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How Do You Teach Online Students to Focus in the Face of a Personal Crisis?

How Do You Teach Online Students to Focus in the Face of a Personal Crisis?

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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

Teaching others challenges us, challenges why we teach and the norms that still produce students who cannot write, think and make comparisons.

As online college professors, we have the opportunity to be a one-on-one teacher-student ratio in the online classroom. We may have 20 students enrolled in each class and teach five to eight classes. But those numbers are different than when you stand in front of a classroom and face 20 or so students live and in person.

When I taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage, my job often became that of a babysitter. Often, I would walk to a desk in the middle or back of the classroom to wake up a slumbering student. Maybe my lecture was a bit boring. Or maybe the adult student had come straight from a hard day’s work, missed supper and was just too tired to sit for three hours in an evening class.

We continue to improve our teaching methods through video messaging, daily email checks and adding timely events or news items to our discussions. Mostly, we try to improve our teaching by showing concern for our students as human beings.

Teaching Becomes a Special Challenge when Online Students Face Personal Crises

It is a challenge when online students face a personal crisis. In most cases, all we can do is express our sympathy and concern. We then try to balance the curriculum, the course requirements and the personal needs of that student. 

We can also urge that student to stay focused on educational and career goals, blocking out time to focus on things that can help him or her through the crisis. “Focus” is the operative word.

What does this have to do with teaching and caring for student performance in the online classroom?

Average Online Learners Range from 23 to 55 and Are in the Military

First, consider the average full-time worker-student. My students usually range in age from 23 to 55 and almost all of them are in the military. They are working toward a second career and hope that a college degree will open doors for them.

We professors might not think of student life as almost a mini full-time job. Our online students collaborate with their fellow classmates on a common classroom problem or topic and work in teams in their own online meetings.

In addition, they spend a great deal of time exchanging emails with their professors, asking for a clarification on a quiz or for an extension of the week’s written assignment. Instant messages seem to be the norm as well, with students reaching out to their professors via Facebook, Twitter or phone.

It is also common for our online students to be scattered across all 50 states and posted at various military bases around the world. The stress from their daily work often extends beyond the end of the workday into early morning as they try to juggle their job and schoolwork.

Second, think about those personal crises that pop up for online students occasionally and how to help them solve their concentration problems during those troubled times. Students who are stressed from an overwhelming office workload or a personal tragedy must learn to focus by having the time to unwind.

There Is Flexibility, but No Free Pass in the Online Classroom

Even if students are having problems, our students do not get a free pass when it comes to participating in classroom discussions, taking a quiz or posting a well-written research paper. The weekly assignments must be completed and the rules of grammar, APA style and formatting must be followed in order to pass the course with a good grade.

That is precisely why I give my students who are emotionally stressed out by a personal or family crisis the flexibility to cope and still meet the course demands. But how do you help such students find the time to focus on their classwork and reduce their stress?

Stress Relief Starts with Blocking Out Just 15 Minutes a Day for Classwork

My approach is to tell online students that they need to spend only 15 minutes a day on classwork. I tell them to dive into that classroom discussion or work on that weekly paper that will be due in a few days.

I explain that the 15 minutes is their own personal therapy session, their own alone time without any distractions. I tell them to find a corner wherever they happen to be – in a hospital awaiting word from a doctor, in their office or at home – and just concentrate totally on that classroom discussion topic or that paper.

I learned many years ago that if you can clear your mind of all daily distractions for 15 to 30 minutes, your head will be clear enough to accomplish the tasks you have to perform.

When I was a doctoral student and also working full-time, my 30 minutes were spent on my piano lessons each Friday at noon. I took that lesson of an outside activity and recast it for them as an in-the-classroom activity; no piano lesson. Instead, coaching them into a reading and thinking lesson toward following some simple rules of writing a paper, writing a discussion reply to a fellow student in class.

What happens to the student who takes this advice? It’s something like a miracle. Sometimes, my students do not follow the 15-minute advice and raise it to 30, then 40 minutes. Soon, they have enough time to finish the online discussion or the required paper. They are a success in the face of a crisis.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University. He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth previously was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.

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