I’ve recently started emailing students more frequently in the online elective on community engagement I teach at the University of Newcastle. The students come from a wide variety of disciplines: since it started in 2008 there have been 1389 students from 59 different degrees. Because there is such a range of students, community engagement is not always their main interest or priority. For some students, community engagement is clearly relevant to their broader degree, but for others, the direct relevance is not always as clear.
In addition, some students select the elective because they are on placement and they appreciate the online nature of the study. All this means that it can be fairly hard to engage some students. For example, I’ve tried some optional online tutes which have only attracted 1 or 2 students out of a possible 80 or more students.
This semester I’ve been much more conscious about trying to build connections with students. In particular I’ve been emailing students to try to combat the impersonal nature of much online study.
I’ve used the emails to encourage students who are getting behind or appear to be struggling. For example I’ve emailed students who didn’t complete all the required discussion board posts. I’ve also sent an email to students who failed a short online quiz (about material in the first module) to give them the opportunity to contact me if they were struggling and to show that I am watching how they are going. In the email I said something along the lines of:
I noticed that you failed the second online quiz. I realise there could be a range of reasons including that you hadn’t had the time to do all the readings yet, you rushed the test and didn’t take advantage of it being open book, or it could be because you are struggling with the content.
If you are doing all the reading (including the introductions to the modules and audio lectures) and are still struggling, please make sure you contact me to have a chat. If you are struggling with other aspects of the course, it is also fine to contact me.
I want you to get through it OK.
A couple of students did email me afterwards explaining why they struggled in the test, or expressing disappointment that they hadn’t done as well as they would have liked. Interestingly none of the students who failed the first quiz failed the second one.
I also try to notice when students do well or put in extra effort. For example I’ve emailed students to congratulate them for doing more discussion board posts than they needed to, for getting full marks in the online quizzes or for doing much better in the second online quiz than the first one (e.g., went from a fail to full marks).
Once again a few students have emailed me back to say thanks.
It takes a little bit of extra effort but I think it helps make the elective less impersonal. I think in online teaching it is easy to feel unnoticed and I hope that students will be less likely to feel that way in this elective. I also hope students will be motivated to keep going and to put in the effort required.
My impression is that it has made quite a difference for some students, and that it has encouraged students to contact me with questions or if they are struggling. Given that it is an elective on community engagement, I hope the more personal touch demonstrates the value of building relationships and acknowledging the importance of each individual involved.
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