Communication Tips for Online Classes
There is a learning curve if you’re homeschooling with online classes for the first time. Children beginning online classes sometimes struggle with finding their stride when it comes to the art of communication. That is, when and how to reach out to teachers to get answers about assignments or clarification about content. In this essay, I will review some best practices for students who need help communicating with their online instructors. Though this article is written with Homeschool Connections LIVE classes in mind, it will be helpful to students taking online courses from any program.
Email, Email, Email
It always surprises me how many students do not email their instructor when they have questions. When I ask students why they have not emailed an instructor, their responses usually evoke a sense of insecurity: “I don’t want to bother them.” “I don’t want to look dumb.” “I’m afraid my question won’t come out right.” Sometimes it is so crippling that students have even asked me to help them write emails to their teachers so they don’t “seem stupid.”
While I understand adolescent awkwardness, I can’t stress enough how important it is for students to push past this insecurity and email their teacher anyway. I can promise you your teacher does not regard your email as an intrusion. Teachers want you to reach out with questions because when you have a question, it demonstrates that you are mentally engaged and attempting to understand the material. You certainly won’t “look dumb.” Teachers do not think students are incompetent for asking questions. Again, asking a question indicates that you are engaged and trying. If anything, that makes you look better.
Finally, make sure you contact the teacher through the channel they ask to be contacted. Different teachers will have different rules. If they say to contact them through Moodle (or your program’s learning management system), contact them through Moodle. If they request you use conventional email, use conventional email.
Identify Yourself and Respond Promptly
I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten emails from students like this over the years: “Hey, Mr. C! This is Michael from the afternoon class. I don’t understand the third question on the homework.” Without knowing Michael’s last name or which specific class he is referring to, I have no idea what homework he is struggling with and can’t help him.
Remember, teachers often teach multiple classes and often on the same subject. Therefore, we need clarification on your identity. This is especially true in an online environment where instructors seldom see students’ faces. Students are generally a name on a screen, so we can’t always make a quick connection.
In the above example, Michael should open his email: “Dear Mr. Campbell, This is Michael Ellis from your Tuesday afternoon medieval history class. I don’t understand question three on the homework assigned for week two.” This tells me everything I need to know, and I won’t waste time playing back and forth, asking the student for more information.
This brings me to my next point—Once you email an instructor, please pay attention to their response and acknowledge it, even if that acknowledgment is merely “Thank You” or “Understood.” Do this promptly. If you’ve emailed your instructor a question, don’t wait four days to check your email. Often, your instructor will ask for follow-up information, and the sooner you respond, the better.
For more on the art of emailing, see this article: Top Ten: How to Email or Message Your Online Teacher.
Come to Class Early
Homeschool Connections recommends arriving to a LIVE classroom ten to fifteen minutes before class begins. This leaves room for troubleshooting technical issues and allows a window to ask your instructor questions. This is a good time to ask simple questions like, “When is the homework due again?” or “Will there be a quiz this week?”—Questions the teacher can easily respond to in the chat.
One piece of advice: It’s better not to use the chat to ask more complicated questions or questions where the instructor will have to make notes about something. For example, questions like, “I am confused about what the author meant on page three. Can you explain it to me?” This question requires the teacher to get out the reading, look at page three, figure out your difficulty, and talk you through it. That’s a lot when he or she is preparing to start class. That’s best handled by email or if the teacher asks for your homeschool questions during class.
Also, save personal questions for email or the end of class. For example, “I am going on vacation next week; may I have an extension on the homework?” This requires the teacher to open her calendar and make a note. If she doesn’t have time to do this before class, she may forget by the time class is over. Note that many teachers will require an email from your parent for homework extensions.
In short, before class is a great time to ask for simple clarifications that your instructor can answer on the spot without digging into other resources.
Ask for Clarification During Instruction
When is the best time to ask for clarification if you are in class and the instructor is covering material you don’t understand? Is it after class? That evening? The following week? After the homework assignment is already due? No, the best time to ask for clarification is during instruction. If your math instructor introduces a new algebraic formula and you don’t understand it, right then is the time to say, “I’m not quite clear on this; could you please explain it again?” This has several benefits—The content is fresh in your brain, your teacher is right there in front of you and can respond immediately, and there are probably five other students who also need the clarification but didn’t ask, so you are helping everybody!
Request Extensions Ahead of Time
One of the most common reasons students communicate with instructors is to ask for extensions on homework. There are many reasons for needing an extension: sickness, vacation, field trip, sporting event, funeral, etc.
If you know in advance that you will not be able to attend a class or meet a homework assignment, ask for an extension ahead of time. Most instructors are willing to work with students in these situations. However, it’s important to communicate so the instructor knows what’s going on to help you with a plan to make up for delayed work. If you wait too long, an extension may not be possible.
Sometimes, there are unexpected issues that keep you from class, such as illness or a power outage. In these cases, you or your parent should contact the teacher ASAP.
A lot more could be said, but generally, communicate frequently and clearly. This will do wonders for improving your academic performance and building confidence.