3 Incredibly Easy Ways to Establish a Positive Relationship with Online Students via Email

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I’ve written thousands of emails to online students over the years (yes, thousands), and it can be difficult to be sure that what you’re writing is professional, yet human and appreciated by the students you’re working with.

Over the years I’ve learned how important it is to put some effort into leaving students with a good feeling after communicating with them through email (since it’s sometimes the only way you’ll communicate with them during the semester). I try to include a few standard things in most emails to help maintain this positive and respectful relationship:

  • I always end my emails with ‘Let me know if you need anything else!’ or some variation of it (‘Let me know if you have any other questions/concerns.’). This sign off is very simple, and might not seem like much, but I believe it’s important. I want to encourage students to come to me if they need anything- and I believe it helps them feel more comfortable coming to me with questions (especially when I do it in an upbeat and approachable way), and through seeking me out more, they help me address any issues other students might be running into as well.
  • If students come to me with an issue or problem in the course, I always show my appreciation to them. I might start the email with the phrase ‘Good question!’ or ‘Thank you for bringing that to my attention.’ This (similar to what I mentioned above) encourages them to come to me if they notice any other problems, which either helps me improve/fix the content of the course and/or leaves them feeling like they did something worthwhile.
  • Use punctuation purposefully. I try to stay away from using smiley faces (during a post-TED talk discussion in the classroom, I learned from some students that it can sometimes be ‘creepy’ when your instructor uses smiley faces too often, or unexpectedly- so I very quickly stopped using those!), but I think one exclamation point per email when responding to a polite student is perfectly acceptable. I find that it helps to establish goodwill in online relationships, especially when students might expect you to be more serious or unapproachable. If a student seems unnecessarily angry or frustrated via email, you might want to stick to periods and usual punctuation. However, when addressing a student who seems to want to establish a friendly relationship, or a student who needs a little encouragement, feel free to use a well-placed exclamation point to show that you’re human and open to friendly conversation..

These are all very easy adjustments to make when emailing students, and I know from experience that they appreciate these small touches of humanity when navigating a course solo during the semester, so don’t be afraid to show a slightly softer side when it feels appropriate.

Happy teaching!

The Best Technology for Engaging Students in Online Classes

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Teaching online can get a little stale when you’re just using the basics: Blackboard, Canvas, Pearson products, Adobe Connect webinars, etc. 

However, the article Building Real Community Online with Free Apps by Dian Schaffhauser offers some options for ‘meeting’ with online students that may build more of a community in your classroom, and may help to further engage students.

If you’re getting tired of the same old routine, check out the article below and see what inspires you. 

Happy teaching!

https://campustechnology.com/articles/2017/07/05/building-real-community-online-with-free-apps.aspx?m=1

How to Start the Upcoming Semester on the Right Foot

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Every Instructor has certain icebreakers they like to use on the first day of face-to-face classes, and a preferred way of discussing the syllabus with students, I know I do (and old habits are hard to break).

However, if you’re up ready for a change, or think you might find yourself with some extra time on that first day, read the article First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning by Maryellen Weimer and plan to incorporate some of the incredibly useful activities she suggests. Weimer offers up some ideas that don’t just get students engaged, but also set everybody up for the most positive and productive semester.

Check out the article below and pick out some of your favorites for the upcoming term :).

Happy teaching!

https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/first-day-of-class-activities-that-create-a-climate-for-learning/

How to Create Boundaries When Working From Home

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There are plenty of things I could work on in my personal and professional life. However, I pride myself on having finally mastered the surprisingly difficult task of working from home (I might regret saying that as soon as Baby joins us in a few months here..). For the most part, I’m organized, efficient, and pretty great with a routine.

However.

As much as I thrive with structure, it still took me a full year of working from home to feel like I had actually nailed it.

