Left Out Online: Students in Need of More
Kyle Harley, Purdue University Global Writing Center Tutor
Understanding those who feel ostracized within the classroom can be a bit tricky in an online setting. Because instructors and tutors alike work with so many students, a few do fall through the cracks from time to time. I have worked with so many students in the Writing Fundamentals program and learned that many share a variety of experiences that certainly impact their writing ability. Some feel they are not heard in the classroom; some feel the professor does not understand them personally; and some just flat out give up due to feeling too far behind or just not good enough. More often than not, the student writes fantastically, but anyone can see the piling amount of anxiety these feelings can potentially create, not only in a writing setting, but across multiple disciplines as well.
As we already do a fantastic amount of great work as is, what else can we do to better the online experience for these students who feel left out or misunderstood? Due to the variety of unique experiences and firsthand student examples, I have combined a list of best practices that I personally employ and could potentially be applied if one of your students falls into one of the categories listed above. By increasing their confidence in the classroom, even if they feel their voice is heard, we will certainly better assist these students in their academic pursuit.
Get to know your students—every single one.
This seems a bit like no-brainer, but at an increasing rate students persistently mention how a tutor or instructor just breezes through the material and rarely gets to know the person on the other end of the screen. Now, this comes with reservation of course, because there is no need to know each and every detail about our students, but making an extended effort to reach out in some way makes all the difference. When students feel some form of connectivity with their tutor or instructor, even if it is as simple as asking about their career or where they live, students calm down considerably and approach their work in a completely different manner. I always employ this method prior to workshops, for instance, to help acclimate the student to the session while at the same time establishing rapport to assist with the conversation. In a classroom setting, this may become a bit more difficult, but try progressively doing this over the course of the term. Some students cannot believe that their professor wants to get to know them personally, so the additional touch could help to improve retention. One of the simplest and tried and true methods for creating this atmosphere directly stems, of course, from common ground.
Common ground breaks the ice and allows for growth.
Finding a few commonalities with students absolutely makes the difference. Thinking back to college, all of my favorite professors shared something personal about their life that I could relate to and, consequently, we created a stronger bond. An example of this first reared its head when I found out one of my professors was and still is just as obsessed with horror film as I am. This opened up an amazing door of opportunity to not only have a place to talk movies, but also produce work that circulated around that very interest—not to mention get some fantastic film recommendations. By sharing where you live, in a general sense, you may discover that you reside in the same state that your student is from. This could potentially lead to a great dialogue on current issues within the area that the student could write about as it affects their lives, as well. I know from experience here at the university that a good number of our instructors and tutors already utilize this technique, but it is easy to forget about this simple trick when we get tied up in all of our work. Popping into class fifteen minutes earlier than expected can act, in a way, as a mini-office hour you house with your students. Since tutoring is a much faster process, tutors can welcome the student back after the session. Establishing these lasting relationships encourages continued visits, which is all we can really ask of our students. But what of the students who seemingly have problems with every instructor and/or tutor? Certainly they exist, and maybe it is in part because, as educators, we misidentify the problem.
Take the extra time to identify the student’s issue correctly.
Much like when students misidentify what they need assistance with, so, too, do educators sometimes misidentify students’ issues and what they need assistance with. Many of my Fundamentals students come to their first meeting with the excuse “I’m just not good at writing.” As we all know, this excuse typically stems from a lack of confidence in their writing instead of a lack in ability. Once they come to this realization, often after we have broken the ice and established some common ground, their writing nearly instantly improves as was the case with one student whom I worked with. Instead of allowing this student to feel that he simply could not write well, we re-identified the issue and appropriated their focus elsewhere—on his confidence. Now, still to this day I see this particular student in Live Tutoring and in Paper Review, confident as ever. In a classroom setting, some students may find that the assignment instructions are impossible and that they will never be able to accomplish the task. To combat this, why not ask if there is any confusion and have a different way of explaining the material to better reach your students? The issue is usually not that the material is too difficult for the students; instead, they may just be a bit confused over the phrasing of the assignment. In fact, I think we all have had that anxiety with an assignment at some point, yet we still accomplished completing assignments.
For students, having a sense of comfort in an online setting brings down a pre-constructed barrier that impedes their development in a scholastic setting. In the classroom and in tutoring, this should be where our practice begins.