Monday, February 4, 2013

Responding to Online Students - How Do We Tell Them They've Made a Mistake?

Unlike my other three posts that address the E-Cultures and Digital Learning MOOC I'm participating in, this post is more practical in nature, and is a reflection on something that happened this week in the online course I'm teaching. I welcome feedback (criticism and otherwise) to this situation.

This semester, I'm teaching a cross-listed (not only graduate and undergraduate, but also interdisciplinary) course on race, gender, and professional and technical writing. The course covers not only race and gender theory but also technical writing theory - which for many of my students is new, and like many theoretical undertakings can be difficult to maneuver.

In the discussion boards for this week's readings, a few students had similar problems interpreting the claims made by one of the authors; specifically, they understood her to be saying the exact opposite of what she actually said.

This situation left me in a dilemma: I suffer from politeness, and not just any politeness, but Midwestern, female-driven politeness. Take almost all of the stereotypes of Midwesterners and all of the arguments about women's politeness, and smash them together. I, in other words, do not like confrontation, even when I know I'm correct.

The dilemma: Do I post, publicly, the correct interpretation and explain it. Or, do I email each individual student and explain the mistake in private.

In a classroom, I would not hesitate to correct the students: I can frame it as a learning opportunity, ask questions to figure out how they got to the position they did, and hopefully, lead them to the (correct) answer themselves. In other words, I can help them save "face." Moreover, the students can tell from my intonation, body language, and relationship that I have built with them, that my corrections are meant as learning opportunities.

The online environment, however, does not provide those opportunities in the same way. Asking questions leads to a long, drawn-out thread that doesn't necessarily make sense. The relationship between teacher and student in an online course is different; they cannot see my facial expressions or hear my intonation. The ability to save "face" is more difficult.

I chose to provide an explanation in the public forum - and this is why: So many students made similar interpretative errors. I felt it prudent to explain the mistake publicly so that all of the students could learn from it.

Responding to students (and students responding to other student responses) in an asynchronous discussion board can be a wonderful thing: students have time to think through their ideas; they have time to organize them in interesting ways that may not come up during class discussion; they may feel (though I cannot be certain) more free to share personal experiences even though the people are essentially anonymous. Many good discussions have come up this semester, and as we move into race and gender theory, I expect nothing less. I, similarly, have time to respond thoughtfully and thoroughly to their ideas, look for patterns and point them out, and give those students who might be quiet in a face-to-face classroom setting the opportunity to share.

The asynchronicity of it all, though, can take away from the experience we as teachers who teach regularly in face-to-face classrooms are used to - it leaves me wondering about the relationship I have built with my students - and how they will respond to my criticism. My good friend at The Arnoldian Project wrote an insightful post about treating students as if you are in a relationship with them - challenging them and encouraging them. Danny may have put it best: "I like to think of it [education] as an energetic, unpredictable mix of sharing, mentoring, and mean-spirited badgering. All because we love our students so dearly, and we want them to become something better than they are."

We all want our students to "become something better than they are." As an online instructor, I struggle, and will continue to struggle and explore how to do that online where I do not always know who my students are, or how they will take my comments, or even have the ability to make it clear what my comments should mean and how they should be interpreted. 


  1. Danille, I share the same questions that you are asking, facing as an online teacher. Specially those of us who are used to face to face teaching find it extremely difficult to adjust to this online interface.For example in my F2F class after explaining a topic I could read their faces and figure out if any of them had any issues. This I am saying knowing how sometimes they hesitate to come out with their feelings. Now after teaching for sometime online I feel that students ask questions more freely in an online environment because they don't have to face anybody. It makes them more uninhibited.I feel initially though we miss the real classroom environment but if you are careful enough then there are a number of ways by which it can be overcome .

    1. Hi Kajal,
      Thank you for the comments. I find it interesting that your students are more likely to ask questions online, because they don't have to face anyone. That may come, with time, it is a new semester, after all.

