Keeping It Relevant

discussions (1)How do we know that the online student is really grasping the subject matter, I mean really grasping it?  We can assess and grade the assignments submitted in Blackboard, or monitor the quiz results. This gives us a sense of their understanding of the material, but how about that investment in the learning or that enthusiasm in participating in the class.  At the end of each semester, I send out class evaluations to my online students. I’m curious about their online class experience and ask questions that focus more on their sense of connection to the class. I ask students to rate their answers from 1 (very poor) to 5 (Excellent).

A few examples are;

How would you rate your feeling of being connected to the class?

Did you feel safe in expressing your views on the discussion board?

Did you feel the subject material presented was relevant and interesting?

Rate your overall online class experience.

At the end of the survey, I ask students to make any comments they would like to make regarding their personal online experience. Comments have varied; a few comments seem common with students such as;

Discussions that are relevant to the student in their everyday lives are really appreciated by the students.

Keeping the discussions open-ended so students can keep discussions ongoing an allow students to not only explore the topic but learn other opinions and attitudes of others students.

Making students feel safe in the online environment. Maintaining an open honest environment.

So I have maintained a format for all my online classes. All discussion board post, as well as any written assignments, should relate more to the personal experiences and attitudes of the student. Discussions are not based on the textbook, but rather personal life experiences related to the questions that are up for discussion. This does require monitoring and setting the tone from the beginning of the class. This can be done by setting the example of how we respond and perhaps challenge our students in the way we ask additional questions. The quickest way to shut down a discussion is to make a student fell put down or feel attacked.  Students need to feel safe in any online discussion.

All questions should be presented in such a way that each student should be able to relate to each question and how it may relate to their current lives or how they would see it relating to their future lives. What makes a question interesting is relevancy. If I can relate to it, then I have something to say about it. Personalizing the online experience in the discussion board seems to allow the students investment in the class and brings the students closer to each other. I tell students from the beginning of class that there is no right or wrong answer in these online discussions, but students always need to explain their thinking in justifying their opinions and comments.

So what have I learned about online discussions, especially in keeping the online class energized and engaged?

  1. Create a safe environment
  2. Make your topic relevant to the student
  3. Keep the questions open-ended to encourage a more open dialogue
  4. Make expectations clear to students from the beginning
  5. Make your presence known to students by posting announcements, reminders, and providing feedback to comments and assignments.

The best way to learning what is working in your class and what’s not working is to ask your students for feedback. I sometimes ask students questions about the questions I present on the discussion board. Did they feel it helped in their understanding of the chapter that is being reviewed that week? Asking students for feedback could be the best possible way of better understanding the question we always ask ourselves; are my students understanding the information as well as having a positive online experience?



A student shares this information with me which I thought it was fascinating. It deals with information overload.

The internet is almost 25 years old and already every 60 seconds:

160 million emails are sent.

1500 Blog entries are made.

98,000 tweets are shared on Twitter.

694,445 Google searches are completed.

695,000 Facebook status updates are posted.

6,600 photos are uploaded to Flickr.

600 videos are uploaded to YouTube.

The sheer volume of information which is available to us is truly amazing, but perhaps our technology has surpassed our ability to effectively consume so much information. Researchers tend to agree that it’s not the volume of information that is the problem; it’s our inability to organize and process it all without experiencing “information overload, or what neuroscientists like to call “cognitive overload. In recent years, technology strategists have even compared information overload to physical obesity, dubbing it “infobesity. Just as our eyes are sometimes larger than our stomachs, our interest can be significantly greater than our brain capacity.

I teach both online and FTF classes and utilize Blackboard for all my classes. Students submit all their work on Blackboard and receive responses from me on Blackboard as well. We have students who chose sometimes not to attended regular FTF lectures but continue to turn in assignments or submit any other work required in Blackboard.  Levels of understanding of the subject matter will obviously vary and logic should show the FTF students benefit from having a fuller educational experience.

So how can we help prevent students from becoming victims of this notion of infobesity? How do we help students remained focused without getting through college learning the art of “skimming”, you know, that’s when you just learn enough about what your instructor wants you to know. We skim the textbook, skim the information found on the internet, like the proverbial husband who always is being accused of not reading the instructions on a home project, he’ll just “skim it” because he doesn’t need all that other stuff until he realizes he missed something.

We are so easily distracted these days with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube videos, and the list goes on and on. Based on research pertaining to distraction and learning, it was stated that today’s students have shorter attention spans than previous years. This recent PEW study found that a majority of teachers (87%) agree with the assertion that “today’s digital technologies are creating a generation of short attention spans.”

So the dilemma continues because we as educators rely on those digital technologies. We contribute to this notion of information overload. Presentations become better, more visually interesting. Students stay more interested if there are visuals, especially incorporated in your lecture presentations. It’s about keeping your audience interested and engaging and technology allows for this to happen, but let’s not forget the role of the instructor, the captain of the ship, the headliner of the show, where the buck really stops in regards to teaching. Spending an entire class and having the opportunity to look into your students’ eyes and speak to them face to face is the ultimate kind of technology, the human kind.

I find that breaking up my class with one lecture using PowerPoint presentations and then alternating the next class, talking about the subject matter in a much less formal approach with no use of any technology, just an old fashion “chat and share” about the subject matter. This usually turns into more of a forum for questions, because as we all know, no “proper” student would interrupt the professor in the middle of a visual/technological presentation, now would they? Obviously, I’m kidding about the proper student thing but does shed more truth than not.

