Social learning and modelling through interactions
In this unit we have outlined the important role that social connection and modelling has on learning. We have also presented evidence of the positive impact that facilitator presence via student-facilitator interactions can have on student cognitive and emotional engagement (attention, interest, enjoyment, and mental health) and behavioural engagement (improving student performance and outcomes and reducing attrition and academic integrity violations). In this section we’ll look at some practical strategies and examples that you can customize and apply in any online course you are facilitating.
There are lots of suggestions here and you need not feel that you should take them all on. Think about each strategy you employ as being one concrete step you’ve taken towards better supporting your students.
Tone, quality, and context of interactions
All interactions with your students are opportunities for modelling, and for this reason it is important to keep in mind the tone, quality, and context in which these interactions occur. Every interaction with your students, whether through announcements, email exchanges, virtual meetings, or discussion posts, sets a tone of discourse and communication. The more open and honest you are with students, the more likely they will be to feel a real sense of connection with you. It is important, however, to balance the sense of friendly familiarity with academic professionalism.
We each have a slightly different balance between these two that we are comfortable with, but it is important that there is a balance. If we lean too far towards friendly familiarity, we may lose credibility
and the respect
of our students. If we completely edit out our personality for all posts or interactions, that can feed into psychological distancing
or a sense of greater transactional distance.
Striking that balance between friendly and familiar (enabling student to identify with you) and professional (garnering respect and credibility) is important for the development of the kind of modelling/observational learning relationship that can imbue deep and rewarding value into an online course, for both you and your students.
If you expect your students to show up and engage in your course, then you must model the kind of engagement you’d like to see in your students. There are many ways to build presence in a course and stay in contact with your class. You do not need to spend all day everyday responding to discussion posts and emails; however, if you appear too infrequently in the course and your interactions with students are not very helpful, then you are less likely to see students making quality contributions to the course (e.g., discussion, group work, or peer assessments may suffer).
Reminder for teaching assistants
If you are a TA, it will be important to discuss with the course instructor what your particular facilitator role in the course will be. The instructor may have a plan for the modality of interactions with students you’ll be responsible for (e.g., through monitoring discussion boards, answering emails, grading, etc.,). TAs are often asked to interact with student in any combination of these modalities, so it’s useful to start to think through how you might apply some of these strategies in a way that feels authentic to you and relevant to your discipline.
Starting out on the right foot: Welcome
First impressions matter, so start off on the right foot by welcoming students into your course the way you might welcome someone into your classroom or home. You can welcome students with a typed message or a personalized home video distributed through the Announcements function present in most Learning Management Systems (LMSs). Some suggested talking points for a useful welcome announcement are listed below:
- Introduce yourself. Briefly tell students a bit about yourself and what you are excited about in the course (content or assessments). Try to keep it short, but consider including a hook of some kind to pique their interest. You can direct them to a page in the course syllabus or an About the Instructor or About the TA page where you provide more information about yourself. The more information you provide about yourself, the more likely they are to relate to you.
- Show them around. Help students quickly orient to the organization and layout of the course. Courses may be organized in different ways that are not always intuitive for students. Provide them with a quick overview of where they can find critical information in the course (especially the course schedule). If there is a task, activity, or assessment that they must complete in the first week or two (e.g., join groups, introduce themselves in a discussion forum, complete a pre-learning quiz, etc.), point that out for them in your welcome message. Remember, most online courses are self-paced, and without some explicit direction some students may not really dig into course content until week 2 or 3.
- Help them feel at ease. Highlight for your students how they can get help and support from you. What are you committing to in terms of communication and monitoring? What should they expect in terms of email response wait times? It’s helpful to set these expectations early. If you have included details about this elsewhere in your course (e.g., the syllabus or a contact information page), point out that this information can be found there.
This first announcement can really set the tone for the course. Take some time to really think it through. Try to keep it succinct and limited to just the very most important details. If the announcement is too long, some of your students may start to wander off before they get to the end.
Let your personality shine through
We all have different personalities and teaching styles and you shouldn’t feel that you need to conform to any one style. Authenticity is important not only for ensuring that you don’t spend excessive time editing and sculpting your persona, but also because when interactions online are not authentic, students see that and appreciate them less. Below are some examples that help to illustrate how different personalities and instructional styles come through. While authenticity is key, we can and should take advantage of one of the benefits of asynchronous interactions with students, which is that it provides a natural temporal lag that enables us to be more mindful of what we present to students and how we respond to their inquiries.