Here’s how I learned to create a routine, a work space that actually works, and learned to establish some mental, work, and social boundaries (as someone who could easily be tempted to work or play 24/7, but has learned not to):

  • Working from home doesn’t have to be pretty. If you’re better off working from a coffee shop, do it. If you get more accomplished working from a home office or your kitchen table, do it. Since I’ve been pregnant and queasy on a daily basis, my 8-10 hour ‘work from Panera’ days started making me nervous, so I had to retrain myself to work from home. I wish I could say I sit in my beautiful home office, close those lovely French doors, and get my work done gracefully, but as hard as I tried, it didn’t work. In reality, I sit at my new, trendy kitchen table and bury it under schedules, folders, textbooks, and other odds and ends (it easily seats 8 people, but I’ve managed to leave only one clear spot for someone who needs to eat- it’s not great, but it works perfectly for grading and checking emails!).
  • Know what type of schedule is required of you, and don’t overextend yourself. Maybe your boss has told you to work your 40 hours a week whenever it’s best for you, or maybe you’re given a pile of work (like me) and when you’re done you’re done. Know what you have to do, and do no more. Most weeks, if I work diligently, I work all day (8-10 hours) Monday and Wednesday, and just 1-2 hours on the other days (which I don’t count as work days, since it’s mostly checking email, taking care of loose ends, and dealing with the usual student crisis and/or paperwork- but no grading). I try not to drag things out throughout the week (like I’ve done in the past), since it makes me feel like I never get an actual break.
  • Check your email once a day, that’s it. If your company has a different email policy, by all means, follow it. However, as an online instructor I’m required to check email every 48 hours (which initially meant that I nervously checked my email 3 times a day and had a hard time getting anything else done). These days I feel most comfortable if I check my email once every 24 hours (usually first thing when I wake up in the morning, otherwise it hangs over my head until I finally do it). It typically takes 1-2 hours to deal with my emails, but once I’m done, I’m done until tomorrow and I can move on to other things.
  • Don’t make yourself socially available every day of the week, block off solid working days. When I first started working from home, I felt like I could make plans with family and friends every day of the week, but it kept me from getting into the right mindset to get things done, and it set a bad precedent that I was always around and willing to do anything on any day of the week (which was tempting, but I still had work to do!). These days Mondays are definitely off the table for socializing, and normally Wednesdays are, too. I didn’t set out to do things this way, but after a year of working from home and learning what days are best for me and my students, Mondays and Wednesdays organically became my work days (give yourself some time and you’ll likely fall into your natural work-from-home rhythm, as well). Before I knew it, my plans with family and friends started shifting, and they would only ask to hang out on my other available days of the week.

My tricks aren’t revolutionary, but it took a full year to step back and see what I had done. At this point, working from home feels effortless, and if you give yourself some time, you might also find yourself falling into a natural routine that reduces the mental burden of working from home.

Give it some time and patience :). Happy living!

What Every Online Instructor Needs to Post in Their Courses

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If you teach college courses online, I can guarantee that the following piece (by online instructor and occasional Happy Professor contributor, Chris Berg, Ph.D.) will have you vigorously nodding your head with every word.

Do yourself a favor and send the following article to your students as a Canvas or Blackboard Announcement, or even take it a step further and give your students a quiz based on the content; I plan to do the same in each of my classes.

I imagine Chris’s wise words will give my students some clarity, and provide me with some peace of mind as we progress through each semester.

8 Tips to be a Successful Online Student 

By Chris Berg, Ph.D.

Online learning is fast becoming the way twenty-first-century learners choose to attend college. It provides a degree of flexibility and versatility unseen in traditional education.

But, apart from the many benefits online learning provides, there are certain attitudes and attributes that are essential for success in online education. The best online students understand their value and, in this article, I’m going to share what I’ve found to be important considerations for your success in online education.

Read the Syllabus. Seriously, read it. In my experience, if I didn’t require a syllabus quiz in my online courses, most students wouldn’t read it. The syllabus is your key to success in any given course. It is in your best interest to read (often, in fact!) the syllabus to fully understand what your professor’s expectations are for the course and what you can, in turn, expect from your professor.  