The above model works for me and I think for the students as well. There is no getting around technology, but how we effectively use it to enhance learning is the real challenge and perhaps provides the solution as well.

The Donkey in the Well


At the beginning of a lecture on the effects of stress, I told this story to my class:

One day a farmer’s donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up anyway; it just wasn’t worth it to retrieve the donkey.

He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he quieted down.

A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw. With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up.

As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!

So what’s the moral of the story?
Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a steppingstone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up! Shake it off and take a step up.

One student raised his hand and said, “That was great story professor, but being a student in college today has its own set of stressors.”

Ahh, the perfect opportunity for a discussion that relates to the topic and has meaning to the class. Dare I take the challenge and meet this potentially hot topic head on?

OK, I’ll bite, I asked the student if he would share with us the stressors he was referring to.

“Well to start, feeling intense pressure to obtain high grades, especially if you’re in a program  that may connect with career opportunities,  taking final exams,  trying to establish some kind of social life and  dealing with the costs of college.”

More hands rose to the occasion,  single parents balancing work, school, and family, how layoffs forced career changes and with those changes meant going back to school, and what about after  graduation, will I be able to find a job in my field of interest?, and don’t even start me on the topic of student loans.  The class was beginning to sound more like an AA meeting, with individuals sharing their fears and concerns about the stressors of being a student.

It was stress in action and needless to say the discussion became how these stressors affected the students personally.

Following up on our discussion in class, I came up with some interesting facts about stress and college students.

  • Associated Press conducted a survey in 2008 on college student stress at many colleges throughout the United States. The survey found that four out of ten college students report they feel stressed often. One out of five says they feel stressed most of the time. One out of four students reports experiencing daily stress and one in ten report thoughts of suicide.
  • The American Freshman Norms report from Fall 2010 was revealing in terms of trends in college student attitudes, health, and stressors. Looking at the trends in the last two and a half decades, students’ perception of their own mental health has been on a steady decline. In 2010, males and females’ perception of their own emotional health hit the lowest marks in twenty-five years, decreasing approximately 13% for both males and females from 2009 to 2010.
  • The Spring 2013 edition of the National College Health Assessment, where the average age of those survey was 21 years, reported that almost half (46.3%) of all undergraduate students surveyed felt trauma or overwhelmed in regards to their academic responsibilities. Almost half of the students surveyed reported they have more than average or extreme stress.

We live in interesting times, the rapid acceleration of technology and social change. The emergence of the internet, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and other social media technologies have fundamentally altered the social fabric and the ways we relate. Our students live in a hyper-connected world which gives them even more access to an endless array of choices and information that can be overwhelming and confusing. Psychological research on choices shows that in many cases, more choices lead to more anxiety. In addition, we now have endless access to information that might be psychologically disturbing, via constant news of troubling stories.

Yes, college can be extremely stressful. It is, in many ways, a rite of passage, but with that comes much adjustment difficulty.

This student’s response given in a Blackboard assignment seemed to really encompass the fears and the concerns that many of our students have.

“There is an enormous pressure to know what you are going to do with the rest of your life when you leave school.  People say that it is okay to not know what you want to do, but there is this unspoken expectation. You are expected to have university lined up, or an internship, or a job. I just can’t imagine what I want to do with the rest of my life. That in itself makes me feel unsure and helpless.”

Guide on the Side or Sage on the Stage

7e908088f13147bb5ddfba64838c62b4When I was a practicing therapist, I would often get asked “what’s your theoretical orientation?” I always felt awkward answering that question since I feel one approach could never apply to everyone.  Now as an educator, I’m sometimes asked about my philosophy on education. Are you more teacher-centered or student-centered?  Do I favor more being the “guide on the side” or “sage on the stage?” I guess it depends. I learned to do both, use what I need based on the needs of the class.  I teach eclectically, I never did like prescribing to a particular group, be it political, religious, or anything too trendy,(OK, I own an I Phone).

Eclectic, as the name implies is an approach that incorporates a variety of principles and philosophies in order to create a program to meet the needs of our students. Instead of insisting a strict adherence to one particular approach of school of thought, being electric allows us to employ elements from a range of techniques with the goal of establishing a course that is personally tailored to the needs of the class.  The primary benefit is not only allowing the classroom experience to become more personalized, but it encourages the instructor to be more creative is class design and delivery.

At one time, most therapists rigidly adhered to a single style, but eclectic therapy today is the most common style used by practicing therapists.  It is a more flexible approach that allows the therapist to adapt to each client’s individual needs. Perhaps I adopted my personal teaching style from my experiences being a therapist, but there seems to be a common tie to this approach.

What is best for the student? And how to we as educators not only identify what is best for our students, but how do we approach those needs in our instruction? It is so much easier to teach every class the same and put the responsibility on the student to adjust to the needs of the instructor, but I found in my 27 years practicing as a therapist, this approach will surely guarantee a lack of investment in outcomes in the learning process.

I’ve known many therapists who were reluctant to call themselves “eclectic” in fear of sounding too wishy-washy or being insufficiently focused. In the early stages of my training, I was told by my supervisor, “Never say you are electric, for you will lose credibility with your peers.”  The truth is that most therapists practiced electric therapy, but never admitted it.

So perhaps the question we should all be asking ourselves is not what our teaching style is, but rather, how do we adapt our teaching to our students? Every class is different. No matter how many PSY 101 classes I have taught, they are never the same. The subject material remains the same, but the students will always be different and so should our approach to how we deliver that subject matter. Perhaps like in therapy, unless we our willing to constantly re-create our teaching and thinking, we set ourselves up for boredom and even burnout.