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Career Advice

Three ways to achieve meaningful online student learning

By rebranding office hours, having assignment debriefs and doing a survey after each module, I am able to build higher quality courses.

BY CANDY HO | MAR 09 2021

I’m flying a jet plane, while repairing it at the same time; at least that’s how I feel with our continual pivot to online course delivery during the pandemic. I’ve been keen to determine how students are experiencing our newly adapted curriculum; to what extent are they meeting course and program objectives by doing the activities and resources that I’ve created or curated for them? In particular, I’d like to know if they’re generating valuable “ah-ha” moments as they navigate through the curriculum versus if they’re stumbling through the content.

Last semester, my own “ah-ha” teaching moment was recognizing that instead of trying to “get it all right” at the outset, I would take a semester-long approach to continually renovate my courses. I’ve discovered that fostering supportive, collegial relationships with each individual student, as well as the class as a whole, is key to enhancing student learning and wellbeing.

To that end, here are three notable interventions I now implement in my online, asynchronous courses that I believe strengthen faculty-student interactions in an online learning community.

Office hours as launch parties

To promote attendance and engagement during my “office hours,” I’ve rebranded them as “launch parties.” I spend the first 10-15 minutes conducting a walkthrough of the latest weekly module that I’ve launched. I use this time to explain how I designed the module and related activities and share advice on how students can be successful. Students can pose questions throughout the launch and connect with me privately afterwards. While a high number of students regularly attend these synchronous sessions, the launch portion is recorded for everyone to review at their own convenience.

Post-assignment debriefs

When releasing assignment marks and feedback, I send the entire class a message or video describing the most common pieces of feedback I gave when marking the assignment. For instance, for an ePortfolio project last semester, the debrief emphasized the importance of captivating the intended audience with relevant content; portraying oneself authentically to their personal values and style; and being mindful of one’s role and responsibility as a digital citizen. Providing this type of general commentary, in my view, raises the bar for the entire class by helping everyone reflect on their own submission, and further enhances their learning. It also means that I can go into a little more depth about each of these topics in one single video, versus needing to explain this within each individual student’s feedback.

Module surveys

At the end of each module, I encourage students to share their experience of navigating the module; and they have not been shy about providing their opinions. A benefit to facilitating these surveys in an online environment is that students can complete them in their own time and space where they can be more thoughtful; whereas in the past when I have conducted similar surveys in-person, students tended to be brief as they rush out the classroom.

I solicit their perspectives on the most useful component in the module; suggestions to improve the module and their learning experience; and any further questions or comments. I review each submission and generate my list of course renovations. These are:

  • quick fixes that I can immediately act upon (e.g., providing more information and resources, addressing technical glitches).
  • custom builds that require more time, so I set them aside for the next term or academic year (e.g., creating an entire new module).
  • pending items that are either specific questions or comments that yielded follow up questions from me.

Then, I report back on the quick fixes completed, the custom builds I plan to address at a later time, along with advice I have in the meantime (especially if I decide that their suggestions won’t take place until after they have completed the course). I address the pending items – typically a few each week – with a personal email to the student, usually inviting them to come see me during virtual office hours to discuss further.

Ultimately, these interventions are instrumental towards instilling a sense of community and promoting student success. Despite being physically distant during this pandemic period, this is my way to show that we can still be connected and care for one another. Drawing from Stephen Covey’s idea of the “emotional bank account,” I’m making emotional deposits to build trust and strong relationships now, so that when students do find themselves in circumstances where they need advice and support (e.g. during high-stress midterm and final exam periods), they can count on me to be that starting point to help and make referrals to supports and services at my institution.

I will confess: These suggestions take work and time, especially during this period when our bandwidth is stretched beyond our normal capacity. That said, I believe it to be my responsibility as an instructor to set a respectful tone and supportive environment to promote student engagement; and in turn, I expect students to show up and participate collegially.

I truly believe my efforts will result in higher quality courses that are responsive to student learning and needs. This will no doubt pay off, especially when I teach the same courses again in future semesters – both online and when we (eventually) teach in person again.

Dr. Candy Ho is the inaugural assistant professor, integrative career and capstone learning, at the University of the Fraser Valley. She also holds teaching appointments at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s educational studies department and Douglas College’s career development practitioner program. Currently, she serves as vice-chair of CERIC, a Canadian organization dedicated to the advancement of education and research in career counselling and career development.

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  1. Nancy Johnston / March 10, 2021 at 10:10

    Well done Candy — always leading by example… and experiential!

    • Candy Ho / March 17, 2021 at 17:45

      Thanks so much Dr. Nancy! I learn much from you 🙂

  2. Colman Hogan / March 10, 2021 at 14:24

    Dear University Affairs
    These online tips-techniques-and-strategies are helpful, but what would make them really useful is an annotation that ‘such and such was done on a course of ____ students’. Tips for a class of 35 are often not possible for a class of 80.

    • Candy Ho / March 17, 2021 at 17:44

      Hi Colman, good point about providing further context. I teach courses that have between 35-140 students so these strategies, in my view, are definitely adaptable from small to large courses. In fact, the post-assignment debriefs are saving me time as I now provide detailed group feedback on student assignments. Happy to learn about your context and bounce ideas: [email protected]

  3. Jim Kells / March 10, 2021 at 15:11

    Hi Candy,
    Although recently retired, I had occasion to teach a course this past fall. Online, of course! It was an entirely new learning experience for me, and I did my best to remain cognizant of the fact that it was essentially new for the students too (although they did get a brief exposure at the end of the previous Winter term). I did use most of what you describe, particularly the first two of your three points. On the third one, the University did a mid-term survey in which I could insert my own questions as well, and that provided me some useful feedback, some of which I could implement immediately. I also asked along the way for any suggestions for improvement, and occasionally got a few ideas. Given how things went in my course, which I judge to have been quite successful given the student feedback at the end of the term, I agree with your notion (or Covey’s notion) of emotional capital. The students gave me a strong sense of appreciation for making the changes that I could make, and accepting my inability to do so for some of them as the term progressed. All in all, very good!

    • Candy Ho / March 17, 2021 at 17:50

      Hi Jim, way to come out of retirement and embrace teaching online! Emotional capital, as you said, definitely goes both ways. This week I have just requested for an extension from my students on my marking…thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  4. Kate Ross / March 10, 2021 at 17:02

    Awesome suggestions. you rock, Dr. Candy Ho!

    • Candy Ho / March 17, 2021 at 17:54

      Hi Kate! I hope they help. Thank you so much for your support and mentorship over the years 🙂

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