July 11, 2016
Colleges and universities have long sought to define the factors that increase students' chances for success. Course design, course sequencing, admission criteria, assessment exams, remediation programs and the introduction of various technologies have been studied as we seek to increase likelihood that students succeed in their courses and persist to graduation. Out of everything that influences the student experience, it is difficult to overstate the impact faculty have on academic success.
As we seek to ensure we have the very best faculty in the classroom, we often think about their academic and professional qualifications. Going further, how do we better ascertain disposition and fit? How do we train faculty so they are prepared for the classroom?
A lot of research has been done regarding the attributes and behaviors of the best faculty. But what does it mean to be the best? Teaching is an art, and students rarely agree when it comes to a particular instructor's performance. Depending on where a student is in terms of program completion, prerequisite skills, developmental level, professional life and outside responsibilities, he or she will ask and expect different things of his or her faculty. This can certainly make the assessment of performance a tricky matter.
Each term, the students taking courses through the College of Online and Continuing Education (COCE) at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) share their feedback anonymously regarding the course, learning resources, facilities and instructors. We pore over this feedback and look for patterns, identify areas where we appear to be performing well, and pinpoint opportunities for improvement. It influences nearly everything we do, including the recruitment, training, development and assessment of our instructors.
Interestingly, term over term, year over year, regardless of program or academic level, students are consistent in the behaviors and attributes they associate with top-rated instructors. Here are the top five characteristics students tell us they want in a faculty member:
As technology improves and we are always "connected," we are becoming accustomed to incredibly short response times. Students are no different. When they reach out, they expect a response as quickly as possible. This is of particular importance when learning online, as the faculty member is often the student's main contact with the university and their primary point of support. Exacerbate this with accelerated eight- or 10-week terms and the fact that students may not be able to progress with their studies until they have a response, and it becomes easy to see why responsiveness is consistently the No. 1 quality students associate with their highly rated faculty. Given the importance of responsiveness, we require that faculty respond to all student inquiries within 24 hours; our top-rated faculty do so much more quickly. If they are unable to provide the student with a complete response, they at least provide the student with an estimate of when they will respond. For example:"Hi Sarah, I just want to let you know that I received your email. That is a very good question and will take a bit of explanation. I am unable to answer this completely now because I am putting my son to bed. However, I will be able to respond by 9 p.m."
This way a student knows he or she has been heard and that a response is coming. Additionally, while the instructor was careful not to overshare, the student understands that the instructor, too, is balancing various responsibilities and likely making sacrifices to help him or her succeed.
Students often refer to top-rated faculty as being respectful. There is a lot wrapped up in that word. One aspect of respect lies in how instructors communicate. While there are countless tools that enable students to interact with their instructors in more engaging ways, the vast majority of communication still takes place in the form of asynchronous text. When communicating in writing, we miss the speaker's tone, inflection, facial expressions and body language - important characteristics that clarify the message. Consequently, the reader is left to fill in any gaps, often leading to miscommunication. Our top faculty understand that excellent communication is born out of a conscientious and deliberate effort. They read and reread from the perspective of the student before hitting "send." Particularly when dealing with difficult situations, they ask, "How might my words be misconstrued?" and seek to clarify and avoid a misunderstanding. Respectful also speaks to the attitude of the instructor. Does the instructor come across as arrogant and patronizing, or humble and unpretentious? Through the recruitment and training process, some of our candidates, for example, express the opinion that if students cannot make school their No. 1 priority, they shouldn't be here. This opinion, however, is in direct conflict with our vision and mission and the candidate is not invited to teach with us. As Dr. Greg Fowler, our Chief Academic Officer, often reminds us, we will never be better than that student's No. 3 priority, behind family and work. The trick is to fit within the student's available time without sacrificing academic quality.
