How Does Instructor Input Affect Student Success In Online Learning

How does instructor input affect student success in online learning? Teacher training and review, even after the students are on a course, can have an impact on how well students learn.

When’s the last time you found yourself crafting work in an online class? (If you have heard of them, go ahead and let us know!) Nearly 40 million American adults are enrolled in something in online classes, but how do instructors interact with their students, and do those interactions affect their performance in class? We talked to Keith Florian, Professor of Computer Science at Penn State, to find out.

The Teaching Tools

We will never learn anything in an online course if we don’t spend time learning what exactly we’re learning.

First, “you have to get the fundamentals of the material right from the beginning,” explains Florian. He makes an important distinction between “the basics” and “the basics learned.” “With the basics you’re already doing something. That’s important,” he says. “With the basics learned, you’re almost done.”

Once we’ve learned the basics, though, you need to do a pretty good job modeling your thinking. “You can’t do more than take a few steps to articulate your thought process,” says Florian. “Many times I go back to where I’ve said, ‘I need to put this in my own words.’ If you already have that, do it. But otherwise, get very explicit about your thought process, and find out from the students the evidence that supports what you want to say.” For students, this means describing to them why they are feeling the way they are.

“If you look at audio recordings, you’ll often see the instructor not infrequently looking over his shoulder and nodding, telling the student, ‘Yeah, it’s your point,’ or ‘OK, I understand now,’ or ‘Nope, not in there,’” explains Florian. That’s a bad thing, he says. “For the teacher, you have to be present. If you’re doing that, students see you.”

But beyond being available and present, it’s also important to assume that your students are engaged in what you’re doing. “Get from them, when in doubt, ‘Am I influencing their thought process? I’m here. I’m engaged,’ ” Florian says. When a student is showing interest, that’s the time to make sure that they don’t get interrupted. “That may not be comfortable for you, but it’s not uncomfortable for your students.”

The Virtual Community

Online classes come with a big student community and also digital tools that make students’ interactions with each other easy.

According to Florian, one of the most intriguing online courses he’s taught at Penn State was one on cryptography. “I had 300 students in the class,” he says. “A few people talked about it. But the vast majority of my students did not talk about it.” Florian pointed out that by and large, they just wanted to learn the material.

So what did they do? They kept their opinions to themselves. “They just did something else,” says Florian. “They did math, they talked about science and technology, or they just did math. If students didn’t talk about what they were learning, would they learn it? The answer is yes. What students do when they’re engaged is they apply their knowledge and take action. They learn it. If they don’t engage, they don’t learn.”

The Impacts of Online Classroom Interaction

Since these classes are asynchronous, they’re not like classroom classes in that it’s time-sensitive. If you want your teacher to come talk to you in a class, you need to show up early. “It’s the same with online classes, too,” explains Florian. “If you do not show up in time, they won’t talk to you. But they’ll talk to other students. If you arrive with other students in your class, you’re more likely to get attention from the instructor. You’re more likely to learn things.”

And the college course experience, for those few who do spend time with their instructor, does offer a more personal connection, too. “There is a human component to online teaching. It doesn’t necessarily feel like the same thing as being in a classroom, but the nice thing about online teaching is that it is asynchronous. You can see the progress of the students in the online courses,” he says. “Their teachers are looking at students. Students go back to their room and watch the class, and the faculty can tell how they feel.”

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