Published Online: June 3, 2013

How My Online Learning Changed My Teaching

I just completed a graduate degree with online coursework, which was a positive experience for me overall. But I do have a confession: Some of the most significant lessons I learned did not come from the course content—but from the experience of being an online student.

Camaraderie is Essential

During the first couple of courses in my online program, I felt very much alone as I struggled to complete challenging tasks. There was no unstructured interaction with the other students. No chatting with your peers while waiting for the professor to get started. No hanging out for a few minutes after class. Were my classmates experiencing the same difficulties that I was?

Finally, I took the initiative, reaching out to classmates from all around the world, using email, Facebook, and Skype. I learned I was not alone. We shared our stories and hopes. We worked through complex assignments, providing support and encouragement for one another. Without a doubt, my work improved—and, as importantly, I could process the learning experience with others.

This experience reminded me that, as a teacher, it is vital for me to create a classroom climate that encourages this kind of camaraderie. I can’t expect students to jump into challenging activities if they feel alone. A few minutes of talking about One Direction and Minecraft can help grease the wheels for lively conversations about problem solving and literature. I’ve come to believe that my students’ learning actually benefits from “losing instructional time” to a few minutes of casual conversation or the occasional classroom party.

Clear Directions Are a Must

In one of my online courses, we were asked to scrutinize another country’s educational system. At first, I was very enthusiastic about the project—I would be studying Canada’s schools. But as I got started, my excitement turned to confusion, as I couldn’t make heads or tails of the instructions. In an online class, clear directions are especially vital if the professor cannot be immediately responsive via phone or chat. It was frustrating to know that so much of my time and effort was going toward understanding the assignment when I was eager to learn more about Canada’s education system.

When I’m teaching, I am now much more careful in providing directions. In particular, I share and discuss more exemplars with my students. I used to be hesitant to use exemplars because I felt that they squelched creativity. But being a student reminded me that ambiguity leads to confusion, which can be a greater hindrance to creativity than looking at model work.

I found exemplars especially helpful this year as I began implementing the Common Core State Standards. Many of my students found it difficult to support an argument with evidence until I asked them to analyze exemplary work samples.

Alignment is Crucial

I know I encountered this in my college days, but I’d forgotten about it: vastly different expectations from course to course. I quickly learned to dread PowerPoint presentations for this reason. One professor would expect notes at the bottom of each slide while another would insist on graphics on each slide. And yet another would want no graphics or notes at all. I often felt like a deer in the headlights!

While adapting to different expectations is an important skill for students to master, it can also get in the way of learning.

That’s why, as a teacher, I’ve been having more conversations with colleagues about their expectations. As a gifted-education teacher, I unfortunately miss out on many of the day-to-day interactions between core teachers—and my online-learning experience reminded me that I needed to make more of an effort.

What I learned: In some ways, my expectations greatly exceeded those in other classrooms, and in others, I was not expecting enough. For example, when I compared handwritten samples of work done by students in my class with samples from their other classrooms, I was astonished. Some students were writing in nearly illegible chicken scratch in my classroom—and in beautiful cursive handwriting elsewhere.

Positive Feedback Is Key

As a student in an online program that typically did not include video or audio components, I found it extremely difficult to “read” my professors. I could not interpret body language or hear their tones of voice. Their comments on my work were all I had to go on—so I paid much closer attention to those comments than I otherwise might have.

Here’s what I realized: Even as an adult, I felt much more enthusiastic and confident approaching a difficult project if I had previously received positive feedback from the instructor.

One teacher was so pleased with my work and initiative that he told me he wished he could have me skip some of the classes, while another couldn’t find anything that I could do well (or at least didn’t express it). In the former class, I enthusiastically completed assignments and eagerly awaited feedback, even if it meant I needed to make revisions. In the latter, I timidly hit the submit button and held my breath until I received a graded assignment full of criticism.

As a teacher, I now construct my feedback to students more carefully. In the past, I’ve sometimes been guilty of only pointing out areas for improvement because grading papers is faster that way. Now, almost all of the work I grade includes some positive feedback, and I am careful to limit my suggestions for improvements. When I receive a written assignment that is subpar, I will only make a few revisions—and have a conversation with the student—because I’ve learned firsthand that a plethora of corrections can be stifling. Once those improvements are made, I can suggest others.

I’m aware that there are many online-learning experiences that are designed in more interactive and student-friendly ways than what I encountered. But I am truly grateful that the challenges of the program caused me to reflect on my own students and how I might better meet their needs. I’m sure many other teachers have refined their teaching as a result of “being taught” again. What lessons have you learned about teaching by being a student?

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