Services, etc.) to maintain appropriate personal boundaries.
Be active at the end of your course
Students may feel overwhelmed at the end of the course as they complete tasks, projects, and assignments and may need extra guidance. It is important for instructors to provide constructive feedback and closure to the course. Ways to help students during this time include:
- Send an email with a closing message to students.
- Show concern for your learners and understanding of their workload and personal situations.
- Direct learners to specific tasks, deadlines, and requirements so they feel more in control of what they need to accomplish.
- Provide specific and prompt feedback on final activities and projects.
- Make any final project outputs available to students even after the class is over.
- Alert students on how long course materials will continue to be available after the end of class.
- Inform when the course evaluation is available, and encourage students to complete it.
- Keeping students informed and engaged offers further links and strategies.
- Communication and participation strategies on the DesignTeachEngage website details additional techniques for successful communication in an online course.
- Watch a webinar about managing your online presence (58 minute recording with written summary and transcript).
- Look at examples of how to create contracts to improve communication and reduce anxiety.
What is this?
There are many types of communication possible within a course, as well as many strategies and techniques to encourage successful interaction among students. Plan to reach out to students frequently and compassionately throughout the semester.
Why is this important?
Regular and substantive interaction between the student and instructor is a requirement of the university, based on federal guidelines. Students in online courses who are connected to their instructor and peers only via technology may feel isolated and alienated. Synchronous sessions are not automatically “substantive interactions.” Students need the support, feedback, and communication that make up your “teaching presence.”
Where is this?
Use announcements (email, audio, video, text), virtual office hours, an online forum (e.g. discussion board) and other communication tools.
Success Factor 3: Instructor-Student Interaction
The course is designed to include regular and substantive interaction and communication between student and instructor. Regardless of modality, a fully-realized educational experience provides students with ample opportunity to ask questions, receive answers, and obtain feedback and guidance from instructors.