The two most common reasons that a person will see a doctor is that there is an immediate health concern to be addressed or a routine checkup is needed for preventative maintenance purposes. A doctor will generally not have any preconceived ideas of what that patient needs unless there is an established history of care and treatment for that patient.
By listening to the patient and conducting an examination, the doctor looks for symptoms and/or makes an assessment of the patient’s current condition as compared to a normalized standard.
From that point a diagnosis is made and next steps are taken as needed.
The most important aspect of this type of care is the relationship established between the doctor and the patient, and the patient’s trust that the doctor will know how to address his or her needs.
Now consider an instructor, either one who teaches in a traditional classroom or one who teaches online. Do students view their instructors in a similar advocacy role? More importantly, what perception do students have about the role of an instructor?
For a traditional classroom, students evaluate their instructors based upon how they perform in the classroom, along with their disposition and mood, their availability to provide assistance when contacted, and a genuine concern (or lack thereof) for their developmental needs.
For online classes, students have to rely upon visual cues in the form of written messages and the implied meaning of those words. This includes what the instructor posts or states in written communication, along with the feedback provided.
From my experience, most students contact their instructors when there an academic related concern. What can make teaching more effective is viewing instruction as a form of advocacy and proactively diagnosing each student and their academic or developmental needs.
An Instructor’s Viewpoint
The majority of my experience in higher education has been in the field of distance learning and includes online faculty development.
What I have found is that most instructors can manage the basics of their class in an effective and adequate manner, which means that questions are promptly addressed, discussion posts are completed as required, and feedback is provided within the required timeline.
However, managing an online class in an adequate manner does not always lend itself to creating the most dynamic and engaging classroom learning environment.
The reason why is that students who are submitting their work on time, making an average grade, and never asking for assistance – they can be overlooked as students with the greatest needs often take a majority of the instructor’s time.
When instructors are not able to see their students as they would in a traditional classroom, they usually reply upon the quality of posts and messages, along with the written assignments submitted, and that is how perceptual images are developed about each student.
The challenge for relying on perceptions that are based upon written words is that it may not give a true or accurate reflection of each student as effort, frustration, and hard work cannot be seen.
It is only when students make an attempt to contact their instructors that any underlying issues or concerns become known, and the challenge is that students may not ask for assistance until an issue has escalated.
That puts the instructor at a disadvantage as there are likely strong emotions involved and the lack of face-to-face interactions works against resolution of any issues, unless an instructor has been proactively working with students and has already established a productive relationship with them.
How to Diagnose Your Students
Taking an advocacy role means that as an educator you are being proactive in your approach to working with students. This involves taking time to get to know your students, interacting with them in a productive manner, learning about their academic needs, and assessing their capacity for ongoing development – regardless of the length of the class or the demands of classroom management.
If an instructor is concerned primarily with classroom conditions, meeting contractual requirements, and addressing students only when there is an issue, it is a reactive approach to instruction.
For example, if an instructor is proactively working with students and a poorly developed paper is received, it is possible that the instructor will already know about the underlying reason and why the student is struggling.
If the instructor has not established a relationship with the student there may be an assumption made the student is unable to write well or doesn’t care about their progress.
Students that demand the most attention are the ones who are continuing to struggle or they are problem students who are challenging to work.
Yet every student has developmental needs and a capacity for growth and that is why teaching, especially online teaching, is relational in nature.
Students cannot be accurately evaluated just by visual cues. For example, some students perform in an average manner and neither struggle or excel.
That student may perform in that manner because an instructor never took the time to work with them and learn about what they are capable of doing.
There are diagnostic tools provided below that any instructor can implement as part of their instructional practice to learn about students and establish their role as that of advocate who conducts routine check-ups and assessments to resolve any academic concerns.
Pre-Assessments: This could be a very useful tool at the start of a class and one that is designed to assess what the students know about the course topics, along with providing a current status of their writing skills.
I realize that many online courses are pre-developed for instructors and offer little flexibility.
This type of assessment could be non-graded and submitted to the instructor by email, which then provides an opportunity to begin working with students one-on-one and learning something about them.
Short Quizzes: In traditional college classes there are generally quizzes and exams; however, in online classes those assessments are usually not implemented.
I have found that a short quiz is a useful diagnostic tool as it tests the comprehension level of students for the course topics.
It can be implemented after each unit, lesson, or module as a means of evaluating what was learned from the reading and other instructional methods used. This also allows an instructor to adapt their instructional practice as needed if there are topics that students are struggling with or do not understand.
Interim Short Assignments: A short written assignment is also a helpful diagnostic tool, provided that it is given prior to the much larger or more significant written assignment, and there is time to provide feedback before the next assignment due date.
That allows an instructor to assess how the student is progressing with the application of the concepts they have learned about, along with their progress with academic writing and formatting, as a means of helping them so they do well on the next paper.
With many online schools I have taught for there is a large assignment due at the end of the week and instructors are given seven days to provide feedback.
Students have usually begun working on, and often submitted, the next assignment before feedback has been received. A short interim assignment can help to resolve that challenge for students and instructors.
Course Projects: An instructor could implement the use of portfolio work, a personal or group wiki, or other projects that students must work on throughout the entire course, as a means of monitoring their progress and providing coaching, feedback, insight, and assistance as they complete project milestones.
Even the use of a mind map could be helpful as a means of assessing how the students are connecting concepts or topics they are learning about.
If an instructor wants to test a student’s critical thinking skills, an application written assignment can be given that requires students to resolve a problem or issue. All of these projects types provide an opportunity for the instructor to assess and work with their students.
Personal Attention and Instruction: I’ve found that sending a check-in message to all students, not just those who are struggling, is an effective method of encouraging students to ask questions and work with me.
An email could be sent at scheduled intervals throughout the course and then follow-up made for students who do not respond. I’ve also offered one-on-one appointments for any student who would like to discuss their progress or the course topics.
In addition, being available, accessible, and responsive is extremely helpful for establishing productive working relationships with students. If an instructor develops an “open door” type of policy, it helps students become comfortable asking questions, especially when they feel frustrated or uncertain.
I realize that the diagnostic tools discussed only add to the amount of time required for class facilitation, and many instructors are working as adjuncts with limited time and availability. I’ve been in that role as well and understand how challenging it can be to keep up with a class that has a large roster and many contractual facilitation requirements.
However, I also have been a student in a traditional and online class and the best memories I have are the ones that involved an instructor who took time to get to know me and work with me.
A little extra attention was all I needed at times to feel re-energized and focused on my academic goals. That’s the type of instructor I continue to aspire to be, one who is proactively diagnosing students and their needs, and ready to assess and address any concerns or issues that students may have during the class.
I challenge you to be an advocate as well for you students. You will likely find that it is highly rewarding, for both you and your students.