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Student frusterated by studying

Why do students feel like they are “teaching themselves” and how can instructors respond?

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes 15 seconds

In the recent survey of UM Dearborn student experiences with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of students mentioned that they feel like they are “teaching themselves” this semester. This may be surprising or distressing to instructors who have put in a great deal of extra time and effort to deliver accessible and engaging courses online.

Why might students who are new (or newer) to remote learning, particularly asynchronous learning, feel that they are “teaching themselves?” Students and teachers always share the responsibility for learning, with students ideally taking initiative and ownership over the learning process. As author and learner-centered teaching expert Terry Doyle says, “whoever does the work does the learning.” However, it is important to remember that students may be feeling particularly isolated right now due to the pandemic and its associated restrictions. With so many social and academic interactions moved online, students may be feeling generally alone while they are navigating challenging course material without the familiar supports of face-to-face instruction and peer interactions. Although we cannot currently provide face-to-face human contact, we want our students to know that we are there for them.

Here are some general suggestions for how to respond to student feelings of isolation and lack of support.

Acknowledge the adjustment to remote learning, and provide opportunities for practice and feedback

Just as the transition to remote teaching and learning has been a challenge for instructors, students are still adjusting to a new way of engaging with their courses. Students may have previously organized their time around synchronous, in-person meetings, using those meetings as cues to complete assignments, study for assessments, or get their questions answered by the instructor or fellow students. Now, they may be feeling overwhelmed with the number of tasks and due dates and relative lack of structure. Voice your awareness of these challenges, and consider sharing how you have dealt with the transition to remote teaching. You can also provide opportunities for students to develop the time management skills they will need to succeed in the class, like giving students an assignment to create a weekly schedule during the first week of the semester, and building in a reflection on their time management midway through the course. 

Invest time in creating “teaching presence”

Research shows that student perception of a caring, attentive, and available instructor is a major contributing factor to both student learning and satisfaction with an online learning experience. Even in an asynchronous course, there are many opportunities to share your personality with students, including weekly introduction and summary videos, live office hours, discussion board moderation, and personalized Canvas home pages. Perhaps you have “banked” some time early in the semester by pre-recording lectures or other content. You could use that time to schedule short (~ 5-10 minute) individual calls with students to give feedback on assignments and hear about their experience with the course (an approach recommended by the online teaching expert Flower Darby). 

Be transparent about the work you do as an instructor, and be willing to adjust

In order to create a transparent atmosphere and build trust with students, it may be worthwhile to explain to students how you use your time as an instructor. Listing the ways that you are present for your students might help them to recognize that they are not alone and that their instructor is taking specific steps to support individual students and the class as a whole. This could look like showing students a breakdown on how you use your time for the course (preparing and recording lectures, giving feedback on assignments, answering student emails etc.). If you do so, you may strengthen your relationship with students as they become more aware of all that you do to keep the course going throughout the semester. Students may even be open to giving feedback on how you could adjust your teaching to be more effective and efficient (e.g. answering student questions in a weekly digest instead of individual emails). 

In summary, when students say they feel like they are teaching themselves, they may really be saying that they feel like they are alone. Anything you can do to demonstrate your presence and care can be a powerful antidote to that feeling.

Additional Resources

Podcast episode: “Teaching Myself” from Camille Freeman

Article: Instructor Presence in Online Courses and Student Satisfaction

Summary of UM Dearborn student survey on remote learning

Image by kmicican from Pixabay 

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Sarah Silverman is an Instructional Designer in the Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. You can read more about Sarah on her author page.