OFYE Matters: Balance and Well-Being

Balls balancing on metal plates.

“Life is busy” is often an understatement exponentially amplified for online learners.  Many of these learners balance the routine demands of work and family in tandem with the rigors of collegiate studies.  The additional demands can create an imbalance for learners, especially those new to learning online, and can cause a tremendous amount of strain on learner well-being if the proper supports are not in place.  Online first-year educators often serve as a key source of support to help learners develop and achieve balance and find success in their life.  As Clare Brown, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) team lead and instructor states, “Students look to their online faculty as coaches and guides, not only in the classroom, but in life.”

To expand our understanding of balance and well-being, we looked to those working directly with online first-year experience (OFYE) learners, asked the following questions, and surfaced several informative themes.

  • What indications have you observed in your OFYE classroom that online first-year students may be struggling with balance and well-being?
  • What strategies do you provide OFYE students regarding balance and well-being?
  • How do you demonstrate care and support to students struggling with balance and well-being so that they remain engaged and moving forward?

1. Relate to students by sharing personal experience with balance and well-being.

Clare Brown, SNHU:  Students look to their online faculty as coaches and guides, not only in the classroom, but in life.  They love hearing about how their faculty members have achieved success.  The more realistic we can be in the struggles we have faced, and the ways in which we worked to overcome them, the better off our students will be to know that balance takes work and that no one is perfect.

Dr. Connie Lower, Assistant Professor at Ashford University:  All of us have experienced times in our schooling when our balance with our schedules and responsibilities was out of whack and times when we were too tired or unwell that we couldn’t function at the required level.  Remembering those times, and the personal strategies we used to avoid them, in the future or lessen their impact, is one of the first considerations we should give to helping our students.  “Shoe exchanges” with our students send us to another place where we can more readily develop understanding and empathy, which leads to instructor motivation to personally assist our students.

Lucy Manley, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Garrett College:  The first assignment I give all my online students requires them to reflect on what it means to be a successful online learner.  Part of that reflection is thinking about rituals.  I share my own, so my students can see that it’s not always easy for me either.  For example, I know I work better in the morning, so that’s when my students can expect to receive course announcements, feedback on their work, and updated grades.  In an asynchronous course, I always respond to students’ emails, but the dedicated time and space for the bulk of my daily teaching is in the morning.  It’s important to know your body’s clock.

2. Show learners compassion and flexibility.

Dr. Connie Lower, Ashford University:  I strongly advocate for all entry-point instructors to use leniency and flexibility in working with students beginning their academic journey.  It is difficult to integrate the several hours a day required to complete school work with the additional responsibilities of family and jobs that many students bring to the table.  We know the importance of establishing habits of timeliness that will get students through the years required to earn a degree, however, helping them establish those habits in their beginning classes is better served by offering allowances for submission of late work rather than strictly adhering to rigid point reductions and non-acceptance of work.  … Show empathy and understanding as these students are obviously struggling with school/life balance.  Give them time to work out a scheduling system that successfully addresses their priorities.  My experience is that many students are very appreciative of this strategy and continue on to complete the class….

Lucy Manley, Garrett College:  I appreciate the flexibility of teaching online and hope my students do the same as online learners.  However, the undefined time and place are what sometimes haunts me in balancing my professional and personal life.  My extremely supportive family assumes I’m not “really working” when I teach online because I can do it from the kitchen counter while cooking dinner and looking after young children.  This idea that online classes are easier because you can do them “anywhere, anytime” is a misconception I know my students fight too.  Lucy’s insight for students is this:  If you, as an online learner, treat the class just as you would if you took it in person–dedicated workspace, defined uninterrupted time, and, if applicable, scheduled childcare — then your chance of success increase.

3. Embrace student-centered strategies.

Dr. Oluwunmi Ariyo, College Liaison at Durham Technical Community College:  Many first-year students grapple with learning how to balance both worlds.  These students can feel disconnected, overwhelmed, and exhibit poor performance in their classwork.  I provide my students with resources on how to balance their well-being and school work.  I supply OFYE students with information to counseling centers and encourage laughter and humor.  Some other tips include:

  • Assisting and designing collaborative and cooperative learning with peers.
  • Being an accessible and approachable instructor.
  • Demonstrating interest in students’ inquiry, ideas, and answers.
  • Creating learning exercises that connect with students’ interests and current knowledge.
  • Supporting students with setting personal learning goals that are realistic and meaningful.