Strategies for bringing your personality into your course
Here are three tips for putting your best online facilitator self forward, adapted from Errol Craig Sull (2012):
Establish a friendly and inviting personality on day one of class. You have only one chance to make a first impression, and in the online classroom this is especially true — and important — as your personality on day one can be examined, experienced, and revisited throughout the course. Thus, any postings on day one that speak of you must convey that you care about the class, the students, and the subject, and that you are looking forward to the course and are eager to help your students.
Sometimes you may need be an actor who wears the right personality. Your everyday, “Hey, this is me” personality might not be the one that is right for online teaching, and that’s fine … as long as you can play the role of an online instructor with a great, enthusiastic personality for your students.
Use your interest in the subject to help build your online teaching personality. You were selected to teach your subject because of your academic and/or professional expertise and interest in the subject, so share it with your students. Beyond what has been pre-stocked in your course, you can often add articles, pictures, essays, cartoons, interviews, YouTube (and the like) snippets, and factoids that add richness and depth to your subject. The students will immediately know you really are “into” the subject, and your excitement and enthusiasm will spill over.
Welcome message formats
If you are most comfortable communicating and interacting in text and you feel that that’s the best way for your personality and passion to come through, then go for it! Consider adding one or two visual elements, such as a picture to help personalize your message a little more. This could be a picture of you, an avatar you identify with, a picture of your favourite place, or even a beloved pet who is an important part of your life.
If you are comfortable recording yourself, a welcome video can provide an extra dose of presence, helping students see and connect with you.
Welcome message examples
The following is an example of a welcome announcement, which illustrates some of the concepts we have been discussing, such as setting the tone, modeling engagement, letting your personality shine through, and helping to quickly orient students.
Welcome Announcement (Liebsher & Rasmussen, 2020)
In the following example video, the instructor’s animated and theatrical personality comes through. He shares tips on how students can succeed in the course and is transparent about why a particular approach is used that students often question: “Why do we make you do calculations by hand if they can be done by a computer? To help you understand the theory!”
Showing students you care and setting them up for success
How to do well in linear algebra. Reprinted from "Module 7: Fundamental Subspaces" by Wolczuk, D. (n.d.), MATH 235. Copyright D. Wolczuk and University of Waterloo.
In this next example, the instructor shares what she finds fascinating about the topic of her psychology course, Interpersonal Relationships, and highlights some of the key topics and how they might be personally relevant to students.
Getting students interested at the outset
Why study close relationships? Reprinted from "Week 1: Introduction and Research Methods" by Marigold, D., 2012, PSYCH 354R. Copyright 2012 by D. Marigold and University of Waterloo.
Staying connected throughout the term
Keeping students engaged and connected throughout the term is more likely if you also remain engaged and present through the entire term. To this end it is important to find different ways to interact with your students and let them know you are present and available to support their learning and that you care about and are monitoring their progress.
Announcements and reminders
Posting weekly announcements and reminders is a good way to stay engage and remind students of your presence. Announcements may contain information that
- helps students engage more deeply or relate more personally to weekly course content and scaffold metacognition (more details and strategies on this is covered in the unit on student-content interaction);
- helps students with soft skills they are still developing, like time management (including reminders about due dates) and study/academic skills (tips on how to approach assessments, study and writing strategies); and
- reminds students of how and where they can get support when they need it and/or when you will be available in the coming week.
Announcements serve more than a merely practical purpose, and their effect on a course can reach well beyond the information they convey. Announcements are a great opportunity to share something timely, signal care and engagement, thank students for their participation, congratulate the class on the successful completion of a difficult task, or even share a joke or anecdote. When students read an announcement from you at least once a week that signals your clear investment and presence in the course here and now — as it is really unfolding in this particular term for this particular group of students — your presence is more likely to be visible to them, and their emotional engagement in the course is likely to improve. We highly recommend weekly announcements crafted with the same thought and attention to student experience as your initial welcome message.
Staying connected throughout the term can be text-based or you may choose to use video, which adds a personal touch and helps to close that transactional distance.
The following video is a great example of how one might use a weekly video to
- provide students with important information and context that can help to guide their approach to course content;
- encourage students not to simply memorize content, but guide them towards an approach that asks them to consider application and critical thinking;
- foster a sense of instructor engagement, care, and availability, by encouraging students to "reach out" and reminding them of all the ways in which support is available and their progress matters and is being monitored;
- highlight for students how the content may be personally relevant, relating it to other courses in the program and their future careers.
Weekly reminder, support, and engagement
Week 3 introduction. Reprinted from "Week 3" by Rafferty, Z., n.d., REC 251. Copyright by Z. Rafferty.
