Connecting With Students and Providing a Great Online Learning Experience

February 1, 2021

Running online learning courses is fast becoming an expected part of teaching. Despite fluctuations in expectations and technology, many instructors do an incredible job in helping their students learn regardless of complications and external difficulties. However, online learning is fundamentally different from in-person education, and instructors need to work hard to keep their students engaged, interested, and supported. 

There are plenty of tips and tactics for running online courses that work well for educators, but it’s just as important to focus on the students. When it comes to building a truly remarkable online learning experience, excellent educators focus on providing three things:

  • A high-quality, well-written curriculum framework that allows them to focus on presenting the material
  • Rich and engaging content to keep students’ attention and save time during the semester
  • A welcoming environment where instructors can talk and interact with students individually or in groups

In combination, these three elements allow instructors to teach confidently and engage with students frequently. Instead of getting bogged down with trying to create or source material, you have the freedom to focus on your students and their education. Studies have shown that higher-quality interpersonal interactions during a course are a significant factor in student grades, attitude, and commitment. Working to connect with students when teaching virtually can be a deciding factor in the outcomes students experience after a course. 

Incorporating several key factors can help enhance online learning experiences and ensure your students a successful online course. 

What Makes a Good Health Sciences Curriculum?

The goal of any curriculum is to help students learn and understand specific material. However, there’s much more to building a quality curriculum than simply presenting the information. To help your students learn effectively, your job as an educator is to design a curriculum that keeps your students’ attention and offers multiple angles on the same information. Not every student learns in the same way, after all — you need to be prepared to reach all of your students, not just a few. 

There are a few key elements that make a curriculum not just functional, but effective.

Rich, Engaging Content

When a student doesn’t have to attend class physically, it can be harder for them to focus on the material. Daily life can distract them, and dry material only makes the problem worse. That’s why it’s critical for online learning experiences to include rich content that keeps students engaged.

Rich content is more than just bullet-point lists or paragraphs of information. It offers students chances to engage with materials on several levels. Offering a variety of ways for your students to engage with and respond to content gives them more agency and connection to their work. In courses like health science, that connection can make the difference between merely passing a class and understanding the material. 

Colorful Visuals

One advantage that online learning has over in-person teaching is the flexibility inherent in the medium. For example, students can spend as much time as they need exploring the materials until they feel comfortable. To encourage students to spend the time they need on content, you can provide colorful, attractive visuals as learning aids. 

Studies have shown that bright colors are more attractive, and colorful information is easier to remember. In health science courses — where memorization is necessarily part of the learning process — colorful imagery can offer students a significant boost. The colors themselves become one more way to remember the information that will be critical for both their grades and their future careers. 

Easy Implementation

Finally, a good curriculum should be easy to use for everyone involved. Both the educator and the students should feel comfortable using the materials, interacting with the content, and connecting with others in the course. While content and visuals can be replaced if necessary,  problems with the implementation of your curriculum can affect an entire semester. It’s worth taking the time to implement a curriculum the right way. 

This is particularly true when it comes to online courses. Without the option for in-person labs and demonstrations, your curriculum’s online alternatives need to be intuitive and easy to access. Providing a clear syllabus and set of course expectations is critical. So is making it easy to submit assignments, take tests, and watch lectures.  

That’s why working with a learning management system (LMS) is so effective. Your school may have an LMS already in place. If so, you should consider choosing or designing an online curriculum that can easily be connected to it. It’s much easier to work with a familiar system than a new one, after all. Connecting to your current LMS can make a world of difference in both your own and your students’ online experience.

There’s more to an excellent online course than its curriculum, though. Encouraging the growth of a student community can elevate your course. It can even give your students a supportive environment if they are experiencing less-than-ideal educational circumstances.

Humanizing the Online Learning Experience 

It’s all too easy for an online course to feel robotic. Students are unlikely to feel engaged in a class when it’s nothing but a series of checkboxes and flat text. Making your lessons more interactive can help students feel like their input matters and restore their agency. In a heavily online teaching environment, that agency must be nurtured and developed in students to keep them active in their own education. 

There are many ways to add interactivity to your courses. For example, multimedia experiences are some of the most compelling parts of online education. In fact, studies suggest that students who are engaged in interactive, multimedia online experiences have better educational outcomes than less interactive online courses or traditional in-person classrooms. Multimedia content is some of the richest and most engaging material you can add to a class.

Consider the interactive 3D content offered by Caduceus. This type of content allows students to explore anatomy at their own pace in a level of detail that few physical models can offer. Even better, these 3D models can be accessed anywhere at any time so students don’t feel rushed to fit their learning experience into a single lab reservation. Even with in-person classes, these kinds of resources are invaluable for encouraging curiosity and engagement in health science students. 

You can also include interactive elements in other aspects of your classes. Giving students ways to study that give them direct feedback encourages healthy study patterns whether your course is asynchronous or not. Offering a few different types of materials can help.

Self-Test Quizzes

A standard piece of advice given to students is to study by taking practice tests. However, making tests can be overwhelming for students if they don’t know where to start. 

You can provide students with a foothold by delivering self-test quizzes that allow them to experience a testing environment and quiz themselves without the risk of affecting their grades. You can also get valuable feedback from your students’ interaction with self-test quizzes to see what topics need more work. 

Interactive Flashcards

Another essential element to helping health science students learn is giving them resources to handle memorization. Flashcards are a commonly-used tool to connect terms and concepts. A significant benefit of online courses is that you can provide your students with interactive flashcards that include the content you consider most important in a well-written and easy-to-use format. 