Time Management. This one is a challenge for students and is, perhaps, the #1 obstacle to timely submission of assignments and engagement in discussion boards. Some of my students have shared that they make a schedule for the entire semester in advance so they know what needs to be done day-by-day, week-by-week. This requires some initial time investment, but the rewards are worth it. Don’t wait until the last minute before beginning your work. Professors can tell when an assignment was rushed.

Read for Comprehension. Textbooks, for all their faults, are probably here to stay in one form or another. This makes reading time-consuming, but part and parcel of the learning process. This might require reading through a section or an entire chapter more than once. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but reading carefully and thoughtfully requires commitment.

A rule I followed in graduate school when the reading lists were especially heavy was to read for 30 minutes and then take a break for 30 minutes doing something completely different. This system worked well for me; find a system or routine that works for you.

Check-in. Make it a regular practice to check-in the course classroom frequently throughout the week. This is not only a good practice to break-up work, such as submitting an initial post and follow-up peer responses, but is also useful to view important announcements or messages from the professor.

Be Proactive. Take responsibility for your education. This is college-level work and a higher standard is required. Just because a class doesn’t require that you attend in person does not mean that you can cut corners. You are in control of your own learning. Remember that and you’ll take control of your education.

Communicate. The moment you have a question, check the syllabus first. If the syllabus doesn’t address it, contact your professor. Don’t delay! Often, a slight problem can turn into a big problem if too much time elapses. If you’re unsure, email the professor. We’re here to help.

Stay Involved. Discussion forums are ideal, but underutilized, areas for students to engage and interact with each other. Often, you’ll be confronted with a new perspective that challenges your own beliefs. Rather than ignoring the post or comment, start a friendly conversation with your peer. This is a crucial aspect of learning and will serve you well in the “real” world. Take advantage of it.

Go the Extra Mile. I learned this from Napoleon Hill, a protégé of the industrialist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. What this means is satisfying your professor’s expectations while striving to exceed them. This attitude is not only beneficial in online education—your professors will notice it—but also in every walk of life. Going “above and beyond” might even by the secret ingredient to success in general. Try it.

John Dewey, the architect of progressive education in the early nineteenth century, famously said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” I hope you you find these tools–I post them in my own online classrooms–helpful as you move one step closer to achieving your educational goals.

~

I hope you enjoyed the piece, and again, feel free to pass this on to your students and other online instructors.

Happy teaching!

Big Ideas

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It’s easy to slip into routines. Even things that originally seemed novel can become a normal (and not especially exciting) part of your day to day life.

For the last year I’ve worked toward creating a life that allows me to basically function on autopilot. It was very deliberate- I wanted to get all my ‘ducks in a row,’ so to speak, live in the right location, make the right amount of money, and become comfortable with the new schools I’ve been working for online (mostly to prepare for the wonderful and exhausting chaos that will come with having a child).

However, with routine and the luxury to relax and get comfortable also comes a lack of imagination and creativity (at least, that’s been my experience).

I like to think that I’m a self aware and proactive person, so when I started realizing that my conversations with friends were growing stagnant and less intellectual, and long talks with my husband were gradually moving from energetic and inspiring, to a bland rundown of our work day, I decided to come up with as satisfying (and easy) a solution as I could. I decided that if I could be more deliberate about how I’m spending my time in the car, putting away groceries, and procrastinating on my laptop, I could work in some much-needed ‘educational listening.’

That’s when I got a simple idea that I’ve already fallen in love with:

Listen to 2-3 TED talks or one educational podcast weekly, and write down 3 conversation-generating thoughts from each in a notebook (which I call my Book of Big Ideas, because I’m cheesy :)).

This purposeful listening and note-taking has worked out perfectly (and keep in mind, it has required virtually no extra time out of my day), and it’s provided me with plenty of new thoughts to explore on frequent one-hour-long walks with my husband (naturally one simple idea spirals into multiple ideas that can keep us talking for hours, which is a huge win in my opinion).

