Plugging In Without Burning Out 

Responding to online students’ questions, class structure, and community


How we respond to and engage with our online students matters—a lot. Adeline, in her recent post, Some Lessons I’ve Learned from Online, offers insights that are helpful to online-teaching newcomers and those of us who have been teaching online for a while. I imagine that students in her class feel her presence and her engagement with their work. She also has collaborated with her students to create an engaged community—one in which students respond their classmates’ work. Because her students are at the center of her class and their learning, email communication—as she explained—can be overwhelming at times. Adeline explained, “Because there are no in-person meetings, instructors should expect to get emails from students demanding quick responses the night before or morning of the assignments. Even if you set out on your syllabus the specific hours you will be answering email, expect most of the traffic to come in at off-hours because these are often the times students are working on material for the course. I felt much more pressure to be constantly available for my students in my online course rather than my in-person classes, and this was often exhausting.” I remember teaching my first online classes seven years ago and feeling exhausted by the number of email exchanges I had with my students. I wanted to ensure I promptly and carefully responded to their email questions because I was concerned about students feeling overwhelmed and isolated. I learned, over the years, that I could manage most questions in a more effective manner while also creating learning and assessment opportunities, if I used a student-centered approach to general questions.

The Query Quest
There are student questions that must be addressed private email. There are also many other student email questions that would serve the students asking the questions and the entire class better if the questions were asked in online classes. We can help students become more comfortable asking general questions in our online classes.

There are many questions that students can answer for each other much quicker than I can if I’m not living in class, which I have done and do not recommend. I create a “query quest” section in class: “If you have any questions along the way, please feel free to email me (I include a mailto link), but I also encourage you to post your questions in the query quest section of our class. Chances are that others will benefit from your question and classmates may have useful answers (often better than my own) to offer.” I follow this forum closely in case I need to respond to a comment. Monitoring the forum takes substantially less time than responding to numerous emails in which students ask similar questions, which means my students get a well-rested teacher. The query quest also reminds students that in our class it’s OK to say, “I do not understand.” or “I’m confused.”

Other Strategies for Managing Email

I also encourage students to review the week’s work at the start of the week so that I can better address their good questions. To support this approach, in some classes I’ve rotated a “as I understand this week” role; students take turns summarizing the assignments at the start of the week, and I respond to their summaries. This assignment also helps me understand how well I’m communicating assignments, and the assignments allows my students to work on their summarizing skills. Like Adeline, I grade and comment on feedback every week, and I offer feedback guidelines and models.

The Road Map
I find that having a set routine for how students access the class (e.g., announcement, this week’s materials, forums) helps students better negotiate the class. I think Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt mention this in their texts on online learning and teaching.

Our Professional Communities—Including Chance Meetings
I’ve found useful online strategies from my professional organizations. I’m a member of the College Conference on Composition and Communication (CCCC). The CCCC Committee on Best Practices for Online Writing Instruction created a position statement for online writing instruction (OWI) principles and effective practices. I also seek chances to have conversations about online learning. When I learn from others (e.g., students, accessibility offices, librarians, and faculty) by joining a chance conversation about online learning, I return to the next term invigorated and ready to learn how to better teach.

I’d love to learn about your online strategies. What do you do to best support your students while managing time limitations?