How students, faculty are steering online learning

By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau

Kimbel Westerson was starting her technical writing class via Zoom a couple weeks ago when a student jumped on board, right on schedule. Westerson, an instructor in Grand Canyon University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, was surprised to learn that the student was in her car.

Students find all sorts of ways to connect to the online classroom -- even if they're in their car.

She had pulled over to attend class on the way home to Florida.

Talk about motivation.

During this time of crisis, staying motivated and resilient while attending or teaching classes online can present challenges -- ground faculty and students are also taking different roads to the destination.

“It can be hard to maintain that same motivation that we have in person, especially with the increased anxiety and psychological distress during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Dr. Liesl Hecht, Online Full Time Faculty in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

Instructors may have students with family responsibilities at home who are worried about money, lost jobs or catching the virus, which she said can all factor into lowering motivation and resilience.

As CHSS instructors, Hecht and Dr. Kendra Stewart-Nelson, Online Full Time Faculty, have expertise in behavioral health that shed light on ways to counter that problem through crisis.

Dr. Kendra Stewart-Nelson advocates communication and compassion, especially during tough times.

“We want students to get through this moment, so we put on a different hat, use a different set of skills, and enhance those skills we already displayed in the classroom -- because there is an extra layer of stress with this,” Stewart-Nelson said.

Hecht's research has shown that a motivated student is one who is conscientious, believes in himself or herself (self-efficacy) and has task value, meaning that “students believe what they are learning really matters.”

She keeps them motivated by engaging students in discussion forums that, for example, share ways they stay organized at home (conscientious), or share ways their degree might apply in the real world (task value).

Hecht also says videos that walk students through assignments can help them learn and stay connected.

Stewart-Nelson’s research has shown that instructors can spot resilience in students who display optimism, a sense of purpose and have problem-solving abilities.

“You are really helping them tap into that inner energy. They do know how to adapt and keep moving forward,” she said.

Dr. Liesl Hecht says teachers can stay resilient by rewarding themselves each day.

It’s all about meaningful communication, as she recently described in GCU podcast “Teaching Tips,” making sure that even though they are working remotely, students are comfortable and know she values their feelings.

She often includes a welcome video, posts positive affirmation quotes and prays with students who are going through tough times.

“It really helps them maintain resilience,” she said. “When we are talking about resilience, we are talking about persevering through tribulation. Just establish what they need that is supportive to move forward -- so that prayer forum touches on that.”

Stewart-Nelson said that while working in the mental health field she has dealt with a lot of brokenness in people who have had to persevere, “so when they are working through the trenches, I have to put on my hat to be supportive.”

That can mean being flexible with assignments, especially during uncertain, changing times such as this.

“I know this is a crisis and it's overwhelming and people are stressed about it and could easily give up right now with everything going on,” she said. “It’s evident our students need grace and compassion because how could you not be affected by what is going on?”

The online ways of interacting may be different than ground classrooms, but Hecht also said communication is still key. It’s helpful to do a weekly check-in to discuss the challenges they face while studying or working from home.

“It’s helping them realize they can still stay motivated and they can get their work done. We will work with them as instructors,” she said.

Instructors need the same awareness of maintaining their motivation and resilience.

“We need to take care of ourselves, plan out our days and weeks. It seems so simple, just staying organized, but it can be harder to focus in times like this with many more distractions,” Hecht said.

Be mindful of your time on the job while at home, take breaks because you may be more distracted and give yourself something to look forward to every day. Hecht likes to utilize aromatherapy to relax at day’s end and get in a calm state.

This can be a rough transition, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

“This may be a bit fluffy, but one thing can be helpful: When you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, make eye contact and smile at yourself to just acknowledge you are present in today and to get grounded in today,” she said.

This is a new normal, but we need to keep elements of the old normal to maintain that healthy balance, added Stewart-Nelson. Get up at the same time, take a warm shower and get coffee, if that’s your regular routine. You may even set up your work station with pictures or desk art from the office.

And find ways to make the day meaningful, which could be trying something new.

Stewart-Nelson pulled out a sewing machine she had never used and was learning to sew, while her daughter pulled out an old Christmas gift – a karaoke machine. “We are going to create a new life because we have time to,” she said.

An instructor or student who is refreshed and motivated – by sewing or song -- can stay resilient in the sprint to the end of a very unusual semester.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.

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