Improve Your Online Classes by Asking: Who Are Your Students?

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” ~Plutarch

Last August I drove across country with all my household goods in a 26-foot moving van. My inclination is to check the maps frequently, write out directions ahead of time, and triple-check with my GPS.

Maps open on table   My traveling companion, on the other hand, wanted as little discussion about the route as possible. “We just need to keep going west,” he said.

For him, the most information conveyed in the fewest words is ideal. He prefers “show” to “tell” when he’s learning something. I, on the other hand, learn best when I’ve written something down.

What Do You Know about How Your Online Students Learn Best?

Evidence conflicts over whether there truly are learning styles or types. One thing for sure, however, is that in an online class, you’re not necessarily going to know anything about your students. Not if they prefer reading to doing. Not how they learn, not how much they know before they started the class, not whether they’re really getting it.

Oh, sure, in many MOOCs (massive, open, online courses), tests are required, and you can gauge your effectiveness that way. But in many of the online courses offered on the Internet, there’s no connection to the student. You basically have to guess how your students will learn—and even if they learn.

Therefore you should learn as much about your students ahead of time as possible before you script your course. You can do this through focus groups, free online webinars, or targeted emails.

You might not be able to make changes ahead of time, but you can make a second edition or at least learn what worked before you create another course. Use questionnaires to follow up with your students to see what worked well for them and what needs to be improved. Better yet, pick a few to have conversations with. Most students are eager to engage with a teacher, especially in an online situation.

Key Questions to Ask Your Students

What are their demographics? We learn differently at 50 than we do at 20, in part because of how we were taught, but also due to different maturity levels, interests, and so forth.

The older the student, the more interactive the learning style. For instance, younger students do better with discussing a new concept before looking at applications. Older students find it more engaging and motivating to start with the applications and then move to the theory.

What is the student’s background in the subject matter? Are they novices, moderately experienced, or experts needing the latest research findings? Or a combination of all of the above?

What is their learning style? Is it possible to find out if they like to take notes, read material before or after a lesson, watch a video or read a transcript?

It’s ironic given the nature of my work, but I much prefer to read a transcript than watch someone’s course on video. I read faster than most people can talk, I can skim for the key points, and I remember things better when I mark up text. It’s just how I’m wired. My son, on the other hand, can process things better once he has heard it explained, and less well if he just reads it.

He prefers to read after listening or watching to reinforce the points. I’m the reverse. This is the kind of information you need when you’re crafting or revamping your online course.

If you can find out who’s taking your course, you can make sure you’re offering approaches that mirror what they need to learn well, or combine approaches for mixed audiences.

In sum, find out age, educational background, experience with the subject matter, and how they learn best. Build your course or revise your course accordingly.

I’m reminded of the time my father decided to fix the radio in his car. He figured people not nearly as smart as he is could do it, so why wouldn’t he be able to figure it out? His method was to pull everything apart and then try to reassemble it.

He neglected to pay attention, however, to which pieces went where, and in what order. When he reassembled it, not only did he have pieces left over, but also, the radio still didn’t work.

Showing is great, but telling remains necessary. Telling is great, but showing remains necessary. In nearly every class, you’re going to have people who focus better one way or another. Your best bet to know who you’re teaching so you can create the right balance between showing and telling.

Did you enjoy this post? Please share it! Share on LinkedIn. Share on Twitter.

Want your own copy of my questionnaire for students? Feel free to adapt it to your needs. Click here to download my “Know Your Students Questionnaire.”

Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #36 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.”

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course:

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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