When she came into the Dean’s office, the student was confrontational right from the start. “I’m not learning a thing in this course. The teacher is not giving me the responses I need.”
Sound familiar? I suspect many similar incidents are being played out around the world, particularly with adult learners in an online course. There are many possible ways to address this kind of situation, but one of the most important is to be sure that students understand the learning model that your school is providing. This will help get students on your side and increase retention.
Many, if not most, online schools have adopted some form of what is broadly known in educational theory as “constructivism,” the idea that students construct their own knowledge of the subject matter through a variety of interactions, including diligent self-study of texts and peer-to-peer learning. Constructivism contrasts with the so-called traditional learning formats that put greater emphasis on transferring knowledge from teacher to student.
Although your school may not have consciously decided that you will follow a constructivist model, it’s likely that you have the basic elements of it already in place in your online courses. For example, in many schools it is decidedly a negative if the instructor provides too much in the way of hints to difficult questions in assignments. The same kind of consideration applies to discussion questions. The best discussion questions do not have definitive answers; they are meant to provide learning opportunities by encouraging interpretation, sharing of prior knowledge, and having students participate in challenging academic argumentation.
When students start by complaining they are not being given the right responses it may be a sign their expectations are not in line with the learning model you are providing. While I personally believe (as my co-author and I state in our book) that students should be exposed to the theories behind the practice of online education, there are plenty of ways to get students on your side simply by telling them truthfully what kinds of learning opportunities they can make in your online classrooms, particularly through discussions. Some language you might adopt: “Meet students from all over the world. Exchange ideas and perspectives. Learn from your fellow students with backgrounds in healthcare, science, social work, psychology, business, education and more. Develop career-boosting learning partnerships and friendships online. Hone the group project skills you will need for professional success.” I think you will find that students will not be disappointed if you build up these kinds of expectations. In all the classes I have taught students uniformly placed discussions as the most enjoyable and worthwhile aspect of the course (way ahead of the textbook and the instructor).
In short, students are less likely to complain if they know what kinds of learning methods and challenges they will face. You can get them on your side by clearly explaining what you have to offer – and that may not be your subject matter expertise so much as their opportunities to build their own knowledge.
- Anthony Birch, Ph.D.