How Do You Make a Difference for Your Students?

What do you believe students remember most about the courses they have taken? Is it the course, the school, their grades, their instructors, or something else? As I reflect upon the courses I took as a student, which wasn’t too long ago, I do not remember many of the textbooks I’ve read, discussions I was involved in, videos I watched, or written assignments I had to complete. What I do remember are some of my instructors – those who inspired me and encouraged me to perform my very best, and those who taught me what I should never do as an instructor. In other words, the most vivid memories I have involved those instructors who stood out for extraordinarily outstanding instructional methods, especially those who took time to develop a personal connection with me, and those who were extremely ineffective in the classroom. Whether instructors invoke the best or the worst emotional reactions, it most always creates a lasting impression for students.

I have learned from my work with faculty development that it is not possible for a school to guarantee that every instructor hired, especially as an online adjunct, is going to create optimal learning conditions and have a disposition that is agreeable with all students. I have reviewed hundreds of online classes and found that contractual faculty requirements can never fully dictate what an instructor must to do excel in their role. If instructors are meeting the basic requirements, they will likely retain their position – but that doesn’t mean they will be memorable to their students. Many instructors I’ve worked with are not even concerned with the perceptions of their students, demanding compliance from them whether or not they are well liked.

Within the field of distance learning, which is my area of higher education expertise, students rarely know who their instructors are before the class begins. Many online schools do not have a searchable faculty directory and that means students rarely know who the instructors are until they read a posted introduction. Once their classes have concluded, students may never be assigned to those same instructors again as adjuncts are usually teaching a specific class – depending upon enrollment, availability, rotation, seniority, and other factors. Whether or not instructors will be assigned another class with the same students, the cumulative effect of the interactions they do have has a potential to make a difference in their learning experience. Every instructor can have a positive impact on their students, whether or not it is immediately realized.

Academic Educator vs. Subject Matter Expert

From my experience, I have discovered there are two distinct perspectives of the work that educators perform. One perspective is a result of the traditional role of an educator, who is working full time at a college or university and has dedicated their career to the development of their instructional practice. They are working to become a teaching expert and usually have strong subject matter expertise, along with a highly developed academic background. This type of educator has dedicated their career to helping students learn, conducting research, publishing, and furthering their scholarly expertise.

The other perspective of an instructional practice is based upon those educators who are working as adjuncts. Online teaching was a thriving career up until a few years ago, when the for-profit industry came under intense scrutiny. Approximately ten years ago, there were more jobs than adjuncts and now that trend has reversed. The primary difference between adjuncts in this field and traditional instructors is that online adjuncts are often hired not because they were academics, rather they are practitioners in a field related to the subject being taught. When someone teaches a class without an academic background, their primary focus is often on the need to manage a class and complete the facilitation requirements.

What does this mean for the classroom learning experience? Is one type of educator more effective than the other? I believe that it is a matter of perspective. An academic educator is going to better understand the learning process and how to educate adults. A subject matter expert, as an instructor, may be able to provide the necessary context for learning and that means either educator can be effective. I chose to bridge the two types of educators by choosing postsecondary and adult education as the major for my doctoral degree, to add to the business and business management subject matter expertise I already had acquired. However, that only tells part of reason why my work with students has made a difference for them as knowing how adults learn is part of the equation but not the complete answer.

How You Can Make a Difference for Your Students

Regardless of which type of background you have as an educator, I have discovered that what makes a difference for students is the attitude and disposition an instructor holds about learning, along with their ability to see a potential for growth in every student – and how they are able to relate to and work with their students. Below are three areas for self-assessment that you can use to determine if you have had, or could have now, a positive impact on the learning and development of your students.

#1. Do you do what you say you will do? What you say to your students matters, along with what you say you will do and then what you actually do. For example, do you state that you are easily accessible and responsive to their needs, but then you are slow to answer questions or unwilling to provide assistance that actually helps them? When you state that you care about their academic needs, how do you show it?

