Every school year has a pattern--the thrum of excitement in September, the fatigue of November, the jittery speed of May. When you teach online, you observe patterns, too. At One Schoolhouse, we’ve learned that the cadence of the academic year is a little different.
On campus, the third, fourth, and fifth weeks are some of the best of the year, because you’re still coasting on the energy of coming back to school at the same time you get to dig deep into your course material for the first time. Online, however, the pattern shifts, and students can sometimes run into a tricky spot.
When people encounter a new technology tool, they’re eager, and that feeling drives engagement and adoption. Think about a time you tried a new meditation app, or a fitness tracker--you’re excited to use it! After a few weeks, or maybe even a month, however, it’s not quite as exciting. You stop using it regularly, or maybe even altogether.
That’s the novelty effect--when you adopt a new tech tool, you invest energy and time in it. In the vast majority of situations, however, the novelty effect wears off. In an online learning environment, the timing of this effect is especially important. That’s because the novelty effect wears off just as the course ramps up to its full level of challenge. Students get an energy bump from trying new things, but once they know how the system works and what the expectations are, they settle in and can lose momentum.
In those weeks when students are most excited about new challenges, teachers are typically reviewing. This gives students the chance to learn how to learn, before they’re responsible for new material. The time to start learning the new content, however, is generally at exactly the same time that the novelty effect wanes: three to five weeks into the school year.
That means that many schools are now in the time frame when students need to rise and meet this challenge. Our resilient students take the opportunity to lean in and push through. Students--especially those who are accustomed to quick success--may get discouraged fast and say, “I can’t learn online.” What they really mean is, “I am uncomfortable and this is harder than I expected.” Most of our students did school just one way until last spring: in person, on a schedule, and with classmates. When a student takes a class in a different format, the familiar markers and cues just aren’t there. Different doesn't mean better or worse; it just means it's a new experience, and new experiences are often uncomfortable.
Encourage your students to persist through the discomfort and to see it as a necessary step in learning: “This is challenging right now, but if I keep trying, I will get better at it.” Challenge their assumptions that they can’t succeed in the online space. The fastest way to get better is to video conference with the teacher-- these meetings are more effective than email or messaging, because they allow students to get real-time feedback and solutions, and they reinforce trusted relationships. Finally, make sure your school has identified the advisor, teacher or administrator who’s responsible for checking in regularly with a struggling student. When students know they’re not alone, it’s easier to build confidence and competence.
We’ll be discussing safeguards and structures for student support at the start of the year in our live Academic Leaders webinar on Wednesday, September 23 at noon ET. In this webinar, we’ll talk about the best ways to help students navigate new learning modalities and environments. Sign up to join us here.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)