Starting new classes is exciting, but it can also bring a lot of anxiety and uncertainty especially for students who are new to online learning. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Linda Ashar talks to Dr. Doris Blanton about the challenges students often face when starting online education for the first time. Learn why students often experience imposter syndrome and how you can improve your self-confidence and become better at time management so you don’t rely on tools like AI to do the learning for you.
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Linda Ashar: Hello everyone, welcome to our podcast. This is Linda Ashar. Today, I am happy to introduce Dr. Doris Blanton. Doris is full-time faculty in our School of Business here at American Public University. She has her Doctorate in Organizational Management and Leadership, and many years’ experience teaching in the online learning environment with a diverse number of students. And has a number of tips and ideas to share with us today about doing well and succeeding in the online learning environment, especially for new students coming into the online environment for the first time.
Doris, you have so much experience with new students coming in, thinking about the struggle and excitement that new students are feeling when they come into that classroom. What do you see as an overriding number one issue that we could generalize for students who are new to this phenomenon of remote learning?
Doris Blanton: Well, thank you, Linda. First of all, thank you for having me today. I’m excited to share with you, and whomever is listening, a few tips for students newer to the online classroom or for those of us who have been around a while, maybe we just need to hear it again.
But that number one issue, when I think about newer students, and I’m speaking from personal experience as well as what I’ve observed in students online or on-ground, is many of us possess what’s called, the imposter syndrome. And it’s that personal belief that we’re just not deserving to be in the classroom with others like us. It’s a self-imposed fear. It builds up the anxious feelings that you have for starting something new. Our self-confidence is lower than it needs to be. And it tends to create self-inflicted barriers for newer students that don’t know how to just step into class and get comfortable with it. Imposter syndrome would have to be the number one issue I think we see more often than not.
Linda Ashar: And when we talk about imposter syndrome, if I’m experiencing that, is that a feeling like I don’t belong here?
Doris Blanton: Absolutely.
Linda Ashar: Okay. How do I feel that in the online environment? Is it because I don’t think I could handle it?
Doris Blanton: Those are great ideas and I think that’s part of the imposter syndrome, but I think for many of us, when we join a community that we’re unfamiliar with, and in online that is everything from using a brand new classroom platform to meeting strangers, it becomes a little overwhelming and we really question our confidence and how well we can perform. In the classroom, we just feel like, well, I’m not good enough to be here.
I remember where I really felt it was when I was in my doctorate and I was joining people who get up every morning just like me, put their clothes on one leg at a time, and yet I felt as if I am in a community of people I don’t deserve to be in the community with, when that’s absolutely not true.
Linda Ashar: And why would someone feel they don’t deserve to be there? I just kind of want to dig into that feeling a little bit. Is it because the student thinks everybody else already knows more? I mean, we’re coming in to learn new things, shouldn’t everybody be at the same ground zero?
Doris Blanton: I think that we forget that about other people. I think that when we join an online community, especially in higher education, we may feel our shortcomings or old tapes that we have in our head from when we were in college before or perhaps in high school where we didn’t succeed as well as we wanted to, carries right into the classroom where we feel like we’re just not savvy enough to be there when we forget everybody else is new at the same time too.
That’s one of the strategies I encourage students to be mindful of, to overcome that feeling of inadequacy or the imposter syndrome. By the inch it’s a cinch, by the yard it’s hard. Take little bites and overcome these fears, which will lead right into some of the tips I’ll give you in a few minutes for how students can overcome that imposter syndrome and feeling like they should not be in the classroom. And I think the feeling of “I shouldn’t be here” is just something new, trying something new for the first time.
The second issue I’d like to lean into is unrealistic expectations, and I think oftentimes newer students may take on more than they realize will be needed of them. I think we see that a lot as new parents where we think that we can keep with the pace and the flow that we did. Something has to give. And being mindful of the expectations when you take on a college journey can’t really be diminished. I think that students need to be mindful of the expectations of them. Which kind of leads into the third issue I’d like to focus on, and it’s the time management, the self-discipline, but being receptive to learning.
Linda Ashar: Let’s take these one by one. What’s an example of an unrealistic expectation that you’ve seen in real time with a student?
