You can have a well-designed course with relevant content and an expert instructor, yet the course can still be perceived as a negative experience by students. Why? The instructor was not “present” in the course.
It takes more than grading to create instructor presence. Bangert defines instructor presence as “the ‘methods’ that instructors use to create the quality online instructional experiences that support and sustain productive communities of inquiry” (Bangert, 2008, p. 40). Without instructor support, courses quickly become barren.
Imagine trying to learn in a desert. You’re tired, alone, lost, and you don’t know what to do. You’re just looking for an oasis to survive the next day. That’s how students feel when their instructor doesn’t show up to an online class.
As Academic Operations Specialist, I read hundreds of student evaluations each year. The primary comments revolve around instructor presence. Some comments from past evaluations include:
- “The instructor was phenomenal, he posted slides as well as adding his thoughts and views to our discussion board. By doing so this made him more personable in a situation where we actually never met”
- “The professor never replies to emails.”
- “Grading was extremely slow. In week 8, we had yet to receive our week 6 grades. Also, there was no feedback as to how our classwork was going.”
- “The instructor’s involvement in the course was very helpful for my learning. He constantly responded on our discussion boards and pointed us in the right direction.”
- “The instructor said he would post an announcement each week to engage the students learning. He never posted another announcement to the group during the entire course. As a student, this is discouraging. The time and effort put into the class is difficult when the instructor does not seem involved. There was no feedback on any of the assignments.”
- “The feedback on the discussion boards each week was nice. The instructor always had a comment and then a question to help us to further our thinking and knowledge about each subject. He provided great feedback.”
The theme tying these comments together is whether or not the instructor was present.
Students Want to Feel Like the Instructor Cares
Students often comment in their evaluations that they teach themselves. According to Teachers College, Columbia University, this translates into feeling instructors don’t care. Their research found the course’s level of interpersonal interaction is the most important factor in predicting student grades; students in low-interaction courses earned nearly one letter grade lower than students in high-interaction courses (Teachers College, Columbia University, 2013).
Chyung and Vachon (2005) attribute student frustration and retention issues to inadequate assistance or lack of direction from instructors. Students can feel isolated when there is lack of feedback or communication. Students want to know you’re invested and available.
Tips for Online Instructors
As an online instructor, you want to become student-centered when you teach. Ann shared several practical strategies in her Community of Inquiry series to create a social presence in your online course, including sharing weekly announcements, keeping communication channels open, and constructive feedback on assignments. This active guidance lets your students know you’re present.
When you provide the right amount of meaningful announcements, you help students see at a glance what is happening in the next week. And using weekly announcements to tackle common questions will help reduce a mirage of individual emails.
Also, students need feedback on a current assignment to help them complete the next assignment. Students become discouraged when they ask a question that isn’t answered. If they have an assignment due soon, prompt feedback is vital.
Ideally, instructors should respond to a question within 24 hours. One reason students take online courses is to fit their education into their busy schedules. Students appreciate timely responses to email or discussion board inquiries—just like everyone else. If an assignment is due on Sunday, responding on Monday can leave students feeling lost, frustrated, and disengaged. Students want guidance and support throughout the course, and if the instructor is invested there’s a great chance the students will be too.
Feedback is most effective when given before the next assignment is due. Many students comment on evaluations the frustration they feel when waiting for feedback before completing the next week’s assignment.
Online instructors need to use announcements, feedback, and give as much guidance as they can to facilitate a successful online course. When you focus on these strategies, students will know you’re keeping track of their progress as well as help them feel you are with them on this journey and proactively encouraging their progress. Frequent communication with students will promote student satisfaction and motivation to finish. Eliminate the silence and let them know you are in this together.
Bangert, A. (2008). The influence of social presence and teaching presence on the quality of online critical inquiry. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 20(1), 34-61.
Chyung, S.Y. & Vachon, M. (2005). An investigation of the satisfying and dissatisfying factors in e-learning. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 18, 97-114.
Teachers College, Columbia University. (2013). Creating an effective online instructor presence. Community College Research Center. Retrieved from: https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/effective-online-instructor-presence.pdf