Modelling engagement and academic conduct
Providing students with explicit instructions is often not sufficient for them to really understand the nuances of many academic and discipline-specific skills, such as academic writing, discourse, debate, or critical thinking. Providing students with applied examples is an important way to model these critical or more nuanced skills which many students struggle with. When we simply tell students to write a paper or consider questions and post to an online discussion, we are assuming that students already know how to engage in this type of academic behaviour. However, even students in higher-level courses struggle with these skills, and some have never had the opportunity to try it out, get feedback on, or observe well-executed examples of these behaviours. Modelling is critical for all those academic behaviours and learning outcomes that really go beyond fact memorization. Below are a couple of strategies that can make a huge difference in the quality of student-student interactions and performance on assessments.
Strategies for modelling academic conduct: Clarifying expectations
Discussion Forum Expectations. If your course has a discussion forum, but there is little guidance around how students should interact, write out some guidelines around student conduct in online discussions:
- Provide some examples of what a meaningful discussion contribution would look like.
- Outline the importance of professional academic discourse (explain what this means) and use of respectful language.
- What are the consequences if someone violates these guidelines.
- Provide some Online Discussion Tips for Students.
Pop into student online discussions, providing occasional comments that help move discussions forward and modelling academic discourse and the types of skills you hope students will develop (e.g., productive debate, critical thinking, and problem-solving).
Assessment Expectations. Another important way of modelling in online courses is to provide students with examples of exemplar assessments (e.g., writing samples, efficient code, or effective ways of solving a problem in your discipline) before students start to work through their assessments. Further, annotating an example of a student assessment, highlighting what the student did, why it worked, or how it could be improved, helps to model the kind of self-monitoring and metacognition that is required for evaluating one’s own work. Students often get this feedback and modelling when it’s too late to impact their performance in the course (e.g., a final paper).
Monitoring student progress
Identifying struggling students early on can have a huge impact on student outcomes and is really not that different from how you might monitor them in an in-person class. What you do with this information can have a huge impact on your online students, making them feel seen and accountable.
Strategies for monitoring student progress
- Look at student performance on early assessments (grades or late submissions)
- Observe participation in early interactions, such as discussions (participation or late responses)
- Survey students to check in and see how they are doing and what they may be struggling with
- Some LMS systems enable you to monitor (through a dashboard or by pulling a report) which course pages or resources students have accessed. You might reach out to students who have accessed few (if any) resources/content pages in the first couple weeks of the course.
- IMPORTANT: Student access to course resources is not a great predictor of student success, which is why this way of tracking students is somewhat controversial. Students may be engaged with learning materials that they downloaded on day one, or they may be using a textbook or other offline resources that are outside of the LMS. The recommendation here is to take this as limited information that MAY identify some students that could benefit from a check-in. Importantly, do not accuse them of neglecting the course or their learning, but simply say that you noticed they may not have accessed some of the materials yet and you were just reaching out to check in and see how they are doing.
Reaching out to students individually can change their trajectory in the course, particularly if you express interest in the barriers they are facing and offer compassionate guidance and support. It often doesn’t take much; sometimes just feeling noticed is enough to motivate a student to re-engage.
In a large research study of undergraduate students who had taken online courses (N>800) conducted by the Centre for Extended Learning at the University of Waterloo, students had the opportunity share their experiences in online courses. One of the key findings of this study was how meaningful and impactful facilitators were on students’ experience and outcomes in online courses (Troop, White, Wilson, & Zeni, 2020). A real scenario shared by one of the students in this study is captured in the case study below (name changed for privacy).
Alice was a student in an online English course and had accidentally missed an assignment deadline. She was feeling overwhelmed by her workload and didn’t even realize she had missed it. One of the course facilitators noticed that she had not submitted her assignment and reached out to Alice by email. He said that he had noticed that she had not submitted her assignment and was checking in to see how she was doing. He offered to grant her a short extension if she would still like to submit. This had a huge impact on Alice, making her feel accountable and cared for:
[A]fter that it felt like okay yeah, I don’t want to screw up on the guy again. I’m going to try and do well. I’m not going to try and bomb the course because they are engaged and enthusiastic about it, and I actually am interested.
Alice shared that not only did she end up doing quite well in the course that she was concerned about “bombing,” but it ended up being one of her favourite courses.
Guidance on providing student support
The most important factor for giving students a sense of being supported is demonstrating how and when they can get help when they need it. It is important that support/help is:
- Timely: The recommendation is email responses within 24 hours. You may have a different time frame or there may be days where you won’t be able to respond to students. If so, make sure that those days or times when you are less available are clear to students so they can plan around your schedule. Keep in mind that many students do their learning at night and/or on the weekend and may be in different time zones.