Following through on this simple idea has also inspired me to think outside the box more often, it feels good to have some added mental stimulation, and it’s kept me from falling into that all-too-familiar ‘sit on the couch and watch TV/Netflix/YouTube endlessly after work until you go to bed’ rut that I know can become so easy to fall into.

My Book of Big Ideas plan is fairly new, but so far so good. Having been out of school for 6 years, and having finished writing my most recent book two years ago now, I figured it’s important to keep my creativity alive and to continually challenge myself mentally.

Some people enroll in free online college courses, or do crossword puzzles to stay sharp, but for anyone who’s looking for a different solution to help them break out of that weekday TV rut (and tired of feeling like they’ve lost a few IQ points), I recommend starting your own Book of Big Ideas and see what kind of inspiration strikes.

Happy learning and happy living!

5 Reasons You Should Consider Working From Home (and Why I Love It)

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I may not write about it on the blog as frequently as I could, but almost daily I tell my husband how much I love working from home and teaching online.

It’s fun to get into the classroom once a week and do things traditionally, but if you have the discipline and a solid routine, you really can’t beat working from home, regardless of what type of job you have (see these Forbes articles for more details: Five Reasons to Love Working From Home and One In Five Americans Work From Home, Numbers Seen Rising Over 60%).

Here’s why:

  1. You get to create your own work and life schedule. If I want to relax over the weekend, I can make a plan to get my work done during the week. However, if I find that there are more exciting things happening during the week, I can switch things up and get my work done over the weekend. I love that I can move things around this way. As a result, I frequently enjoy long Tuesday lunches with a girlfriend, midday hourlong phone calls with friends who live out of state, and some solid time writing for my blog.
  2. You end up saving money. As much as I sometimes wish I had coworkers to buy cookies for on their birthdays, or a ‘lunch crew’ to leave the office with on Fridays, I realize that I can still incorporate these things into my life (and do on occasion) without spending as much money. I also don’t have to update my work wardrobe, pay for gas money and tolls, or put wear and tear on my car, all of which results in some pretty decent savings.
  3. It’s easier to eat healthy and workout. Sometimes for lunch I’m chopping up vegetables in my kitchen, baking chicken, or digging into a huge piece of cantaloupe- none of which would be appropriate in a traditional office setting. I also have a little workout space in my house where I enjoy listening to bad 90’s music and lifting weights for about 30 minutes twice a week in the middle of the day. It’s the best way to put off getting work done while still doing something good for yourself.
  4. ‘Going to work’ turns out to be kind of relaxing. This might just be me, but some days life can feel hectic- running errands, taking care of household items, going to appointments, etc. During the uninterrupted time during the week that I need to work from home, life is quiet, unrushed, and predictable. It might just be my personality type, but sometimes it feels like a break from the chaos of everyday life.
  5. I can stop wondering if life would be better if I worked from home. I have a number of friends who wonder if they’d be better off working from home- some are new moms who are trying to figure out what to do with their career, some aren’t crazy about their coworkers, and others just feel that working from home is becoming so popular that it might be a decision they’ll need to make in the future. I know a handful of people who love working out of a home office and coffee shops, and I know a handful of people who regretted the move (the isolation and pressure to get yourself moving each day can definitely become overwhelming, especially in the beginning) and went back to the office within a year. Luckily, I know what works for me, especially with a baby on the way, so that’s one less major life decision I’ll have to worry about in the future.

It may seem that working from home is the next big trend, and it just might be, so if it’s something you’ve been thinking about, consider my 5 reasons why working from home is (at least for me), one of the best decisions I could have made, and decide if it might be a realistic option for you in the future.

Happy living!

The Importance of Engaging Students 10 Minutes Before Class Starts

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In my first book, Happy Professor, I included a short section about the importance of engaging with your students during the seemingly insignificant (but secretly crucial) 10-15 minutes before class starts. 

