Faculty and instructors, take note: students benefit tremendously from clearly communicated expectations and constructive feedback.

What students want from their instructors

Students benefit tremendously when instructors clearly communicate expectations, provide constructive feedback tailored to growth, and remain accessible

Key points:

At the beginning of most courses, I survey my students to ask them what they need from me to be successful. I went back through their answers recently to look for common themes among my students.

Clear expectations

The most common student request was for clear expectations. One way to do this is to provide a welcoming syllabus sent ahead of the class start date. Use welcoming, positive language to set a constructive tone for the course.

Instead of stating that attendance is mandatory, explain the fact that class sessions are valuable and the group interaction and multiple perspectives are an important learning element in the course. Therefore, students are expected to be in the class. I understand issues come up; if that happens reach out to me ahead of time, so we can design an alternative.

Make sure that the syllabus clearly outlines all assignments, dues dates, and other expectations for students. Don’t simply refer students to the learning management system (LMS). Many students print out a hard copy of the syllabus to make notations, etc. Additionally, once the course is over, students may not have access to the LMS classroom. In each module, I remind students of when the next assignment is due, even if it is a week or two away. Providing students with rubrics and exemplars for assignments is helpful and often requested. However, for some specific assignments, I purposely do not provide examples, so students need to stretch themselves and not simply try to reproduce earlier submissions. I provide a generic APA-aligned document template for most courses, so students do not need to struggle with learning how to use Word to create hanging indents, create headers and footers, etc.

Some instructors create a liquid syllabus to welcome students and introduce themselves to the students prior to the opening of the course. A sample is linked from Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s photography course from Mt. San Jacinto College. Such syllabi should be publicly available without the need to login to the LMS, etc. Additionally, making it mobile-friendly is important, as many students use their phones for browsing more than one might think. I encourage students to submit a video introduction in each course, so students get to know each other than just through discussion threads.

Effective communication

Proactive communication is another primary request. Be clear about when students can reach out for help. Make it clear if you are available to students outside of your posted office hours. In my syllabi, I am clear about the hours that I am available for calls. I suggest students email or text outside of those hours to see if I am available. Students ask that I be available for questions. Students routinely compliment instructors who are accessible and respond to their questions in a timely manner.

Make it clear how you want to be addressed. Sometimes address is driven by institutional culture, but in other schools, faculty vary in what they prefer. Provide all your contact information in your email signature. This makes it easier for students and other faculty to contact you.

Include a general question area of the course’s discussion forum. This will allow students to ask general questions from which other students can benefit. This is a way for students to potentially engage and answer each other as well. One of my favorite introductory videos was created for a school facilities course by two students who worked together. Students who completed introductory videos tended to be more engaged in class and earn a higher percentage of points on discussion posts than in those courses without introductory video requirements. In one course at the beginning of a cohort, the introductory video prompt asked for students to identify as a cat or dog person. More than a year later, I commonly get dog pictures from students and former students. Such introductory videos help to show aspects of students not commonly highlighted in class.

Constructive feedback

Students ask for constructive feedback. Many students emphasized wanting specific, honest feedback that helps them improve. They want to know where they can grow. Another favorite response was the student who asked for “gentle feedback.” For some reason, a few instructors think focusing on the negative without providing a pathway for improvement is acceptable. With the stress and anxiety so many students are dealing with and the generally high level of mental health issues in society, such an approach is malpractice. Students want to know how to grow. I allow students to revise assignments when they are not on target as well. I explain that the goal of the assignments is mastery of material. For some students, it takes more than one iteration to reach success. I emphasize the revision policy in the opening of the course. I find it does help reduce anxiety among the students.

In today’s complex educational landscape, instructors must be proactive in setting students up for success. While every student and situation are unique, some common themes emerge. Students benefit tremendously when instructors clearly communicate expectations, provide constructive feedback tailored to growth, and remain accessible. A little extra effort at the front-end to create a welcoming, positive environment can pay dividends for the rest of the term. By starting off on the right foot, instructors can build strong learning communities where students feel valued, inspired, and empowered to reach their full potential. With care and intention, we can make our classrooms places of understanding, compassion, and human flourishing.

It should be noted that my students are mostly online graduate students, so your mileage may vary if you work with face-to-face undergraduates, for instance. 

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Steven M. Baule, Ed.D., Ph.D.
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