When students begin your class, do you inherently expect they will read the Course Syllabus and related materials, then comply as required, without any hesitation? Or could it be possible students will arrive in your class, on the first day, and find you have created a learning environment which is slightly different in some manner? Perhaps you have expectations which are different to some degree, you’ve written the syllabus differently in some manner, or your approach to teaching is more direct (or hands-on) than the previous instructors. In other words, rarely do students transition from one class to the next without having to adapt in some manner, even when school policies and processes remain the same. There are no two instructors who are alike or teach in the same manner, even when the curriculum has already been developed for them. There is always an initial adjustment period for students.
If students have taken several classes, they may be fairly used to the process of having to adapt from one class to the next. However, a common complaint among students is a lack of consistency with grading. This can occur with courses that have a standardized rubric and set of instructions, simply because there will always be a subjective element to written assignments in which the instructor must interpret the outcomes. What is frustrating for students is knowing they may have to adapt, but not being prepared for changes in a new class. You’ll find your students have developed working patterns which help them manage their time, especially if they are non-traditional, working adult students who are attempting to balance multiple priorities at the same time. The less prepared your students are to adapt to your expectations and method of teaching, the less productive they will be in your class.
Adaptability and Learning
Another aspect of adaptability for students involves the learning process. Most adult students have established ideas, a knowledge base, and beliefs about the topics they are studying. If they are to learn new ideas, ways of thinking, change beliefs, or accept new knowledge, they will need to adapt their mindset in some manner. This is the developmental process of being engaged in learning, one which an instructor can help facilitate. It is also a process with which students can struggle, especially if they do not see a reason to change how they think or what they believe. This is especially true with academic writing and critical thinking. Often it is the instructor who challenges students to change in some manner, whether in thoughts or behaviors, and this can be difficult if students are not prepared.
Now consider how much more challenging this entire process can be for online instructors. With a traditional classroom, students and the instructor meet on a specified date and time, which means the instructor is available to help address questions and concerns. However, with an online class the instructor is not always present each time students are online and in the classroom. This distance between the instructors and the students automatically creates a sense of separation and students are less likely to contact their instructor directly. I’ve found with the younger generation, those who are used to communicating via text and social media, they will rarely call me during Office Hours, no matter how many days per week I offer those hours. This loss of immediate interaction can have a negative impact on a student who is experiencing frustration as they attempt to adapt their way of thinking during the learning process, which means an online instructor must find new methods of preparing their students.
Other Important Considerations
There is an adult learning principle to consider and it is called andragogy. What this means is adult students are self-directed, they do not need to be told to learn, and they need to know why they are learning what they are learning. In other words, this is not mandatory education, such as primary education, which means they want to be present in the classroom. While they may not always be able to identify their own needs from a self-development perspective, at least you understand why they are present in your classroom. It is a matter of choice and it is linked to a specific need. This makes it even more important for you, as their instructor, to help them understand why they need to learn what they are studying, why they should consider adapting their point-of-view, and why they need to change certain developmental behaviors or thoughts.
Another consideration is the reaction you might expect when students begin adapting their beliefs or ways of thinking, or they begin to change certain behaviors, such as their academic writing skills. You should consider their working history and how long they have made a habit of these thoughts and behaviors, as expecting an overnight change will likely not be possible. It requires nurturing change over time and with a supportive attitude. If you approach it from a demanding attitude, one of compliance and done immediately, you are likely to find yourself faced with a very emotional reaction from your student. A supportive approach will result in a less defensive reaction from your student and the result will likely be a student who will try and then try again. Your continued support is needed, from one attempt and success, to the next.
4 Methods to Prepare Students for Adaptability and Change
#1. Be Supportive and Nurture Development
Your disposition, as an instructor, is the most important aspect of any student adapting to the learning process and making any type of change, whether in their ways of thinking or behaviors. In your supportive attitude, you can help prepare your students by explaining why they need to adapt or change. This sounds like a very basic and simplistic step, yet it is one which is often overlooked. For example, if you make a notation in your feedback that an introductory paragraph was too basic and needs to be written at a graduate level, but offer nothing further, what really have you done to help this student change? You can take it a step further by explaining what you mean, offer resources, offer to speak with your student, and share strategies. Always set your student up for success. Your role is not just to grade, but to help develop your students.
#2. Prepare Your Students and Build Momentum
Remember that the first attempt a student makes may be the most important. If students are voicing a new belief on the online discussion board, let it be a safe space for them to do so, provided it is done in a respectful manner. Encourage divergent thinking and encourage them to consider multiple perspective by using prompts which engage their critical thinking skills. Or when they try to improve their academic writing skills and you see an improvement, be sure to let them know you’ve observed it when you provide feedback. While it may not be perfect the first time, the initial feedback after the first time is crucial to building momentum. If students know you have their back, they will keep going in their attempts. You can even suggest midpoints to check in with them and see how they are progressing, just to let them know you are there and available to assist them. This will help them avoid the mental setbacks which are possible when working on developmental issues, and help to build their self-esteem.
#3. Developing Appreciative Feedback
Regardless of where each student is at in the development process, always show appreciation for what they have accomplished. The use of appreciation, especially in online education, is one of the most effective tools I have found over the past decade. This simple strategy of showing how much you value the work completed by your students does more to boost the morale of students than any grade or outcome they can experience. While you may always have deficits and areas of development to address, you can always find something to appreciate. The fact a student has turned in a paper and made an attempt is reason enough to show appreciation. For online instructors, appreciation goes a long way towards closing the distance gap and helping students feel their instructor is a real person. While this disposition towards students does not directly prepare them for adaptability, it creates a mindset which is less defensive and open to change.
#4. No Matter What, Explain and Explain Again
As an instructor, never take for granted your students know all school policies and processes, no matter how long they have attended the school. In addition, never assume they have studied the syllabus at length and have memorized your expectations. If something is important to you, then explain it to your students, and then explain again through other forms of reinforcement. This will prevent your students from feeling unprepared and later blindsided when they are graded, evaluated, or somehow measured against these standards or expectations, and believe they were never fairly prepared for them. This will only create feelings of resistance and ultimately derail your developmental efforts.
You Are the Key to Their Success
As an online educator for over a decade, I can tell you I am still learning myself about the best ways in which to help prepare my students for the learning process. I read the end-of-course evaluations to see if I can learn about sticking points and how I can adapt and change myself or my teaching strategies. What I never want to do is to expect something from students that I have not properly prepared them for, especially when it comes to developmental issues. Students come to the classroom and they want to learn. They often do not understand what that entails, other than to read a book, perhaps write a paper and take a test. We as educators know there is much more to the process, and to help students understand this requires time, patience, and a lot of effort on our parts. For those of us who teach online classes, our time period is usually very short when compared to traditional classes. What I try to do is to focus on helping students excel from where they are at now, and prepare them to continue to grow. Often a willingness to grow and adapt is a significant accomplishment.
What will also be of benefit is trying to help inspire them as an instructor. Showing appreciation is a step in this direction. If you can be of an even disposition with them, even when they express their emotions of frustration, you can be the steady constant they need in this developmental process. Often students who are inspired by their instructors not only adapt as they learn, they then develop goals for their lives as well. They see a future application of what they have learned and they want to do something with the knowledge they have gained. The adaptability then extends from the classroom into their lives, which is transformative for them. This is the type of educator we can all aspire to be and it starts with our disposition towards the learning process and our students. If we can see people instead of processes, and appreciate each student regardless of their strengths or struggles, we can then become someone who inspires students and prepares them to be ready to learn.
Dr. Johnson specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA.