Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Faculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities
To learn effectively online, students need to know how to get started in class. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares 10 tips to help online instructors create effective welcome messages to introduce students to the course and to you as their instructor. Learn what details should be included and ways different types of students need to hear from their instructor in order to be engaged and stay committed.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
You can avoid many of the problems your students experience in online learning and help them start your class well by sending out a welcome message before the online class begins. This kind of communication is an essential way to invite your students to get started. To anticipate how they will spend their time, and to get to know you. All of this builds momentum for the first week of your online class and it’s a strategy you cannot live without if you hope to keep all of your students engaged from the first day onward.
Because online education depends on your students showing up and getting engaged with you in the class, you already know how important it is to get students to log in and just get started. To help you out in this area, today I’m going to share with you 10 tips you can use before your next online course begins, to launch students into a successful first week through your welcome message. That’s right, these are strategies you can implement easily. And they will help you get students in the door, or more literally, logged in and looking around in your online classroom. And that’s where it all begins!
TIP #1: Reach Out to Your Students a Few Days Before the Class Begins, to Pave the Way for a Great Experience
Before the semester begins, send an outreach message to your students as an e-mail. This first tip is about timing, and about how to get connections with your students. Find out when the course enrollment is finalized, and then send your welcome message around that time. For example, if most students are registered by Wednesday before the course begins, you might send your message Thursday or Friday. Waiting until the first day of class is a missed opportunity to generate enthusiasm and provide that early guidance to draw students into the online classroom.
Tip #2: Personalize the Greeting on Your Message
As much as possible, personalize the message for each student by using their names. If you need to copy and paste the body of your welcome message into 25 or 30 separate e-mails so that you can specifically add your students’ names at the top, it’s worth the time it takes to do it. Students get a lot of formulaic communications from the university or from commercial marketing campaigns, and they don’t need generic greetings to welcome them into your class. Use their first names, and you’ll build relationships from the very first message. What you include in the rest of the message can be standard material, or your institution’s recommendations, or you can use some of the tips I’m sharing here. Either way, a thoughtful and personalized approach will get the best results early.
Tip #3: Be Clear about the Basics
Welcome your students to the class. Tell them which class you’re writing about, in case they are taking more than one course, and who you are. In this opening paragraph, provide some hope and encouragement right way by telling them you are ready to work with them, and that your message is going to help them get ready for class to begin. The basic details in your opening paragraph should let students know what the rest of your message is going to include and why they should keep reading.
Here is a sample of what this opening paragraph might sound like:
“Dear Samantha, Welcome to College 100, Introduction to college learning! My name is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’m your instructor for this course, which begins on Monday this coming week. I’m excited to meet you and share my passion for college learning and a solid foundation with you. And, in this message, I’d like to give you some early guidance to help you succeed in the course.”
Tip #4: Help Students Know What They Will Learn from You
While many of your students come into their education because they want something specific such as career advancement or personal growth, they all need to know what value they will get from their time with you. The course description gave them some idea of the value proposition of the course itself—what they can expect to learn in the class. But your message is the value proposition of what you bring as their instructor, along with encouragement and steps to get started in the class. It’s both an invitation and an advertisement selling students on the journey ahead of them. And their partnership with you.
In your welcome message, introduce yourself briefly. Tell students what you bring to the subject matter. If you have any specific real-world experience that relates to the class, let them know. If you love engaging in debates through the discussion space in your course, tell them. If you want them to learn to love the subject or how to connect it to their lives and their jobs, let them know about that.
Your brief statements about yourself as the instructor can help them trust you from the very beginning and this might even make the difference between students pushing through a rigorous personal schedule or dropping the course when things get tough. Write them as if you’re writing a letter to someone you care about—not as you would like these things to appear on your professional resume. Your students won’t really care about the title of your dissertation or the many articles you might have written. But they will want to know about the fact that you have used your expertise in this area to intern at the White House or conduct a Military Band or write an ad campaign for a major corporation in the real world.
Remember, this message you send and especially the introduction about yourself is students’ first impression of you and of your class. It can set the tone for a positive experience and portray you as an approachable human being that will guide them well. It can begin building relationships immediately. And beyond these basic but important aspects, it can reassure them that you’re the right person to guide them in this journey.
Tip #5: Share Important Dates, Links, and Access Support
After greeting your students, welcoming them into the class, and introducing yourself, set aside a paragraph to remind them about key dates and details they need to get involved. For example, you can share the start and end dates of the class, provide the link to access the online classroom, and let them know how to contact classroom support if they have technology or access issues. If there are any specific technologies students will use in the course like Rosetta Stone, or an e-book resource, include these links as well. Having a short list will be a useful resource for students in the future, and especially on the first day of class.
Tip #6: Provide Your Philosophy and Set the Expectations
All students want to know what they can expect in the class. For example, if there are discussions every week, either live or asynchronous, let them know about these and how they will generally engage with others. If there are a few specific larger assignments, tell them. You might also prefer to provide a link to the syllabus or a mini version of the syllabus that outlines these basic elements.
Even if your course is asynchronous and students can decide when they would like to log in or engage, you will still need to give them some idea of the time they need to set aside to read and learn the material each week, and how much interaction they should expect to engage in throughout the course. This paragraph is also a great place to remind students that if they feel overwhelmed or fall behind, they should contact you to see how to move ahead before they decide to drop your class. You can provide support and guidance in these kinds of situations and keep your students in class when they need your support. And this will build your reputation as an instructor students want to learn from.
Tip #7: Consider what First-Time Online Students Need in Your Welcome Message
When your students are getting started in their online class, some will be taking an online class for the very first time. These students are anxious or nervous. Some are wondering if they are “cut out” for online learning at all, or if they should quit now and get their money back before it’s too late! Your welcome message for these students is reassuring.
It gives them a glimpse into a hopeful future and some degree of confidence to get started. Your tone in the message might even connect with them enough to help them feel like you’re going to be there to guide them so that they can release some of that fear and that anxiety. And these students will need you to point them in the right direction for how they can connect with classroom tech support and other departments to get connected and online successfully during that first week.
For this group of students, use a friendly and encouraging tone, and let them know how to get connected that first week of class.
Tip #8: Consider what Busy, Working Students Need in Your Welcome Message
Other students you will have are taking multiple classes at once while working full-time jobs and raising children, and they will juggle many expectations, demands, and schedules. Busy students with many obligations and classes need the basic details. These students want to know some of the basics about the course and about you so they can manage everything they have going on and successfully finish the course without losing track of the important things.
They want the basics—like when does the course start and end? What they must do to learn the material? And where all of the graded parts of the class going to come up? And of course, these students will need to know how to reach you if they have missed something during the class and need to make an adjustment.
For this group of students, include your contact details, the basic details about the class, and the best ways to plan for the needed time each week.
Tip #9: Consider what Experienced Online Learners are Looking for in Your Welcome Message
And then there are students who are experienced at taking online courses. They want to know what your specific expectations and routines will be so they can get started, and they just want to be sure that you are going to treat them fairly and be responsive when they contact you.
They are likely going to compare the way you manage things to a few other online instructors they have had in the past with whom they were successful, and they’ll compare you to those others that were not strong teachers. And they will look for good communication from you, and clear guidance. And they will want to know: What is your late policy? And how long will it take you to respond if they send you an e-mail?
Early in the class, some of these students will intuitively know whether they can complete your course and work with you, or whether they would prefer to drop this class and find another teacher.
For these experienced online students, your welcome message gives them an idea of who you are, how you’re going to approach your time with them, and whether you are someone they want to learn from. They want you to see them as human beings and be assured that you’ll be approaching them as a fellow human, not a machine. Be clear and consistent. And avoid repeating warnings about past students’ failures or inundating them with overly specific instructor expectations or preferences.
Tip #10: Ask Students for a Brief Reply to Be Sure That You’re Set Up for Effective 2-Way Communication
As you close your welcome message and give students a final word of encouragement for their upcoming class, ask them to reply to your message. Your request can be brief and simple, but it serves two important purposes. The first one is that you really do need to know if they got your message and if they read it. When they respond to it, you’ve got that box checked. But second, it gives your students an early win before the class has even started. All students want to pass the class and getting connected with their instructor before the class starts is the first step to opening that door.
While sending a welcome message before the first day of class used to be a nice idea, or a positive option to go above and beyond to get your students excited for the first day, now it’s essential in every course you teach. Our students have many needs and expectations. Early and clear communication can meet these needs and let them know what to expect.
Beyond that, online education is regularly offered at so many institutions. If your students do not start well in your class, they can either drop it and wait or choose another instructor. Or they might leave the school completely and take their classes someplace else to get a better experience that they need.
Take the time to personalize your approach and give students a good idea of what to expect, so they’ll see the value in learning with you and remaining committed throughout the course. This will help them know that they have come to the right place for their education, and that YOU are the right person to help them learn the content in the ways that no one else can. And of course, it will help them get in the door of the online classroom, so they are ready to engage with you and to learn.
Thank you for being with me today for the Online teaching Lounge Podcast. Online teaching is a wonderful way to go, and it is an area in which we can all keep growing and developing new approaches for. Join me each week for additional tips, strategies, and ideas to help you with best practices in online education, ways to connect with your students most effectively, ways to use video and technology in your teaching, and how to have a healthy balanced life as an online educator.
And please share this podcast with other educators you know, so we can spread the word about various strategies and tips that help us all.
And if you’re looking for formal education options to dig a little deeper, consider joining us for a course in online teaching at American Public University. We offer several courses that can be taken for continuing education goals, or to complete a certificate or degree. You deserve to be confident in your online teaching, and we can help you get there.
As you work to develop your welcome messages to send students before your next online class begins, I think you will find that the time you spend will come back to you by opening up the communication channels with your online students. Best wishes this coming week as you develop new welcome messages for all of your upcoming classes.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.