A well-honed set of interpersonal skills can make or break the effectiveness of a college instructor. It is the instructor’s interpersonal style and unique personality that brings the material to life, captivates students, and motivates learning and critical thinking. Off the top of your head, you can probably recall instructors from your college days who reached you through their dynamic personality. You may even recall, with a shudder, those instructors who didn’t.
These skills are no less important in the online classroom environment. Countless articles have been written on the importance of creating an intimate online classroom community when engaging students in the virtual environment. The online instructor’s interpersonal skills are essential ingredients in the creation and maintenance of this community.
The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the most important interpersonal skills required of online instructors. While some may think that such skills are innate and fixed (you either got ‘em or you don’t), it is certainly possible and even necessary to develop these skills over time. Practice them. Research them. These, indeed, are learnable skills and techniques that that most instructors can acquire if they choose to do so.
Empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate the perspective of another person. This is a critical component of online teaching. It requires developing self-awareness—knowing what one’s personal beliefs, biases, and experiences are. It also requires developing other-awareness, or realizing that other people have and are entitled to their own perspectives based on their own unique life circumstances.
A teacher uses empathy to understand their students so as not to make assumptions about or judge them. This empathy creates a safe atmosphere for students to make mistakes or have successes, learn from them, and grow as a result. It is within this sort of atmosphere that students engage with their teacher and each other. Further, working closely with such an instructor can inspire students to develop empathy themselves.
Consider an example:
A psychology teacher believes that using extrinsic motivators is a detriment to child development. When teaching operant conditioning, a student mentions that a “great” example of operant conditioning is when she gives her toddler candy for using the toilet.
A non-empathetic instructor, unaware of her biases, might unknowingly use her authoritative position to “drop knowledge” on her “naïve” student and reply by waxing poetic on the “follies” of such parenting decisions. Even if this instructor approached the topic kindly, how would this student feel, especially in the public discussion board venue?
An empathetic instructor, conversely, is aware of her bias and does not judge her student for making this statement. She would agree that the student gave a great example of the phenomenon being discussed. If this same instructor did want to nod toward the power of intrinsic motivators over extrinsic, later in the discussion or apart from it she might post a link to a TED talk on a related topic and ask students to simply discuss their thoughts on the video. No soapbox, no condemnation, but students are made aware of the alternative views and can consider the implications for themselves.
2) Reflective Listening
Adult learners are not new learners. They have been students of life for a long time. In some instances online students have more of this “life” experience than the instructors do (I myself am younger than most of my online students). They need to know that their instructors are listening to them and value that experience and aren’t just standing at the front of the class filling heads with knowledge.
The discussion forum is where reflective listening skills are put to the test. Students are looking to see not only that the instructor is hearing them, but that their teacher is listening to everyone else, too. When the students know that you are an engaged listener, they are more likely to come to you with questions and be more open to your feedback.
These listening skills are perhaps best illustrated with an example:
Good, Reflective Response: “Thank you for your thoughts here, Stacy. You highlighted a great example of operant conditioning. Parenting examples, such as the one you gave, give us a lot of grist for the mill for understanding Skinner’s behaviorist theory. Potty training methods are very Skinnerian. As are nearly every method we use to get our children do to their chores! Ha! Class, jumping off from Stacy’s post, what are some other examples of how we use Skinnerian methods in our day-to-day?”
Not-So-Reflective Response:l: “Good answer! I agree, that’s a great example. According page 29 in the textbook, what would Tolman say about your example?”
In the “good” instance, the teacher made sure that the student knew that she read and understood where she was coming from and was so interested in her response that she thought it was worth engaging the class in further discussion. In the not-so-good instance, the response could have been a response to any student’s post. It’s generic. This student was simply “scanned over” and everyone can tell.
Discussion boards are fluid and do belong to the class (they aren’t the instructor’s “stage”), but the instructor does guide the discussion along toward the objective. If a thread is getting off topic, the skilled online teacher sums up the discussion and then asks a question or challenges the class to do some research on a related topic to rein the discussion back on track. The instructor does not necessarily have to tell the class “Hey, you are off-topic” (which may bring the discussion to a screeching halt), but can acknowledge the discussion as an interesting one, but guide it back.
It’s also a skill to know when it is okay to let students get off topic a little. If the discussion continues, maybe it will relate to something in a later lesson. Then the instructor can refer back to the discussion at that time, further personalizing the experience for the class.
Sometimes there can be a student personality in the mix that necessitates more redirection. Susan Ko speaks well to how to redirect these students in her article “Managing Difficult Students in the Online Classroom.”
4) Genuineness and Humor
Some of my fondest memories from college included meeting with instructors in their office for office hours. Yes, it was cool to get the extra instruction and guidance, but what was even cooler was seeing their office. Seeing pictures of their family, being in awe of all the trinkets from their travels, surmising their personality by noting how organized (or not) their desk was. In short, getting to know the instructor a bit. Not too much, but just as much as they were comfortable putting on display in their office.
Online students don’t really get to have this experience and it would be a shame if we didn’t provide it for them. So, online instructors should make some effort (to the extent they are comfortable) offering a bit of personal, non-CV related information about themselves. This can take many forms—a PowerPoint introduction about their hobbies, some photos, an anecdote in their biography, or a game of two truths and a lie. This goes a long way toward establishing a sense of genuineness and authenticity in the classroom. Allowing students the opportunity to do the same lays the foundation for the all-important classroom community.
The instructor’s personality also shines in the classroom discussion. A lot of the face-to-face instructors I talk to express concern that their “personality” won’t be appreciated in the virtual environment. But, it can. Instructors can choose to present their lectures in video format or use voice over in their presentations to let their voices be heard. However, tech savviness of this sort isn’t critical, as online instructors should also feel comfortable with an informal, conversational writing style, one that uses appropriate humor or a non-annoying amount of emoticons, yet maintains a professional focus on the material. I’m from Kentucky, for instance, and am pretty liberal with my use of “y’alls” in my communications with students!
A solid set of practiced interpersonal skills are fundamental to the success of the online classroom. What is your experience of interpersonal skills in the online classroom? Have anything to add to the list? Have a good experience to share? A not-so-good experience? I’d love to hear from you! Comment below or email me!