Honestly, I don’t always follow my own advice. Sometimes I have a crisis on my hands at a different school, so I’m dealing with emails and trying to tie up loose ends in those precious few moments before the students in front of me need my undivided attention for the next few hours. 

However, when I start feeling rather disconnected from my face-to-face students, I make the extra effort to engage in casual conversation with the early comers before we get started for the day. It makes me feel more invested in the experience, and I believe it does the same for them. 

I think this bit of low pressure engagement has a number of benefits: it helps students see you as human, they then tend to be more responsive during the class period, and it makes your time as the instructor in the classroom a whole lot more enjoyable (and as someone who teaches predominantly online, the physical classroom for me is all about having a positive experience and setting the right tone for the semester).

Having said that, I love finding articles that back up my own ideas and experiments in the classroom.

Instructor John Warner (author of Inside Higher Ed post titled “Moving Students Away From Their Phones“) backs up what I’ve previously believed about chatting with students before class, with the added bonus that these engaged students might actually stay off their cell phones during the class period (something that Warner and I both agree is a plus, but not a must- we’re all adults here, after all).

Enjoy the article! Happy reading, teaching, and learning :).

https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/moving-students-away-their-phones 

5 Reasons to Volunteer When Given the Opportunity

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Once in a while, when I feel like I could take on more and/or need something new and different in my life, I’ll see out volunteer opportunities.

Luckily, I’m occasionally approached by one of the local schools I work for, or a former student, who has me in mind for a small volunteer project and reaches out via email. Although I have to be picky about what I agree to (even though it pains me sometimes- like turning down an all-expenses-paid 5 week opportunity to teach in China- that one hurt), I’m fortunate that so many amazing projects come my way.

Recently, I’ve been coaching a high school student as she works on a speech about bullying, and it’s been a wonderful experience. Sure, there are times when I’m exhausted from work and would rather lay on the couch than go help, but I’m always incredibly happy and inspired when I come home from our meetings, and I feel fortunate to have had this opportunity (thanks, Ally, for reaching out to me on a whim!).

Having said that, I thought it would be appropriate to post about some of the benefits of volunteering- for both the volunteer and the people that need help:

1.  It feels great for everyone involved (and as the volunteer, you get the added bonus of feel good chemicals like serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins that get released and mimic a runner’s high)
2.  Overall better physical health and mental health (it can even reduce symptoms of depression and cut down on your risk of heart disease)
3.  Your efforts can have a tremendous impact (you can ultimately change someone’s life, and someone can ultimately change your life)
4.  It’s a chance to get out of your comfort zone or just mix up your usual routine (trying something new and different can inspire you in other areas of your life that you may not have anticipated)
5.  It’s an opportunity to make new friends, social ties, become part of a new community, and even make career connections (whether building relationships is a goal of yours or not, volunteering for any organization just a few times can have these results)

So the next time you feel like you’re in a bit of a rut, find yourself with some extra time, or are looking for a more sustainable form of happiness, consider looking for ways that you can give back.

Happy living :).

(*Note: Some information found in the article “So What’s So Good About Giving” by Terri Cole on the Huffington Post at the following link http://www.huffingtonpost.com/terri-cole/volunteering-health_b_2189477.html)

Discussion Ideas for Family Communication Courses

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This semester I put together what I call a ‘packet’ of discussion topics for my Family Communication course that we, as a class, discussed over the course of the semester. I was really pleased with the way it turned it.

As we read about and discussed the concepts in class, we watched relatable videos, tied in our own personal experiences, and also incorporated those that we saw in 3 early episodes of Modern Family over the course of the term.

The students loved it, and I decided to base my 5 short answer/essay final exam on these discussion prompts (I told the students to be sure the answers in their own packet were very thorough, since I would be choosing 5 of those discussion prompts at random to put on the exam, and they wouldn’t be able to use their notes or book).

For anyone teaching Family Communication who’s in need of something new to inject life into the students and material, feel free to borrow from the worksheets/packet below!

