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Managing Challenging Adult Students in the Online Classroom

Tuesday, March 21, 2017   (0 Comments)
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Lanie Wright, MBA, EJD, Assistant of Students, Kaplan University School of Health Sciences
Tricia Berry, Ph.D., MATL, OTR/L, Associate Dean and Director of Clinical and Practicum Programs, Medical Assisting Program Chair, Kaplan University School of Health Sciences


Teaching online creates a completely different dynamic between the instructor and student than teaching in a face to face classroom environment. The Instructor and student do not have face to face contact, which makes building a relationship more challenging. A physical classroom provides the context in which instructors and students build relationships with one another, however virtual classrooms by nature of their electronic medium, create less context. In the virtual classroom, each student and the instructor approach a topic from their own individual point of view, as a result, a student and instructor may not have a common frame of reference from which to build their relationship. A student may have expectations that are unrealistic, or do not match the instructor’s expectations; but neither may realize there is a difference in what the other is expecting. In addition, text based communication lacks tone and non-verbal messaging that is communicated in a face to face conversation; so, it is easy for both the student and instructor to misinterpret messages. All of these factors added together create fertile ground for conflict between an instructor and a student (or students).

Since there is a less structured relationship with the instructor, students in online environments often turn to sources outside of the instructor for information about both course policy and content. In many cases, that means students are answering questions for one another. If the information they are sharing is not accurate they can lead each other in the wrong direction, and the instructor is unlikely to know this is happening. When misdirection occurs, it furthers the mismatch in expectations for students, and creates a greater divide between the student and instructor.

Students who choose to pursue their education in an online environment often have a number of additional factors that can further the complications in the teaching relationship. The students typically choose online coursework because of the convenience it offers. In all likelihood, they have a number of demands on their time from both personal and professional obligations. Time management is often a key to success, and can be a huge obstacle for many students. All of these factors can make online teaching seem quite unappealing! Luckily, there are some simple solutions that can help avoid some of those common issues.

The first solution is to establish clear policies, procedures, and expectations. Remember as noted earlier that online classrooms lack context? Clear communication of policies, procedures, and expectations help establish that context and create the same foundation for all students and the instructor. Guidelines in the course (or University) should be the platform from which everyone operates. Due dates, late policies, assignment guidelines, and behavior expectations should be published and referred to throughout a course. Instructors should adhere to the published expectations, and students should see that those expectations are being enforced.

A second solution to the challenges with teaching in the online environment is to identify students who may be at risk and intervene early. One technique is to collect information during the admissions/enrollment process, however for faculty who are not involved in that process they can gather information from the course introduction discussions and/or activities. Learning about a student’s obligations outside of the classroom and their access to technology can help faculty and staff members to determine which students might be at risk. Once those risks are identified, early intervention can help to minimize challenges for students.

A third solution to help minimize challenges in the online environment is to focus on facts when a conflict does arise. The first step is to eliminate emotion and judgement while focusing on facts. Often students will make comments such as, “He doesn’t care about me,” or “She just wants me to fail” or perhaps, “Her email was really unprofessional”. We need to teach our students that these types of statements do not help to resolve conflicts. In order to achieve resolution of issues, it is best to explore what happened in a step by step, and factual manner. Part of that examination is making sure that all involved are interpreting the situation in the same way. Many of the expectation mismatches discussed earlier come from different interpretations of language, i.e. if a faculty member asks a student to do something “right away” they may mean that the student should complete the task within the next week, while the student interprets “right away” as that they should drop what they are doing and take care of the task immediately. In most cases, when the emotions are removed and conversations focus on facts differences can be resolved quickly.

There is no doubt that teaching online is dramatically different from teaching in a face to face environment. There is also no doubt that online courses provide a greater number of students with the opportunity to advance their education. Just as our students must learn to adapt to a different learning environment, we must adjust our approach to teaching. Setting clear expectations, identify student risk factors, and factual resolution to conflicts are three ways to help create a positive online learning environment.

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