Doris Blanton: Sure. I think some of the unrealistic expectations are, the first one would be we are asynchronous. Anytime you’re in an online classroom, unless there are scheduled hours for attendance that’s required, one of the first unrealistic expectations is expecting a response in real-time, immediately.
Linda Ashar: From whom?
Doris Blanton: If a student were to reply to a discussion question in the classroom, send the faculty an email, ask a question of a colleague, all of those things take time for the recipient of the correspondence, the ask, the post, to have the opportunity to log back in and reply to them. So one of the unrealistic expectations is that 24 hours is not that long, but to be mindful that not everyone is living on your timeline.
Another unrealistic expectation, not just in responsiveness, but I think it’s in students thinking that they can log in today, it’s Monday, and I’m done for the week and never come back again for the week. Or wait until Sunday every week and call it good and be frustrated because you need more time to complete an assignment.
It’s the unrealistic expectation, like I said earlier, leads right into time management, self-discipline, receptive to learning, but it’s typically taking on more than they realize will be needed of them and how to manage their time so that they are not living with unrealistic expectations in the classroom.
Linda Ashar: That signals to me a greater disconnect from the reality of what online learning versus going to brick and mortar classes. People get the concept of physically going to a building, sitting in a classroom, going to the library, going to the next class because in the traditional setup, it might be three classes a week and the class might meet for one to two hours depending on the course.
Online, there is a sense that, yeah, I can log in on the weekend or on Monday morning, and that’s all I need to do for an online class. Make my whistle-stop hour. I can do it all in an hour. That’s all I need to do for an online class for the week. There’s an equivalency of the time investment that’s needed to learn in the online environment, but it’s just more open-ended as to where you’re going to commit that time.
Doris Blanton: Absolutely. Which this is a great segue to talk a little bit about from the unrealistic expectations to receptive to learning, which is all part of that self-discipline and time management. And I think some of the issues, we’ve talked about the imposter syndrome, expectations, but when students aren’t receptive to learning, they’re not slowing down and taking that initial time to read about what is going to be covered for the next couple of months, what’s expected of them, they’re not organizing their life and working college in so that it is manageable.
What I often see is students jump right into the discussions in week one on day one. In fact, they’ve completed the next two weeks of quizzes and maybe even posted an assignment without ever preparing themselves by going through any of the content, what we’re talking about, what we’re supposed to be learning, and they become frustrated because my feedback is probably not very flattering because they miss the mark.
It’s frustrating for faculty, that first week of class especially, I field a lot of questions regarding discussion or assignment expectations and questions typically go, “So how do I do this? Or where do I find the information to answer this first discussion question?”
And I literally shake my head, the obvious answer is “It’s in the classroom.” You need to be self-disciplined, receptive to learning, spending time in the content so that you can develop the learning without getting that quick knee-jerk response answer to solve your immediate question. And that takes you back to those expectations, the unrealistic expectations.
Linda Ashar: What we’re talking about here are these initial barriers that so many students do encounter and have to adjust to. And I think that is, is what I call, the “click-response lifestyle,” which is, “I need an answer, I’m going to click this and boom, there it is and online.”
One of the things that I post in my classrooms as an example, and I know I’m not the only instructor that does this, is many of the things that you need to learn and understand in this course, Google is not your friend because that’s not where the material is. That quick two-line Wikipedia summary of the worldview of this topic is not what we’re teaching in this course. So, I think that that is the way we function on a day-to-day basis outside an academic classroom, and it’s problematic to get out of that habit. What do you think about that?
Doris Blanton: Linda, I’m looking at some of the notes I jotted down before our podcast today, and we’re in this GTS world, Google that, fill in the blank, and it isn’t our friend. It’s a definite diving board for us to get up at the deep end of the pool before we jump in and to help us familiarize ourselves. But, what I’d like to really talk about is this changing landscape in higher education. And it’s not only the instant gratification that our students look for, we look for it too in a day-to-day basis, but it’s using the tools in a way that further complements the learning in the classroom.
And Googling things are great, any type of AI in the classroom is great, but I think as the changes, and the urgency, and the immediate feedback, and our expectations of what learning should feel like and look like is evolving.
And I want to kind of bring in just quickly how AI, and not necessarily Google per se, but the use of AI because more and more of my students are using it. I love it. It’s a tool, but I have to remind students that if you rely on it, it will sabotage you, just like Google and Wikipedia.
Linda Ashar: Doris, pick up where we were before the break.
Doris Blanton: Well, you left us all on a cliffhanger. Well, I think the changing landscape is the urgency and immediacy, like I said, but what we’re really seeing more than just Google everything or use Wikipedia, but AI. If we rely on it, it will sabotage us. We need to learn to embrace it as a tool for help. But I really do remind students, if you’re paying tuition for a robot or artificial intelligence to do the writing for you, you’re not learning anything. Trust me, it will show up professionally when you are tasked to do something, getting a paycheck for it, and AI isn’t there to do the work for you because AI does not critically think, and AI is not doing the manpower to be completed for the people that employ us. School is a place for learning, it’s not a place to learn how to shortcut everything you can. Shortcut your learning, it won’t develop you professionally in the long run.
Linda Ashar: My mantra is, shortcuts are great when you already know what you’re doing, but they’re not great if you don’t because you’re not going to see where the problems are, you’re not going to see where the errors are.
If one of the AI-writing generation programs writes a paper, let’s say, it will probably produce a fairly nicely written product, in terms of grammar and sentence structure, although they all tend to sound pretty much the same, but they’re like a stone skipping across the top of the topic. They don’t dig into analysis.
So, yes, it’s going to produce a quick paper summary and there’s a value to using that, but it doesn’t give you details. And if there are errors in what the product is, if you don’t know your subject, haven’t already done some research, you’re not going to see that the errors are there. You’re going to think it’s correct, and that’s a danger.
Doris Blanton: The old mantra, “garbage in is garbage out.” What I’ve seen in some of my classrooms for students who have been leaning into AI, what I’ve discovered most often is they’ll be citing citations that don’t exist because AI is pulling from all kinds of random things, and it doesn’t necessarily know what a legitimate reference or resource is as it throws it in here and there. It’s like using your thesaurus like a wizard. You got to know what you’re doing before you can successfully use the tool.
Linda Ashar: Well, I do believe that the AI tools are great tools. We’re working here at American Public University on ways to help student use the tools in a positive and appropriate ways to enhance learning. I think that there’s a lot of benefit that can be had from them, but they’re not substitutes, and that’s the allure that they have for people that are time-challenged.
You mentioned time management, I think it’s worth addressing that a little bit more because it interlaces with a time management issue, I don’t have time to write this paper, I’ll stick it into the AI machine and let it write it for me, because that’ll get it done quick.
Doris Blanton: That’s exactly what happens, and the student has just paid their tuition to have a robot do the work for them. They’ve developed no critical thought, which is what school and learning is all about, developing the skills to be critical thinkers. What’s the purpose in the education?
But, the time management, which takes me back to a tip that I wanted to share about students that are first entering the classroom. Time management is nearly number one on my tip for how to be successful, so you don’t find yourself in that crunch of let AI do the work for me.
When students start a class and they know that they’re taking on a two-month, three-month journey, it’s not a marathon, but it’s definitely not a sprint, you’re locked in for a couple of months, when they join the classroom and they slow down and read what is going to be due over the next few weeks.
And to keep in mind the workload balance for your life that you’ve been living, now you’ve added this classroom or you’ve added two classrooms, maybe they’re taking two classes at a time. Undergraduate students need to bear in mind that if they’re in an eight-week classroom, they are spending 15 hours on schoolwork for one class, and that’s not just being in the classroom, that’s doing the reading, that’s doing the homework readiness, your discussions, it’s your time for class.
So, if you’re in two classes, you can imagine what that workload has now done to your life. That’s what causes students to knee-jerk and to letting AI, or sadly, we can say things like Course Hero or my buddy’s paper, you knee-jerk into something that isn’t a very smart decision and allow something else to do the work for you because you’ve pressed yourself up against the time-management window that you can’t get past.
Linda Ashar: What are some tips that you would give a student to help them with time management?
Doris Blanton: Like I said, slow down. When you first get into a classroom, that’s just slow your roll a little bit. Don’t just click through everything and call it good. Download that contract between you and the faculty member, that syllabus. Look at what’s due. I don’t have an assignment due in week one, but I’ve got a heavy one due in week two. What do I have going on in my life in week two? But knowing what is forecasted on that contract, the syllabus, that the faculty offers you right at the beginning of class, is going to help you ready your own schedule.
Here’s where time management becomes really critical. It helps to diminish students making those AI, help-me-here decisions so that they’re not, they can use AI as a springboard to help them frame their original work and not be dependent on a tool. I think something else with time management is important, for me, I know that printing things off for a lot of people doesn’t happen.
I like to use my calendar and when I do teach a class, on my work calendar, which syncs to my phone and all the other calendars I carry around, I have notices when things are due, but then I back it up four days and put my reminders out there. Don’t forget to start. Don’t forget to review. Don’t forget to pull articles. Things that are going to help me prepare. And if you put those things on, using your calendar, the sequencing, repetitive, you don’t have to do it class over class, they’re things that you become habitual with and you are preparing your time, your study time, your schoolwork time.
I think another thing that is important for students is reading. We don’t read, we skim. And sometimes it’s important to really slow that roll and read more than six words of a sentence, read into it a little more. Ask yourself a question after you’ve read something, did I understand what I just read? And that will continue to help scaffold that critical thinking strategies, efforts, learning that we’re trying to help our students develop.
Linda Ashar: I would throw one last thing, the overriding barrier for many people coming in, especially new to the online environment, is the very fact that it is remote and online, and anonymous. And many people are comfortable with that, and many others are not. And because of that feeling of anonymity, many students are hesitant to reach out with questions to their instructors. Just as some are not patient enough at waiting for a response from an instructor, there are other students who don’t ask questions that they could ask. They don’t reach out for clarification.
I think they are hesitant because there is that computer wall and they think that they shouldn’t bother their instructor or they’re anticipating that they will look, there’s that imposter syndrome again, Doris, that I’m going to look stupid if I ask this question. All of those kinds of thoughts can run through a person’s head and prevent reaching out. And I tell students, every colleague that I know feels the same way, ask the stupid question. You think it’s stupid? We don’t care. Ask it. If you should have seen it somewhere in the best of all worlds, we’ll show you where that was and you’ll know where to find it next time. That doesn’t make it stupid. I wish I could tell people all the times I’ve missed something sitting in front of my nose.
Online environment, especially for new students, there’s a lot of material to parse and unravel. So let your instructors help you through the puzzle palace and it will become easier very quickly.
So, communication is a great resolution for a lot of the things we’ve talked about. And the other thing is, of course, you really do have to be self-motivated and understand why you’re there in the first place.
Doris, I cannot thank you enough for your time with me today. I hope people will have listened to this and taken some of these things to heart. We have wonderful students. They do step up and we hope that these tips are helpful. Do you have any last points that you would like to offer before we close?
Doris Blanton: No, Linda, that pretty much summarizes a few of the issues we experience, some of the tips that students might keep in mind from their time management to engagement, expectations.
I think the one thing I didn’t touch on was feedback. And I want to encourage students when you are in an online classroom or even in a brick and mortar face-to-face, when faculty provide you feedback, read it. I think that’s the one other tip in the classroom, because if you’re not taking the feedback that you’re given, which is nothing personal, it’s a way to help you develop the skills that you should be developing in school, critical thought, communication, writing, all those things, then you’re not going to overcome the shortcomings that you may be experiencing.
So, I just wanted to touch on feedback real quick, but, Linda, thank you so much for having me today. I love sharing tips and tricks for students in the online classroom, especially those newer students who may be a little less comfortable in their skin as they join an online world.
Linda Ashar: My closing thought is everybody really is in it together. I have found students to be supportive of each other, and I know the faculty is supportive. Thank you everyone for being with us today. We have been talking with Dr. Doris Blanton about success in the online classroom and challenges for new students. Have a great day out there everyone, please come back for more podcasts.