- Accessible to all students (e.g., not just available at a particular time or through a single modality, such as video conferencing)
- Available through a variety of channels: Email, discussion forums, and online office hours.
Office hours and tutorials online
Office hours and tutorials online can take different forms and not all forms are equally attended or used by students. Below are a few suggestions.
Strategies for online office hours and tutorials
Weekly virtual one-on-one meetings (by phone or video communication). These can be scheduled on an as-needed case-by-case basis. Make sure you let students know the process for scheduling these with you and what purpose they serve (i.e., are they for just chatting and connection or are they reserved for students who are looking for additional help/guidance).
Weekly group-video office hours via video communication software (you may have a tool that is part of your LMS system or your university may have some tools it supports or recommends, e.g., Skype). Typically, weekly office hours are not well attended by students, particularly those that are open to the entire group. Students often feel put on the spot and are not looking to participate at the synchronous time (whatever you choose often does not work for many). If you are going to have an online office hour or scheduled synchronous tutorial, here are some tips and reminders:
- Have something planned. Make sure you explain to students the topic or what will be discussed in the office hour/tutorial. Students will need you to take the lead and provide some structure.
- How should students participate. Make clear what kind of participation is expected and how you’d like students to interact.
- Student preparation. Let students know if they should prepare anything ahead of time, such as talking points, questions, etc.
- Opt for Student-fed, Facilitator-led office hours. The typical unstructured, student-led, format of in-person office hours (or some tutorial), where the session is driven completely by student generated questions does not work well online, as students can feel anxious or uneasy about showing up, not knowing who will be there or whether they will be put on the spot. Instead, create a more structured presentation based on things you know students are struggling with (drawn from prior assessments or by polling/surveying students each week). In this way the content of the tutorial/office hour is fed or based on common areas of confusion/difficulty, but the sessions are structured and led by the facilitator. Leave some time for open Q & A at the end. To boost attendance, let students know what you will cover, they can choose to show up (or watch later - make sure you record), knowing that they will not be required to participate or turn on their camera.
- Provide an asynchronous alternative. To ensure equity in your course, if you choose a synchronous modaility you should proved an asynchronous alternative. You may choose to record the synchronous session and make this available to students who cannot attend at that particular time. If you do record, you must inform the students who are attending that they will be recorded. Alternatively, you may provide a written summary of the tutorial session, including questions asked and answers provided.
Facilitator live times. As a text alternative to weekly group video sessions you might commit to several windows of time each week where you will be active on the class discussion boards (you can find more guidance on facilitating discussions in Unit 5: Student-student interaction). If your course has student discussions, you can use this time to facilitate and monitor active discussions as well as attend to a more general Q&A discussion forum. All facilitators in the course could choose different days/times they are live and active in the course. Provide students with a schedule of these days/times and, importantly, be consistent and stick to them as you would with your regular office hours.
When students know you will be active online, they tend to become more active in the course and in discussions around these times. They may plan their study times to align with these times since they know they are more likely to get prompt responses to their questions. Both you and the students will feel more connected and engaged during these active online windows. An added benefit of doing these in the discussion forums is all questions and conversations are there for all students to see later, so you repeat yourself less and all student have access to the same information.
Formative feedback on assessments
Providing students with formative feedback on assessments is a great way to deepen and support learning, particularly for assessments that measure skills and knowledge that will be returned to repeatedly in the course, or beyond. More information on providing formative feedback can be found in the in the resources below.
Grading and Formative Feedback
The following resources provide helpful guidance on how to provide students with helpful and formative feedback.
Detailed Guide on Online Assessment
Quick tip sheets:
Here are two example rubrics for a writing assignment:
For a more comprehensive overview of formative assessments and grading, see University of California’s online module:
While providing feedback can be time-consuming and time and resources may be very limited for your course, please refer back to Unit 1. Introduction to online learning, where we discuss strategies to help you manage and make the most of your time.
Check and reflect
Now that you have read through several strategies for enhancing student-facilitation interactions take a few moments to review these strategies and identify some that you might adopt or modify and use as you facilitate your online course. You may want to jot down some notes or tasks in your Facilitator Checklist as reminders.
Liebsher, G., and Rasmussen A.M. (2020) GER 230: Vikings!. Centre for Extended Learning, University of Waterloo. Online course, spring 2020.
Sull, E. C. (2012, March 8). Personality matters when teaching online. Retrieved from Faculty Focus: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/personality-matters-when-teaching-online/
Troop, M., White, D., Wilson, K.E., & Zeni, P (2020). The user experience design for learning (UXDL) framework: The undergraduate student perspective. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(3). https://doi.org/10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2020.3.8328