By: Linda Dale Bloomberg

Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, Northcentral University, San Diego. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her new book is titled Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.

Last year I published a series of blogs for SAGE Publications to address strategies for successful online teaching. One of my posts was specifically directed at identifying and supporting struggling students. Now that we are over a full year into the pandemic, we may expect that students have adequately adapted to our new reality. But let us not overlook the fact that many of our students are still struggling to cope, and many are still facing the challenges brought about by the abrupt transition to online learning. A great many students are feeling stressed and burned out and their lack of motivation and disengagement is remarkably evident; assignments are coming in late, work seems rushed, and even formerly high-achieving and motivated students are oftentimes barely participating or participating only intermittently. It can be hard not to be frustrated and disappointed—after all, you want your students to succeed, but you are likely burned out, too. On a positive note, we have also likely developed a much greater appreciation for the power of connecting with our students, valuing those connections, and more deeply understanding our students’ experiences. Our students will undoubtedly benefit from seeing that the current situation is challenging for us all, and that we are all facing similar hardships. Instead of putting educators on a pedestal, they will see that you are human. Indeed, it is much easier to connect once you have developed that shared understanding. And, we all need connection; now more than ever!

One way to compensate for the lack of human connection is to intentionally meet your students “where they are”. Vulnerability, the sense of “I may not know everything so we are going to figure this out together” is a powerful way of building genuine trust. Being vulnerable provides us with valuable opportunities to connect with our students in different ways and to provide additional support. Empathy is another way to build trust and cultivate deeper connections with your students. Through empathy, the sense that “you understand others’ experiences and perspectives”, you make it clear to your students that we are all persevering through and enduring some common hardships. Students benefit from seeing that you understand and appreciate what they are going through, and that you are willing to help. When students develop a sense of trust in their instructors, they are potentially more open to learning and growth. The Talmud teaches that every blade of grass has its own angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.” This is your message to your students as you establish their pathways to ongoing learning and growth.

A few insights have become more apparent to me over the past year as I continue to work with students as well as online instructors:

Be as approachable in the online space as you were in person!
  1. Take advantage of all available opportunities for engaging in synchronous communication and interaction. Determine what works best, and try to accommodate individual needs. In my book Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners I discuss the value of synchronous activities, and share information regarding the many collaborative applications and tools that are currently available.
  2. Make yourself available. By setting up virtual office hours you create ongoing opportunities for connection and support. Inform students of the days and times you will be working with your Zoom room open. In this way they are welcome to “step in” to your office to say hello, to ask questions, or seek clarification regarding course materials as needed.
  3. When teaching a class, leave your Zoom room open right before as well as after the class has ended. Let your students know that they are welcome to come to class early, or stay around after class. At these times they have an opportunity to approach you about anything they would like to discuss, just as they would do in a traditional classroom. Moreover, these times are also an opportunity for students to see and connect with their peers.
Assume your students are trying their best, and work from there!
  1. Students with a “growth mindset” believe they can improve through their own effort as well as through the support from others. As the instructor, you can counter uncertainty by promoting a growth mindset that will support students’ endurance and motivation. You do this by offering clear and explicit guidance for improvement, and by acknowledging their efforts and achievement. Be intentional in encouraging an “I can do this” attitude so that your students will be empowered to keep moving forward and persevering. When students feel autonomous, they will hopefully view tasks as doable, and continue to strive to achieve their goals–even in the face of hurdles, challenges, and setbacks.
  2. With in-person teaching you can easily sense your students’ emotions, and react appropriately. If a student seems distracted or disengaged, you can follow up after class with support and assistance. This has become a lot more difficult during the pandemic, as we are physically removed, and struggling students who would typically receive added support, could start to fall behind. After all, you are seeing multiple little boxes on your screen, and facial expressions and non-verbal cues are not always visible.
  3. Be mindful not only of reading tell-tale signs, but also assume positive intent. We sometimes tend to be quick to conclude that incomplete, mediocre, or late work is the result of laziness or lack of ability. As educators we are in the business of helping students realize their potential and work toward achieving success. When you notice a student struggling with the material or course content, or having a difficult time with remaining up to date with their studies in general, ask yourself not only “How can I help?”, but also “What can I do better to support this student?” In this way you demonstrate not only your empathy, but also your own vulnerability; and in so doing, building trust and cultivating deeper connections with your students.
Reflective questions
  1. What learning do you take away from this overview?
  2. In what ways does “vulnerability” resonate with you, and why?”
  3. In what ways does “empathy” resonate with you, and why?

Photo credit: Akil Mazumder via Pexels