Our country has been in turmoil. People have been taught, and continue to be taught, to see differences and evaluate each other based upon what side they are on or support. The weight of the many issues faced by society as a whole is being felt by everyone. This is in addition to the pandemic which is not just going away, it is intensifying. There’s no one left untouched by the impact of what has occurred this year.
As an educator, I’m witnessing first-hand the effect of these many issues and challenges on the students I teach within online classes. Before this year occurred, the typical academic-related challenges may have been related to preparedness to learn in a virtual environment, motivation to complete required tasks while holding other responsibilities, and successfully managing a schedule each week without falling behind. Now all of those elements have been intensified, as these learners may now be responsible for working from home, teaching their children from home, and facing real concerns about their health and finances.
If someone decides to pursue their academic goals during a time such as this now, and they are facing one or all of the elements described, the role of the educator becomes even more important. If a learner is going to sustain their progress, they may need more than a well-developed set of academic skills. Learners could benefit from a well-defined set of beliefs about their ability to succeed. It is their instructor, the one who interacts with them through discussions and feedback, along with classroom messages, who can help develop and nurture those beliefs.
To help your students develop a positive belief system, you must first understand your own beliefs about them. This means you must become aware of your own biases and anything which may interfere with the interactions you have with them. Then you must be willing to become neutral, despite any inclination you may have towards one particular view or another, and remain bias-free within the classroom. This will allow you to engage with your learners about their academic progress, ascertain how you can provide guidance, and offer supportive direction which helps them develop positive beliefs. This is more challenging than it sounds, and definitely needed for students, more than ever.
What an Instructor Believes About Learners
It is likely you have beliefs now about the events which occurred throughout the year, and possible very strong emotional feelings related to those beliefs. You may not realize how those beliefs have created biases or influenced your worldview. What matters most is your internalized belief system about students who are assigned to your classes. The following are a list of questions I use as a means of self-assessment at the start of a new class. Perhaps this will be a helpful resource for you as well.
What do I assume about learners and their level of academic preparedness at the beginning of class?
What do I assume about learners and their level of self-motivation at the beginning of class?
What do I assume about learners and their ability to manage time at the beginning of class?
Do I hold any biases about learners at the start of class, based upon their names, photos, or descriptions within their written introduction?
What an Instructor Perceives About Learners
The belief system of an instructor extends beyond a worldview and biases. It also includes any perceptions and reactions you may hold and feel about learners and their requests. This is especially important as I’m finding learners are questioning their ability to succeed more than ever now, and I have to be able to understand my perceptions about their abilities. I also need to understand how I’m going to react when learners approach me with their emotional requests. The following questions are those I use to help myself better prepare for class, and perhaps this will help you as well.
Do I perceive learners to be self-sufficient when they ask for help, and have valid reasons for needing my assistance, or do I perceive a request for help as something they should work out on their own?
Do I believe I can help my learners by offering my time, or do I believe this is unnecessary handholding?
How am I prepared to address a learner who feels overwhelmed, exhausted, and/or ready to give up, or do I believe this is beyond the scope of my job duties?
Do I have the disposition necessary to interact with those learners who are feeling emotional?
What you believe about your learners comes through with every interaction, whether it is a discussion post, feedback, email, or classroom message. There is a perceived tone that is evident in the word choice, whether or not you are aware of it. Consider the following question as a means of assessing how you view the potential of your learners.
What words would you use as a general description of your learners, from your observation of their ability to be successful in your class?
The answer you write will provide clues as to what you believe about your learners. There is no question every instructor is going to have a class with learners who are struggling, along with learners who are excelling. However, the word choice used for the question above will be in direct relation to your belief system. For example, I use words in my answer that include potential, capacity, capability, resilience, determination, and hopeful. I have learned how powerful my thoughts become when I am thinking about the learners in my class, and I want to always use positive words to describe them, no matter how challenged I may feel at times to assist some of them.
What an Instructor Believes About Their Role
The final element of your belief system I would like for you to consider has to do with your role and how you view your tasks as an instructor. This is an extremely important element of your belief system, as it can have a positive or negative impact on all aspects of how you think and feel about your learners. The following questions are those I ask of myself, especially during a busy class term, when there are many tasks I must complete. Perhaps these questions will help you as well with your own self-assessment.
What words do you use to describe your role as an instructor in the class? For example, are you a teacher who dispenses information, a facilitator who grades papers, an instructor who completes required tasks, or an educator who has many more duties?
Do you approach your instruction with ease each day you are in the classroom, or do you always feel a sense of anxiety because of never seeming to have enough time and too many requests from your learners?
Help Students Nurture Positive Beliefs to Become Successful
This is my call to all educators, and it includes myself, during a time of strong emotional reactions and fears which can undermine the belief systems our learners needs to become successful and complete the course requirements. We, as educators, are uniquely positioned to pay attention to how our learners are adapting to the classroom environment and meeting the weekly requirements, or we can simply check in and complete our weekly tasks, hoping our learners somehow get through it.