Students are more likely to use readily available tools, and it’s challenging to get much more available than online, free, pre-written flashcards. 

Multimedia Lectures

There’s long been a trend of adding media to traditional class lectures. Online courses have both accelerated this trend and made it simpler to accomplish. Creating a multimedia lecture can be as simple as adding a slideshow to keep students visually engaged. Even if you lecture in real time, you can add features like videos, graphics, and even live chats.

This level of interactivity not only gives your class more information to work with, but it can also help shy or nervous students engage in the material more than they might in person. Additionally, multimedia content helps recreate the level of engagement students might experience in the classroom.

Timed Exams

Testing is a necessary part of making sure your teaching is effective and that your students meet the goals you’ve set. Online courses can make testing your students while still taking their needs into account tricky. That’s where timed and proctored tests can help. The combination lets you offer students the freedom to take tests whenever they’re available while still keeping their test results accurate. Students get the benefit of flexibility while learning the importance of integrity.

The final and most crucial step to building your online course is to promote a welcoming, encouraging online environment for every student. These elements help add a human element to your online courses. 

Create a Welcoming Online Environment 

It can be challenging to keep lines of communication open in an online course, much less create a sense of community. Once you have chosen your curriculum and your interactive content, you can focus on helping your students find as much of a community as possible within your course. 

There are a number of ways to make your course a welcoming place for everyone. Consider adding these types of community-building opportunities to your next online class.

Introductory Videos

Some of the most helpful resources available to students in an in-person class are their classmates. When students spend time in the same room, they often form personal connections that allow them to start study groups, ask each other questions, and learn together. While online courses don’t give students the chance to introduce themselves in person, introductory videos can help bridge that gap. 

An introductory video is a simple, short video in which the student gives their name and a few facts about themselves. This helps everyone in the class put a face to a name and makes everyone involved feel a little more like a person instead of words on a screen. 

Even if you don’t require your students to make an introductory video, you can create one for yourself. According to studies, students are more receptive to educators that they can see, even through video. By posting your own introduction video, you help humanize yourself and make reaching out less intimidating. 

Online Discussions

Once students have introduced themselves, you can keep them interacting with each other through online discussions. These discussions don’t necessarily have to be in-depth analyses —  instead, you can post open-ended questions, have students respond, and ask each other follow-up questions. This engages critical thinking skills while also encouraging students to engage with their classmates. 

In health sciences courses, you can focus on anything from the potential roots of specific medical terminology to methods of implementing better exercise habits or nutrition. The questions act as a vehicle to help your students respond and interact with the course.

Smaller Groups

Beyond discussion boards, you can encourage focused group interaction as well. Group projects require students to work together and manage their own learning experiences. Assigning everyone in a class to small group projects or discussions give students an automatic community within the course. More importantly, it offers students the opportunity to build some familiarity with their classmates and provides a built-in group to study with or ask questions.

Timely Feedback

Without the time spent in the classroom, students don’t have the opportunity to ask you for feedback in person. You also don’t have the chance to give students off-the-cuff answers. That makes your official feedback even more important than in other class formats. 

Returning students’ grades, papers, and test results in a timely fashion is crucial. The feedback you provide helps students know where to focus their attention. The sooner your students have your feedback, the quicker they can change their study habits or move on to the next topic. Your feedback is one of the most valuable communication methods in an online course, and returning your feedback quickly can seriously affect students’ grades. 

Office Hours

Some students won’t feel comfortable reaching out to their classmates, but they will feel better talking to you. Giving these students a chance for one-on-one discussions with you can help them thrive in an online learning environment. Don’t rely on email alone to talk to your students. Offer virtual office hours where you can speak with students over video chat. You can even make it mandatory to attend virtual office hours a few times during the semester.

Video chat office hours offer two benefits. First, you have the chance to talk with students in a way that even live video lectures don’t provide. You can discuss important topics and get a better understanding of each student’s background. Second, just as with introduction videos, talking with you face to virtual face can help students feel more confident reaching out if they have questions in the future.

Differentiated Instruction

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, implementing differentiated instruction in your online course can help you keep all your students engaged, instead of just a few. Steven Mintz, the Executive Director of the Institute for Transformational Learning at the University of Texas, defines five pillars of differentiated instruction:

  1. Learning isn’t linear. It’s a constant process of learning, forgetting, and remembering the material.
  2. Students learn at different paces, but learning quickly often doesn’t mean learning thoroughly.
  3. Learning by doing is more effective than learning by rote.
  4. Team learning helps students inside and outside the classroom.
  5. Well-designed educational experiences are more effective than the simple presentation of material. 

Differentiated instruction is the process of meeting your students’ needs rather than approaching every class the same way. By providing interactive learning instead of relying on students to passively receive information, you can engage students with a wide variety of learning styles. From students who prefer hands-on learning to aural learners to those who prefer to read, differentiated instruction can help engage them all. 

Using the right materials can help you provide truly differentiated instruction. The same interactive content that can humanize your course can also give students more ways to learn. No two students and no two cohorts are the same. Setting up a curriculum with helpful, interactive content can give you the flexibility you need to support all your students all semester long. 

Final Thoughts

Online courses have become common, necessary tools for a wide variety of educators. Using the right tactics can help your students succeed in the health sciences field. By providing a firm foundation with a well-written curriculum, flexible content, and a warm student community, you can keep your online students just as invested in their education as they would be in the classroom. 

Connecting with students when teaching online can feel complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right content, tools, and communication, you can ensure quality in online classes and build a community that keeps students just as included as they would be in in-person courses.

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