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My first experience teaching an online course occurred in the late 1990s, when Drexel University’s College of Information Studies asked me to convert my face-to-face digital research course to an online format. In these pre-LMS, pre-video lecture days, there was far greater interest in just getting things to work. Quality learning experiences were mostly an afterthought.

Fast-forward to 2017, and after a 10-year gap I agreed to teach online again, this time for San Jose State University’s iSchool program for aspiring librarians. Despite my past experience with online learning, I took SJSU’s mandatory 25-hour mini-course in online instruction. It reinforced much of what I learned in my own institution’s Provost’s Teaching Academy about using smart pedagogy for course design, but also introduced me to Canvas, the LMS the program uses.

Less anticipated was the robust expectation to achieve continuous learning for improvement as an online educator. San Jose State is a Quality Matters institution, and they take online education seriously. Their high quality standards require instructors to complete locally developed learning modules, led by other SJSU iSchool faculty, in any semester they teach. One of the sessions I attended to earn my continuous learning credit got me thinking differently about student evaluations. Instead of perceiving them as a necessary evil, I discovered they can serve as both motivator and shaper of quality instruction.

In the online session SOTES Strategies and Lessons, I learned that student evaluations, when analyzed in aggregate, help instructors to modify their educational methods to align with student learning needs. SOTES (Student Opinion of Teaching Effectiveness) is SJSU’s student evaluation system. No doubt all instructors review their course evaluations in search of clues that can lead to substantive learning improvement. Instead of tweaks to assignments or syllabi, SOTES can lead to fundamental pedagogical change.

The SOTES session provided 12 tips -- focusing on ways to anticipate what most helps students learn and succeed -- that got me thinking differently about strategies to design the course, assignments and structure to better meet student expectations. Fundamentally, it is a design approach that puts the student at the center of the course and learning, with the instructor focusing on what methods work best to connect the students to content, activities and engagement opportunities. Here are the tips.

  • Be practical to demonstrate relevance. Theory is important, but these mostly adult learners, often working in the field, want our examples and anecdotes. Use practical assignments and explain how students will benefit from these activities as learners and workers.
  • Create assignments to enhance learning. Students want assignments directly relevant to what’s in the lecture. Their top two requests: avoid giving busywork and structure assignments into smaller, more manageable blocks that build on each other. Consider starting small, with assignments that offer students early successes to build up their ability and confidence for tackling more complex tasks.
  • Emphasize what’s important. Provide a verbal or written summary of the top takeaways from a learning module’s content. Keep reiterating key concepts. Share your observations on the best ideas from course discussions. At the start of each week, I summarize what students should know from the prior week, where they demonstrated competency, where improvement is needed and how it will apply to new content.
  • Respond, respond, respond. Online educators are often directed to quickly and comprehensively respond to students’ questions and comments, in discussions or emails. The SOTES clearly confirm that is what students want and expect of their online instructors. Respond in a variety of communication formats (audio, video, email, etc.) and keep it cordial and respectful. Avoid putting students on the spot or feeling regretful about having asked a question or made a comment. While quick responses are expected by students, the session lets instructors know they can establish boundaries around response times, but always keep students notified of changes (e.g., when responses will be less frequent owing to travel).
  • Set the atmosphere. Online learning is about more than content and assignments. Students expect a patient, positive and encouraging instructor who is present, well organized and gives students opportunities to interact and learn from each other. Creating the right classroom culture facilitates learning.
  • Easy to approach. If the atmosphere is right, students will feel they can easily contact and communicate with their instructor. My course was asynchronous, but I offered a weekly synchronous office hour (varying days/times) in order to create connection and elevate students’ comfort level in reaching out to me. Frequently the conversations were as much about personal and professional interests as course content, but this contributed to my ability to establish a rapport with students.
  • Appreciate student diversity. Students respond poorly to an instructor who plays favorites with respect to differences in age, gender, race or work experience. Pay attention to differing backgrounds in students’ self-introductions and commit to treating students equally.
  • Passion speaks loudly. Set the tone by being the champion for the course topic. Instructor enthusiasm is contagious. If the instructor lacks excitement for the topic, students will, too. Take every opportunity to communicate to the students your passion for the subject matter.
  • Challenge them intellectually. Students want “make us think” activities that require more than answers to rote questions. Encourage creative thinking by allowing students to develop multimedia projects in which they apply course concepts to their own experience.
  • Fair grading matters. Evaluation feedback around assignments often centers on lack of clarity on the nature of the assignment and the grading. Creating clear assignment instructions and rubrics to guide students is no easy task, but taking time in advance to think through the details of assignment grading will minimize confusion, grading disputes or claims of unfairness.
  • Make the complex understandable. Students expect their instructor to make the abstract concrete through the use of realistic examples. Communicate your personal experience in lectures, assignment instructions and discussions. This tip lends itself more easily to practitioners teaching part-time, but other faculty members could use industry contacts or case studies.
  • Provide meaningful feedback. Give positive as well as constructive criticism. Be specific in pointing out what students get right and where they need to improve. Add comments to graded assignments and return them to students in a timely manner so they are able to benefit from your feedback.

Whatever personal opinions online instructors hold about student evaluations, it feels much better when they reflect a uniformly successful learning experience. Learning those factors that lead students to judge a course as successful and an instructor as competent, organized and responsive greatly shifts the odds of a positive outcome for both the learner and instructor.

The SOTES session changed how I think about student evaluations. I now see them as a valuable resource for course design, not simply an after-the-fact measure of “how’d I do?” Though mostly applicable to online learning, these dozen tips could work equally well for face-to-face courses. I encourage you to put them into your practice.

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