There is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning—especially in hybrid and online environments. Nevertheless, taking time to consider what students need for a successful and inclusive learning experience should be top of mind for instructors.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic with students balancing professional, personal, social and academic concerns, instructors need to be mindful of how they can create a safe and inclusive space where all students can thrive. However, online learning environments raise some new challenges for instructors: How will you get to know your students? How will you gauge where they are struggling? How will you assess if they are engaged in course material? Here are 16 ways to do just that.

Access The Ultimate Guide To Creating Community In The Virtual Classroom and learn how to build an online learning community that will motivate and engage students.

1. Reflect on your students’ identities

Examine the contexts and conditions in which students may find themselves while taking your online course. Reevaluate the assumption that all students are in a space that provides them with a productive learning environment. Consider using a student interest inventory to learn more about your students. Use this as an opportunity to ask about their work and family responsibilities, current course load and past academic experiences. This provides insights for you to better understand how to best help your students succeed.

2. Monitor your interactions with students

If you are recording your live class sessions, try re-watching the lecture videos and taking notes on student interactions, the types of examples you use and the clarity of your explanations. Consider asking yourself what trends or specific actions stand out, and the impact they might have on your students.

3. Learn your students’ names

Calling students by name helps them feel recognized as individuals and can make shy students more apt to participate. This goes for in class activities as well as discussion threads. If you have a large online class, consult the online roster for your course. Demonstrate caring by directly asking students to learn about pronounciation or any preferred names they would like to be called.

4. Create community agreements

This can be done in a shared document or a discussion thread where students provide their own perspectives on online etiquette, norms and expectations. Students can also be charged with doing their part to establish and maintain an inclusive and supportive online learning community. This is always more effective if they’ve had a hand in building the community agreement themselves.

5. Set the ground rules

Develop and enforce a set of ground rules for respectful interaction in the classroom. These can include guidelines for contributing ideas and questions and for responding respectfully to the ideas and questions of others. If a student’s conduct could be silencing or denigrating to others (intentionally or not), remind the entire class of the ground rules. You can then speak with the student individually outside of class about the potential effects of their conduct.

6. Overcommunicate your expectations

Communicate clearly—from the first day of class—about what you expect to happen in the classroom, including your expectations for respectful and inclusive interactions.

7. Ask for feedback

Try asking a trusted colleague or mentor to observe your online course or view one of your recorded lecture sessions and provide their comments. Online polling features are a great way to quickly assess student understanding of material and to collect ideas to improve the learning experience for everyone.

8. Share what you’re doing with the feedback

When you collect feedback, be sure to take time in class to explain how you are integrating their suggestions. What concerns are you prioritizing? What changes or adjustments will you be making? Showing you take feedback seriously will help strengthen feedback loops by making it more likely for students to contribute in the future.

9. Be explicit with assignment instructions

Take time to provide clarity about assignment instructions. Being open about how and when they should be submitted and what resources are available helps ensure the work can be completed successfully. Walking them through an example can really help bring this to life. You can also share rubrics with students to ensure the grading process is transparent.

10. Share resources with the whole class

Ensure that assistance provided outside of class is equally available and accessible to everyone. For example, if you share information with one or a few students regarding how best to approach an assignment, repeat this information to the entire class.

11. Foster a growth mindset

The foundation of a “growth mindset” is the belief that intelligence is not fixed or the product of natural ability, but can change and grow over time. When talking with students about their performance in class or on assignments, avoid describing such performance as a sign of natural ability (or lack of ability). Instead, consider working with them to develop two to three strategies they can use in areas where they are struggling.

12. Mistakes or learning moments?

Create an environment in the classroom or laboratory in which it is okay to make mistakes. Faltering, after all, often leads to deeper, more meaningful learning. If a student contributes an answer that is incorrect, ask questions to help the student identify how they arrived at that answer. This can also help the class as a whole understand alternative ways of reaching the correct answer. And be sure to thank the student for having the courage to share with the rest of the class.

13. Diversify your syllabus and course materials

If you assign text or media that may be problematic or incorporate stereotypes, identify the shortcomings and consider supplementing them with other materials. Encourage your students to think critically about course materials and potential biases to strengthen their analytical skills.

14. Approach sensitive topics proactively

If you are teaching topics that are likely to generate disagreement or controversy, identify clear objectives and design a class structure informed by those objectives. Communicate the objectives and the conversation’s structure to your students, so that they know what to expect.

15. Allow for anonymity

You can also choose to make discussion threads anonymous to ensure all students feel comfortable voicing their opinions navigating sensitive topics in the classroom. But be sure to remind your classroom that the rules of decorum and netiquette still apply.

16. Be a positive example for open dialogue

Model openness to the new ideas and questions your students bring into the course. This can broaden and deepen your own knowledge of your discipline and its relevance. Help students understand that knowledge is often produced through conversation and collaboration and by exploring disparate points of view.

The learning environment we create is directly correlated with student motivation, engagement and the likelihood of persisting and succeeding in their studies. An inclusive, trusting environment also has the added benefit of inviting greater participation and risk-taking. After all, exploring, challenging and wrestling with ideas is what higher education is all about.

Access The Ultimate Guide To Creating Community In The Virtual Classroom and learn how to build an online learning community that will motivate and engage students.

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