Happy teaching :).

~

Family and Communication. Spring A 2017

Discussion Prompts (Chs. 1, 2, 3)

  1.       How do you define family? What does family mean to you? What is your experience with family? (Ch. 1)
  2.       Explain how family members develop a set of shared meanings. What are some shared meanings you have with some of your family members? (Ch. 2, p. 24)
  3.       What level of cohesion does your family experience currently? What about when you were growing up? (Ch. 2, p. 32)

Modern Family Discussion Prompts (Chs. 1, 2, 3)

  1.       What shared meanings do you see? (p. 24)
  2.       What level of cohesion is present (in the family as a whole, or in the 3 individual family units)? What are examples of 3 behaviors that characterize their level of cohesion in the episode/s? (p. 32)
  3.       Does any metacommunication take place? How and in what way? (p. 31) What was said at the ‘content level’ and what was said at the ‘relationship level’?
  4.       Patterns/Self Regulation (Ch. 3, p. 62)- What communication patterns did you see within the families that made life more predictable? What communication rules existed? How did they maintain stability through ‘calibration’? Or how do you think they should have done this? What are your suggestions?
  5.       What relational currencies did you see being used in the families? By which family members? Why were they used?
  6.    Did any theories from Ch. 3 come into play? Which ones did you find? How did you see it play out in the episode/s?

Modern Family Discussion Prompts (Chs. 5, 6, 9, 10, 12)

  1.       (Ch. 5) How do you see relational maintenance taking place? (Marital/Partnership Maintenance p. 112, Parent and Child Relational Maintenance p. 114, Sibling and Step Sibling Relational Maintenance p. 115)
  •       What relational maintenance strategies do you see being used? (ie. confirmation p. 116, respect p. 118, rituals p. 118, relational currencies p. 124- and use the subcategories within these as you provide examples)
  1.       (Ch. 6) When have you seen the 3 types of commitment at work in your family or someone else’s? (ie. personal commitment, moral commitment, and structural commitment) (p. 134)
  2.       (Ch. 6) What do you think about the “naïve” quote: “If you have to work at a relationship, there’s something wrong with it. A relationship is either good or it’s not”? (p. 134)
  3.       (Ch. 6) What are the benefits and costs of self-disclosure in a family relationships? (p. 136)
  4.       (Ch. 9) Analyze an ongoing family dispute using the conflict stages model (p. 217)
  5.       (Ch. 10) What kind of ‘unconscious negotiations’ took place between you and a partner/spouse and your family of origin when you were getting married (ie. how best to argue, who would take care of certain household items, how to deal with intrusive family members, how to spend the holidays, how much each of you would work, etc.)?
  6.       Discuss your opinion about the opening quote to Ch. 12 “Family Communication and Well-Being” p. 305 by Stephen R. Covey (for those of you with a different edition of the textbook, it may be on a different page, or not included, so I’ll include it below).

Quote:

“Good families- even great families- are off track 90 percent of the time! The key is that they have a sense of destination. They know what the ‘track’ looks like. And they keep coming back to it time and time again…. With regard to our families, it doesn’t make any difference if we are off target or even if our family is a mess. The hope lies in the vision and in the plan and in the courage to keep coming back time and time again.”

-Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families

Is that true? What are some ways to more effectively ‘stay on track’? Use specific examples and explanations.

  1. Search YouTube or TED.com (either works) for ‘Connected, but alone?’ by Sherry Turkle (to be watched before or after your read p. 320 through 322 of your text; for those of you with different textbook editions, look up “digital competence” in your textbook’s index to find the exact page numbers):

Each semester I have my communication-based classes watch this TED talk about how digital communication is affecting the way we connect. Is social media a good thing or a bad thing for us as humans and/or for our relationships? It’s a question I pose in my classes, and many students discuss the issue through debates I hold in my speech class. There’s no right or wrong answer/opinion, it’ just an interesting look into human connection. What’s your opinion?

 

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