What Do Students Really Want From Online Instructors?

What Do Students Really Want From Online Instructors?

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

Over the past nine years, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing approximately 200 instructors at my institution develop and teach their first online course. I’ve witnessed instructors excited by the opportunity, but I’ve also observed many who were hesitant or even fearful of teaching online.

The instructors who were hesitant or fearful often would ask: “So, what’s the secret to being a great online instructor?” I had the sense they were expecting an extensive or complex answer. Many times they were surprised by my response.

Much has been written about student satisfaction in online courses, and there certainly are a number of factors that can influence a student’s experience as an online learner–institution, discipline, level of course, peers, home life, instructor, etc. The ideas in this article have come from three sources: my 11 years of online teaching experience, hundreds of discussions with instructors about what has and hasn’t worked in their online courses, and the research literature.

1. Easy-to-follow course design and navigation
Something that can be incredibly frustrating for students is entering their online course for the first time and being really confused or not knowing how to get started. Confusion can quickly lead to frustration and a disgruntled and unhappy learner—not a great way to start a class. Learner confusion almost always means more emails and questions for the instructor as well.

Many instructors include a “Welcome—get started here” message in the news or announcements area in the learning management system, making it the first thing students see when they log into their course for the first time. Students can then be directed to the syllabus, where they’ll find additional information on the design and navigation of the course.

Easy navigation (presenting content and course activities in a consistent manner), whether by unit, week, chapter or module, can foster a comfort level for students and help decrease confusion. Create hyperlinks from the syllabus, announcement page, or the content area within the course to minimize the number of clicks required to access content, to participate in discussion forums, to take quizzes, to upload papers and assignments, etc.

2. Clear expectations and directions for activities and assessments
Providing explicit directions for course activities and assessments, as well as letting students know exactly (or as close as possible) what will be expected of them, is another way to reduce confusion on the part of the learner. This ultimately results in a better course experience for both student and instructor.

Giving clear directions for course activities and assessments can help decrease online learner anxiety levels. Instead of spending time and energy worrying whether they are completing an assignment the way an instructor wants, students can focus that energy on the assignment itself. To help accomplish this, many online instructors provide their students with rubrics that students can use as a guide to help complete course assignments. The expectations an instructor shares with students could be related to netiquette, academic integrity, the quality of participation in online discussion forums, meeting deadlines, and so on.

I sometimes hear instructors comment about how they feel they shouldn’t have to coddle their online learners or spell everything out for them. After all, online learners are supposed to take more responsibility for their learning—right?

Well, research shows that in addition to improving satisfaction levels, giving clear directions and expectations in online courses improves learning and helps keep online learners more engaged with an instructor and other students in the class. What instructor wouldn’t want to be known for helping to facilitate that outcome?

3. Reasonably quick responses to their questions
This point may seem incredibly basic, but I would say it rates high on the list of items that are important to online learners. In the nine years I’ve served as the director of online education at my institution, I’ve received more student complaints about this topic than any other: “I contacted my instructor with a question five days ago and haven’t heard back yet.”

We all like to get timely responses when we ask a question, whether it’s directed to a colleague, a supervisor, or the cable company. Students are no different! Recently I received an email question from a parent of a student at my institution about the cost of taking a single online course. I responded and cc’d someone at our cashier’s office, who also responded to the parent. These replies occurred within a few hours of receiving the question. The parent’s response: “Thanks for the helpful information and done in such an amazingly timely manner!”

I think there is a misconception that online learners expect 24/7 access to their instructors. It has been my experience, and the experience of a vast majority of instructors I talk to, that if an instructor sets clear response expectations (e.g., I will respond to emails within 24 hours if I receive them on a weekday), most students will respect that. An online instructor does not need to be available 24/7 to be successful—and should not be!

4. Instructors who make their presence known
One way instructors can make their presence known to students is by regularly communicating with them. This communication might start with an email a week or two prior to the start of the class, introducing themselves and giving students information about the course. It could include a video introduction or course orientation. Subsequent emails could include regular course updates and announcements summarizing how class members did on a particular assignment or activity. And most students greatly appreciate receiving reminders about due dates of upcoming assignments.

Students like to know their instructor’s perspective on course content. This could be shared in the form of written lecture narratives, podcasts, voice-over PowerPoints, or videos. Online courses can be very text-heavy, and I’ve learned that many students enjoy both hearing and seeing their instructor—even in online courses. Students are pretty savvy, and many realize when instructors simply share publisher-created content rather than offering their own viewpoint on the concepts and principles covered in the class.

Other ways instructors can improve their presence in online courses is to provide prompt and meaningful feedback and to participate in online discussion forums (both could be stand-alone topics of future columns). Presence is important. We survey our online students for feedback, and I have seen comments range from “I assume the instructor got paid for teaching this course, but it felt like I never interacted with him” to “I felt like I interacted more and got to know my professor better in this online course than in my face-to-face courses.”

Many research articles and book chapters have been dedicated to student satisfaction in online courses. At a minimum, if instructors would set clear expectations and provide detailed directions for activities and assessments, create courses that were well designed and easy to navigate, respond to student questions in a timely manner, and make their presence known, they would likely experience success and satisfaction in their online teaching experiences. This should be reassuring to instructors who are hesitant about venturing into online teaching.