Clare Brown, SNHU:  Sharing concrete tools and ideas with students that they can try for themselves as they work to find balance in their own lives is so important to their ability to apply what they are seeing modeled within the classroom.  For instance, creating a short video on time management and sharing with students the way in which the day your day is organized, broken up with prioritized tasks, scheduled time for email, etc. can be a great resource for them in both practice and inspiration.  Sharing calendar tools, phone apps, and other resources that can aid in achieving balance in a tangible way is vital to students seeing these practices in action.

Lucy Manley, Garrett College:  An additional part of self-care is understanding that your body needs computer breaks too.  I build in a variety of activities in my courses, so students have points in which natural breaks come.  In sharing my rituals, I emphasize a break to stretch or take a walk.  My biggest advice is that students get outside for 5-10 minutes each hour they spend working on a computer, and I set alarms on my phone to ensure I follow that advice too.

Dr. Connie Lower, Ashford University:  Another strategy is derived from the value students place on the advice and words of wisdom given by their fellow students.  In entry-point classes, discussions and conversations which include dialogue about time management and well-being are critical and valuable parts of acclimating students to necessary components of college success.  … As students share these unique strategies in Discussion boards or personal conversations, I gather them for distribution to all students in the class, knowing that they will be a pause for reflection and perhaps inspire other students to adopt strategies they hadn’t considered.  … Student stories are powerful, and ensuring that these stories reach all the students in the class will enhance the influence we have to assist with balance and well-being.

4. Help students reframe perspectives.

Franzi Gibbs, Student Success Counselor at Oregon State University’s Ecampus:  I like to frame conversations about these topics by acknowledging that we can’t see the different areas or dimensions of our lives such as school, health, work, family, or relationships as separate entities.  In fact, I believe that they’re all tightly interconnected.  Chances are that when we’re not doing so well in one area, a different area will suffer as well – and, the same might be true when we’re doing well.  Advice Franzi provides her students:

  • Not only do we need to have empathy with ourselves while doing the best we can every day, we also need to understand that as the agents of our lives, we have the ability to directly affect our well-being and be a positive force for ourselves. We are whole and we are resourceful, and taking classes online doesn’t have to be something to survive.   – it can be an opportunity for us to show up for ourselves and to thrive.
  • [I]magine what would happen if you stopped seeing stress as a bad thing and instead treated it as something helpful. Wild thought, right?  But think about this – every time we experience stress, our body is helping us rise to the occasion: our muscles are getting ready for action, the pupils in our eyes focus, we are getting ready to do something great.  If we keep seeing stress as the enemy, the mere thought of stress can become something that inhibits our ability to concentrate and to function.  But if we allow ourselves to flip the lens, we are able to tap into our own capacities for resilience and productivity.
  • Check out Kelly McGonigal’s wonderful TEDx talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend” (2013).


5.  Look for warning signs indicators in student behaviors.

Dr. Connie Lower, Ashford University:  As engrossed as we become as instructors in carrying out our mandate to teach the curriculum and expand new students’ knowledge, we also need to keep in mind the impact students’ ability to maintain a balance in their lives has on their performance in our class.  A student who is not able to submit assignments on time and/or struggles with completing them accurately and appropriately is often a student who has not determined how to incorporate balance into their daily lives.  This frequently leads to a downward spiral which can result in failing or dropping out.

Balance and well-being, especially during transitions like attending college, can impact success.  It is clear by the contributions shared that both balance and well-being are issues that must be addressed within the online first year experience for new learners.  What strategies are you using and what has been your experience with balance and well-being in the OFYE classroom?  Please join the conversation by posting comments.

Next Blog Topic: Growth Mindset

Starting anything new often presents us with hurdles we must overcome and gaps we must bridge.  This is certainly true for new online learners preparing for collegiate studies.  Yet, many students struggle with meeting these challenges and even taking constructive feedback from teachers and peers.  This limits their potential for success and for individual growth and development.  Our next blog seeks to explore how OFYE educators encourage and help new learners develop a growth mindset that will propel them forward.  If you work with first-year online students, please share your thoughts on one or more of the following questions:

  • How do you help OFYE learners move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?
  • How do you present or develop course content that encourages students to continually stretch themselves to improve?
  • How do you present assignment feedback in a way that helps students embrace opportunities for further development rather than focus on the grade as the outcome?

OFYE Matters is a virtual toolbox of skills, best practices, resources, ideas and strategies for online educators and is posted regularly.  For the previous OFYE Matters blog entry, click here.

To submit for publication consideration, please articulate and email one to three-paragraph responses to Jamie Holcomb, Associate Dean of First Year Experience, Southern New Hampshire University at j.holcomb@snhu.edu by Monday, Sept. 24.

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