So, you’re teaching an online class? That’s certainly not unusual in higher education today, especially after our recent experiences with pandemic protocols. Regardless of our disciplines, many of us quickly went from asking, “Can this course be taught online?” to “How are we going to offer this course online?” Back in March 2020, this is what I faced as I navigated through facilitating an undergraduate graphic arts course typically held in a fully-equipped computer lab and digital lab on campus.
While this graphic arts course did not remain an online course after the spring 2020 semester, I took what I learned from this adventure and applied them to my other online courses. This is the first in a series of four blog posts where I’d like to share different areas related to building teacher credibility. I’ll start with establishing trust.
What is teacher credibility?
Before that, though, let’s go back to the idea of credibility. Someone credible possesses the qualities of being trusted and believed in. For example, because I view my physician as credible, I follow his advice regarding my health. The same idea can be extended to our online students. As Myers and Martin (2006) noted, “teachers who are viewed as being credible exert a tremendous amount of influence on their students” (p. 68). If students regard you, their teacher, as credible, then you possess a key factor in persuading your students to take action.
Where does trust come in?
With my credibility established from the very beginning (How do I do that, you ask? Please read on!), I persuaded my graphic arts students to believe they can continue to learn from home given the tools I have made available using our learning management system. Sure, there’s a learning curve to interacting exclusively online. For instance, the video tutorials I created are not the same as our face-to-face interactions in the computer lab.
However, my students trusted me and the process. They believed that they can be just as successful in achieving our learning outcomes despite the change in modality. Why? It’s because my students knew that I had their best interests at heart. For example, in my weekly announcements or videos, I help students learn about their learning process, assuring them that making mistakes or feeling a little uncomfortable about unfamiliar things is all part of learning by pointing them to resources such as this article on learning.
How do I establish trust?
What did I do to establish trust, and what can you do to accomplish the same? The following are four strategies you could implement right away:
- Get to know your students.
In addition to the typical introduction posts at the beginning of the semester, I create a survey where I collect information such as their preferred names, majors, interests, pictures, and anything else they would like to share with me. I have had many reviews at the end of the semester where one of the most impactful and meaningful things they mentioned I did was to address them by their preferred names, followed by me wanting to get to know them. Read more about the importance of college instructors learning their students’ names.
- Use a warm tone.
The course syllabus is often the first thing students will interact with in your course. What kind of impression do you want to make? Do you want to come across as cold and prickly or warm and inviting? After reading about Harnish and Bridges’s (2011) study on the effect of syllabus tone, I have worked on “warming up” my syllabus to encourage student engagement. For example, when I first started teaching in higher education, I followed what my professors used in their late assignment policies. Does the following look familiar?
All work should be completed in a timely fashion and submitted to the instructor for evaluation. Just as in industry, when a job is submitted after the agreed upon due date, it is not considered unless prior arrangements have been made by both parties involved. I will only accept late work for illnesses or emergencies that directly caused you to get behind on your assigned work. Early communication is key. If you do not provide documentation (the type depends on the situation) for your university excused illness or emergency and/or make arrangements BEFORE the due date, then you will earn 0 points for the late submission.
After some work, I am now currently using the following:
All assignments should be completed in a timely fashion and submitted to the instructor for evaluation. Fortunately, if you start work early instead of waiting until the last minute to submit your files, you are less likely to run into this situation. Remember, just as in industry, when a job is submitted after the agreed upon due date, it is not considered unless prior arrangements have been made by both parties involved.
I recognize that life happens too though. Therefore, I will accept late work for illnesses, emergencies, or other legitimate reasons that directly caused you to get behind on your assigned work, provided you communicate with me. Early communication is key.…From experience, requests for late submissions have the potential to be misused. As I place my confidence in you, please do your part to be diligent, timely, honest, and trustworthy when asking for deadline extensions.
What I found most interesting in changing my use of words is that students feel more comfortable interacting with me throughout the semester. More importantly, I have noticed that students take ownership of their learning, including taking responsibility for their actions and wanting to live up to my expectations. For example, if they missed a deadline, I see submissions comments like the following: “I messed up. I didn’t pay attention to the due date. I completed the assignment so you could see my work. I will be sure to use my calendar so this doesn’t happen again. Thanks for your help and always working with me.” Read more about how you write your syllabus can make a big difference.
- Use videos to your advantage.
There are many tools out there for creating videos, screencasting, etc. One that I like to use is already integrated with Canvas – Panopto. One thing I tell my students is that these videos are the equivalent of me sharing with them important information if we were meeting in-person. As such, I take advantage of creating my own videos for lectures, announcements, and feedback on assignments in my online courses. (I should note that this doesn’t mean I always do video announcements, give video feedback on every assignment, or create my own lecture videos!)
These videos offer students a glimpse into my personality, my workspace, and my knowledge of and passion for the subject matter. These videos also create opportunities for further engagement. For instance, check out this video announcement where I remind students of due dates:
It was certainly memorable as positive comments about videos like this show up on my course reviews. It gave them something to interact with me about as they replied back with comments. It probably kept them guessing as they never knew what the next video would bring. And, if nothing else, it allowed them to stay on top of their work!
- Be honest and open.
I am sure to make mistakes so I’m honest and open about those when they happen. Fortunately, I make it clear from the start that we are a community of learners. And I am there to learn from each student as much as they can learn from me. I really like this TED Talk by Celeste Headlee.
In the video, she said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” One example from this fall 2022 semester was I told my students I learned to pay attention to being more clear in my instructions as a result of students reaching out for more information. Another one was when I was honest about falling behind on grading as a result of getting sick for a week and having the time management skills of a carrot. The point is, by modeling honesty and openness, I’ve found that my students strive to live up to my expectations laid out in the course syllabus – “to be diligent, timely, honest, and trustworthy.”
Establishing trust is an important part of building teacher credibility. By building trust with your students, you can foster open communication and create a sense of community in the online classroom. In turn, students feel more comfortable and engaged, which leads to better learning outcomes. To establish trust as an online teacher, get to know your students, use a warm tone in your communication, try videos to show off your personality, and be open and honest.
Myers, S. A. and Martin, M. M. 2006. “Understanding the source: Teacher credibility and aggressive communication traits”. In Handbook of instructional communication: Rhetorical and relational perspectives, Edited by: Mottet, T. P., Richmond, V. P. and McCroskey, J. C. 67–88. Boston: Pearson.