A pre-session playbook

Girl studying

As I’m writing this, Peter Felten from Elon University is delivering a keynote at the HERDSA conference in Auckland on what matters most in the undergraduate experience. It’s no surprise that, along with five other themes outlined in his recent co-authored book, fostering meaningful relationships is being singled out.

A quick disclaimer: This post doesn’t fully (or even partially) reflect Felton’s keynote, but rather uses a couple of the tweeted slides as launching points for provoking some pre-session thinking. OK, onto it…

If it’s this important…

This post of an early slide from Felten’s keynote this morning sums up what we all know, both intuitively and from the broader research into learning communities, interaction between students and teacher presence.

What’s interesting here is the breadth of impact – we’re not only talking about learning, but it also touches on student mental health and civic outcomes. Are we ensuring our subjects are ‘relentlessly welcoming’ and what would that even look like? One for a longer discussion.

There are few who don’t already have strategies in place to enable relationship development at some level, so it’s easy to dismiss this and move on. Yet if we agree on the significance of meaningful relationships to learning, perhaps we shouldn’t move on so fast.

Apart from encouraging you to explore the many strategies you can use for building learning communities, here are some simple questions worth revisitng pre-session:

  • Are your students reluctant in interact (or interact as fully as you might like) in discussions? Relationship-building needs everyone to be at the table. Take a look at this post which starts with students’ comments about why they are reluctant to participate, then provides practical, tested solutions. You’ll find that the comments from students strongly reflect another of Fenten’s slides this morning:

Could this fear of failure apply to some students in your subject? If you don’t know, is there an opportunity to find out this session? In an interesting action research study, Michelle Pacansky-Brock found that she could increase participation and reduce anxiety dramatically within the first 3 weeks simply by making the first post compulsory.

  • Do your discussions need some reinvigoration? Check some of the ideas on the Discussions page of the wiki – you may want to experiment with some alternative tools that boost presence for both you and your students (this is known to help relationship-building). Or maybe this session is a chance to be more attuned to again finding out why your class is responding in a particular way to your existing strategies?
  • Do you need to refresh your online meetings? Try these notes from a former workshop on online meetings – you might like to try some of the custom apps that can be used in Adobe Connect…or again use the session to reflect on the kinds of relationships that are being supported in your meetings (are they largely one way?), and why you might not be getting the results you want, so you can put in place appropriate changes.
  • Is all the focus on you? Students – especially ours, who are often working – don’t come with nothing to offer. What is it that they bring to your class, and how can you make more of this – without placing massive time demands on everyone? The key here is to not necessarily focus on adding more participation, but rather refine how you target and guide the way students connect with each other. Check how you are prompting students to interact – is it adding value?

Finally, some reminders from the voices of students that really get to what we mean by meaningful:

(Our) top three guidelines include 1) creating an environment that allows students to share, feel safe & respected, 2) using synchronous interaction and group assignments and model interactions, and 3) asking thought-provoking/probing questions.

Guidelines for online course moderation and community building from a student’s perspective (2014)

As soon as the HERDSA proceedings are out, I’ll share some of the most thought-provoking papers, alongside a review of HERDSA as a professional organisation. I have less direct experience with HERDSA than ASCILITE, so if you’ve been a HERDSA member for a while, please get in touch and share your experiences so that I can include them.