As educators, we must be a source of strength and inspiration, setting aside any sense of affiliation, bias, or other pre-conceived ideals we hold, and create a safe space for learning to occur. When this does happen within a classroom, when we are engaged in a manner which prompts learning and supports learners during times when they are struggling, the result is transformative for them and for us. The following are strategies you can use to help nurture positive beliefs within your learners.
Become a Champion Influencer: The length of a term may not provide enough time for you to get to know your learners and the beliefs they hold to any significant extent. However, there will be clues which will become evident as you interact with them. For example, I can pick up on certain words used in their messages to me, along with the tone of their messages. It doesn’t take much to develop a sense about the learner when they send a message and state, they are uncertain about completing the required assignment that week, or details about their life and the challenges faced.
You are not required to offer personal advice, or take the role of a professional counselor. But what you can do is to reply and interject positive words, or words which help to influence them in a manner which supports their ongoing development and belief system. You may be the only one who interacts with them and gives them something supportive to hear or read, which makes you their champion influencer. When you can instill this sense of hope within your learners, you help uplift their sense of self-motivation. This may be all they need to persist, as they continue to work on the next class assignment or task.
Teach Your Learners About Self-Development: For many learners, especially non-traditional online learners, they hold negative beliefs about their ability to learn. Perhaps they waited several years between degrees before going back, they feel age is working against them, they perceive writing to be a significant deficit that can never be overcome, or any other number of negative beliefs. When I pick up on clues related to any of these negative beliefs, I attempt to engage these learners in a conversation about self-development, and the potential or capacity for learning at any age.
What I’ve discovered is the beliefs I’ve shared above are typically related to self-limiting fears. How I help learners overcome these types of beliefs is through the use of encouraging feedback. After an attempt to conduct an initial conversation with a learner who I believe has this belief, I will be certain to note in the feedback each week how much progress has been made, to reinforce the message that learning can and does occur. Whatever you can do to support your learners, and teach them about their ability to learn, will help to support the development of a positive belief system. This can be accomplished through the words you use, whether in your communication, discussions, or feedback.
Try to See Your Learners as Individuals: As an online educator, I know it can become easy to “see” a class as a collective, rather than from an individual perspective. For example, you may tell a colleague you have a class full of challenging learners. In contrast, it may become easy to judge learners strictly by their names and photos, if they have elected to include one in their online profile. This is the primary manner in which you get to know your learners as you log onto the classroom. Yet this is only a surface-level perspective and one which can create unintentional biases. This is also why it is important to examine what you believe and become an educator who gets to know learners as individuals.
When you “see” or get to know your learners as individuals, you then are better positioned to work with their developmental needs. You will have established a mindset focused on what they need to become successful, rather than viewing the class as a group to be managed. From an individualized perspective you can now watch their progress, from week to week, and gradually come to know what is working well for them, and what resources you can recommend to help support their developmental needs. You will also be establishing a productive working relationship with your learners, and by doing so, you can encourage them to continue to try, learn, improve, and nurture their growth mindset.
What Learners Believe Matters
When learners join your class, they each have a belief structure in place. What they believe may be effectively supporting them and their efforts in class, or it may be undermining their best intentions. You may not know until they have been making an attempt to complete course requirements and begun to interact with you through discussions and messages. No matter what your learners believe, it matters as these are unspoken but well-grounded principles that are not easily changed. The belief systems each learner establishes is usually the product of time and result of many life experiences, and you may never know the origins of these beliefs either. But the impact will be felt on every attempt made and with the attitude, disposition, and actions taken.
Even a learner with the most supportive set of beliefs may be challenged now, because of the events of the year, and find negative language or thought patterns have filtered into their mindset. This is where us, as educators, have an ability to help them overcome the resulting doubts, fears, and questions they may have as they attempt to complete their academic goals, while also facing the challenges life may have presented. I have created a call to action for educators as we need to be more aware than ever of the need to create a nurturing and supportive environment for learners, and understanding of what they are experiencing. If we can teach them the power of their capacity to learn and grow, even during a time when life seems to be the most challenging, then they will realize more than ever the transformative power of education. When we are able to uplift our learners, through our positive beliefs, we are creating a sense of hope for them and ourselves.
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson is an inspirational author, writer, and teacher.
Dr. Johnson’s background involved helping others, including people and organizations. His roles have included Manager of Training and Development, Human Performance Improvement Consultant, Online Instructor, Career Coach, Curriculum Developer, Manager of Faculty Development, and Chief Academic Officer.
Since 2005, Dr. J has specialized in distance learning, adult learning, faculty development, online teaching, career management, career development, and human performance improvement. He has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities.
As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published books, eBooks, and over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and professional development, helping to fulfill his life’s mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.