Students may forget what you state or what you have written, but they will usually remember what you have done. As an example, if a student has asked a question and received a timely response, especially one that is meaningful and demonstrates a caring tone, they will remember that and likely seek assistance again when needed. It goes back to the saying that “actions speak louder than words” – and I’m certain this is something you have experienced yourself.

#2. Do you want to make a short term or long term impact? Have you ever taken time to consider the impact of your teaching practice? If so, what kind of impact do you want to have on your student’s academic life? When your goal as an instructor is to complete the required facilitation duties and assist students only when they request help, the impact that you will have on their learning experience will likely be short-term and soon forgotten. In contrast, if you are cultivating relationships with your students and you are focused on their academic success and ongoing persistence, your impact is likely to be more long-term or memorable.

You may not know the full extent of how you have helped your students if you work with them for only one class; however, the long-term effect is one that will be transformative as they continue working towards completion of their academic goals. You may also never know about the impact you have made if your students are not directly responding to you. But the smallest of gestures made by you, done with a genuine concern for the well-being of your students, may influence them in a positive manner both now and in the future.

#3. Are you working to develop sustainable connections with your students? A follow up question for you to consider is this: Do you stay in touch with students, even after the class has concluded? For many online adjuncts that I have worked with this question seems like a foreign concept. How can you develop lasting connections when you interact with students for just a few weeks? Why would they ever remember you? Perhaps you have learned this lesson, or may you have not, but even something as simple as being willing to take extra time to explain challenging concepts, provide additional tools and resources, or craft engaging and meaningful feedback, may be enough to start a connection. For example, I am still in contact with students today who stated it all began with the level of feedback I provided and how it helped them grow.

I also utilize social media to connect with students and that creates discomfort for some educators, and even some schools, as this platform can be utilized in a manner that is not suitable for academic interactions. What I have done is to develop a following on Twitter as a means of sharing academic related resources and staying connected to a global base of students and educators. Students have also viewed my LinkedIn profile and for that reason I do not post personal information or political perspectives as I want it to remain professional in nature. I know this can be a challenging practice for some educators to follow and that is why many schools do not encourage instructors to share social media information within their classes.

What Can or Should Students Expect?

Should students expect the best from their instructors, if the school promises they are highly qualified and will provide a positive learning experience? I used to think that ineffective educators make a poor representation of their school and could create a negative impression for their students; however, it seems that students have almost become used to experiencing a wide range of instructors and they have become proficient with tuning out those who they perceive are ineffective. Some students have even taken to social media to express their frustrations, and there are websites that allow them to provide both feedback and ratings for instructors. I have looked at those websites and it is difficult to determine if the instructor was at fault or the students are not receiving the outcomes they expected. Whatever the reason, there was something that was left unresolved and that created frustration on the part of the students.

This is similar to end-of-course instructor evaluations that students are often given to complete. I have observed a very low return rate with online students, and the reason for completion of the form was often related to being extremely satisfied or dissatisfied with the course outcomes. I know that some schools base teaching assignments on the evaluation outcomes and it is a source of frustration for many instructors – especially when they have done their best and still have an occasional unhappy student. But what I have also noticed is that the more I focus on what I am doing in the classroom, rather than on trying to make students happy so they will give me a good rating, the better my evaluations have been overall. When I am determined to make a difference for the learning experience of my students, over time the number of positive responses tells the entire story of my teaching effectiveness.

Whether you are interested in developing academic or subject matter expertise as an educator, the most important aspect of your instructional practice needs to be on the strategies you use to meet the developmental needs of your students. They are only going to persist and realize their potential if you encourage them in a supportive manner. Your disposition will influence the tone of what you say and what you write, and this can build up, empower, and motivate your students to do well. You can make a difference for your students by looking at your role as more than a series of tasks to complete, and nurturing a proactive, positive approach to how you interact with your students. Even if you never know the full extent of how you have made a positive impact, you will likely develop some long term connections that remind you of the value you brought to the classroom – and that will make your hard work feel very rewarding.

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