While many of us were fortunate to attend college sustained by an impressive support network, that is not the reality for all students. Online students, in particular, often report little, if any, support at home as they balance work, family and a multitude of other obligations while they try to carve out some time each week to further their educations. An instructor might be the only person other than an advisor rooting for the student to succeed. How, then, do we know a student is struggling? In the face-to-face space, instructors may have some clear indications, including the student being absent from class or simply looking or sounding upset. While online faculty may not see these particular cues, the online environment empowers them to know when students are struggling in ways that would likely be missed in the face-to-face environment. First, because our courses are content-enhanced (including all learning materials, assignments, rubrics and assessments) the faculty are able to focus on instruction, outreach and support. They are able to concentrate on creatively connecting with their students and building rapport, making them more prepared to build relevance and support students throughout the course. Faculty are also able to leverage technology and various data points that indicate a student may be struggling. For example, the online instructor might notice a decrease in engagement within the discussion board forum, a change in the student's tone, or a significant reduction in time spent on homework. The instructor can then review student access reports within our LMS and find, for example, that the student's login behavior has suddenly changed. While the student had been logging in regularly on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays, this has not been the case this week. The instructor may then reach out to the student to figure out if there is something substantial behind the scenes that needs attention. When teaching face-to-face, the instructor may benefit from all of the verbal and non-verbal cues students give during a particular lesson. From those cues, an instructor knows when they may move a bit faster or when they have to slow down and provide additional explanation. Yet the online space enables faculty to better anticipate and support the academic needs of their students. For example, an instructor may review the student information dashboard within their learning resource and see that a student has spent an inordinate amount of time and/or made several attempts on questions dealing with a particular concept. While this would likely be missed in a face-to-face environment, the online instructor may reach out in that moment to ensure the student has what they need, when they need it.
Simply put, our very best faculty teach. Particularly in the online environment, where our courses are completely built with course outcomes, topic sequence, readings, assignments and rubrics, faculty may feel they do not have much space in which to truly own the course. Instead, these faculty slip into the role of "facilitator." We have seen faculty use this term to explain a lack of engagement or ownership in the following way: "Dear Adam, I am sorry, but I cannot provide additional detail about the assignment. I did not make the course; I only facilitate it." Our best faculty understand they have tremendous space in which to own the course, and do so. Recently we changed our language internally at COCE from "facilitator" to "instructor" or "teacher" after becoming aware of the connotations with passivity and lack of ownership. We also revamped our expectations of faculty, now detailed within our Instructional Practices Rubric. This rubric highlights three presences we expect faculty to demonstrate:
Our best faculty demonstrate personal presence in their courses through professional and encouraging communication with students. They acknowledge students' prior knowledge and experience and work to address and solve their concerns, while exemplifying a professional tone and encouraging disposition. They know their students and leverage each one's experiences, goals and expectations to build personal connections and rapport with the class. These instructors are skilled at maintaining their approachability while exhibiting professional authority.
The most highly rated faculty demonstrate instructional presence through active engagement throughout the course. They monitor student progress and proactively engage students to promote relevant academic growth. They implement individualized strategies to encourage student progress. They ask probing, guiding and clarifying questions to encourage consideration and deeper understanding while drawing connections between the work of different students within the discussion board to encourage collaboration and discussion. They also provide detailed feedback that not only helps the student gauge his or her mastery of the material and understand areas of opportunity, but also weaves in the student's career goals and professional experiences to continue building relevance.
Students share that the best faculty demonstrate intellectual presence by utilizing their expertise to create connections between course content and current developments in the corresponding field, and they draw on students' prior experiences. These faculty leverage their professional experience to expound on course information, adding both context and relevance. They also share supplemental resources in response to actual or anticipated needs of the students.
Lastly, students often comment on the knowledge of top-rated faculty. All instructors are subject-matter experts in their fields. However, these top faculty are able to reach the students. They are able to explain course concepts in such a way that the information is accessible. These instructors are aware of current developments in the field and are able to integrate that information with the course. These faculty understand the vision of the course and how the topics, assignments and assessments work to enable students to meet the course objectives. Moreover, they understand the role of the course in the larger degree program. They leverage this knowledge as they explain course concepts and provide feedback, foreshadowing upcoming courses and maintaining a positive, forward-moving learning environment. While we will continue to research and identify the behaviors, dispositions and activities of faculty that correlate with improved success and persistence, our students agree that the very best faculty are knowledgeable, present, supportive, respectful and responsive. Fortunately, these characteristics do not require us to be superhuman. Rather, they reflect a student-centric approach by faculty as they support students in their journeys to transform their lives through education.
Michael Chandler is the assistant vice president of Faculty Development and Assessment for SNHU's College of Online and Continuing Education. He has 18 years experience teaching at the college level as well as training, developing and assessing faculty in online and face-to-face environments.
This article was originally published on Academically Speaking.
Peter Leahy is chief engineer aboard the container ship APL China. When he's not there, Peter is pursuing his online MS in Data Analytics - and his lifelong passion for conservation.
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