  2. Thank you for sharing this dilemma. I am teaching an international masters program for the Waldorf teachers in Oslo. It is a module based course where students meet every once in a while and we work face-to-face. My main subject is transformative learning in adulthood but I am also interested in intuition in education.

    When I read your post I see that you are very conscious about the gender issues but it is much more difficult for you to explain the part of your work that has to do with learning/teaching. You would anyway prefer to continue to be a nice person that students like while you secretly plan turning them to the "right" direction. It is important that they are not attacking you while you do it...

    Well, I do not think that we as adult educators need this pretended female niceness, it is not a kindergarten. Adults want to be met like grown ups who are capable of making their own decisions. If I talk to someone who is totally wrong (in my opinion:) then I just meet the Other in an open discussion. Honesty and authenticity is most vital when we would like our students to become independent and able to judge/think/decide by themselves. It does not matter weather you are working online of offline. Specially while talking about gender and race...

    I have been thinking a lot how to be able to meet with my students as equals in all different kinds of learning spaces. If you meet openness and genuine interest in mind so much can happen. Otherwise you just pass on what you know and that I find uninteresting. I do not even consider it as a real learning process. It also lacks the creative power or inspiration for your students to continue with your topic or questions posed.

    Of course if you just want to teach them ABC and then leave the space, then forget about what I just wrote. But do not say then that you love your students because it is just pretending... and they will notice it anyway!

    Good luck with your students!

    with lot of love,

  3. You also write that, we all want our students to "become something better than they are."

    I cannot agree to that. I think that they already are as they are and it has nothing to do with good and bad... "We can grow together and learn so much from each other" is what we all want (both me and my students).

    Perhaps you should critically examine your assumptions about teaching and learning? There are many beautiful theories that combine gender, race and learning. For example if you read French thinker Jacques Ranciere. There was a special issue of "Educational Theory" in Nov 2012 about his ideas. It is interesting!

    I would love to hear your comments on that...

    1. Evelin,
      Thank you for your comments. Both posts have given me pause, and make me wonder why you think that I am not part of the "becoming better." I approach teaching as helping students and myself to become better - better thinkers, better writers, more independent. I certainly was not taking that quotation - for those words were not mine - as good or bad, but rather education as becoming "better." Isn't that why we learn something, to become more knowledgeable or better at it?

      I am not entirely sure what is meant by "You would anyway prefer to continue to be a nice person that students like while you secretly plan turning them to the "right" direction. It is important that they are not attacking you while you do it." I don't think that with many of the questions we're exploring there is a "right" or a "wrong" way. As I discuss in a comment below, in this instance, the mistake or misreading is akin to skipping the "not" in a sentence. As a textual scholar, I argue there are times where there is a "correct" reading - missing the "not" in a sentence changes everything.

    2. I do not have the right answers, I only have the questions... but to think more deeply and detailed about it now... if you write "become something better than they are." it is somehow excluding you from them. Language is a complex thing and I continued to think of your post as well as my comments after leaving this page. It is hard to make oneself understood online, and I totally agree that meeting people face-to-face gives us, teachers, much better chances. Also, English is not the first language to most of us using it... that poses extra challenges, don´t you agree?

      Somehow I also got worried about you...I think it has to do with you being a young female teacher... I wonder if I tend to care extra for girls because they are so vulnerable. This is a new thing I discovered about myself.

      So thanks again for your post!

    3. Evelin,
      Your comment, "Language is a complex thing and I continued to think of your post as well as my comments after leaving this page. It is hard to make oneself understood online, and I totally agree that meeting people face-to-face gives us, teachers, much better chances" encapsulates so many of the self-doubting questions I had when I formulated my response.

      Also, you remind me too that my blog has a much wider base than my English-speaking friends and students because I'm sharing it with fellow MOOC participants (and whom for many, if not most) English is not a first language.

      I'm glad I can cause us all to think and reflect.

  4. Danielle, I am wondering if rather than thinking about the concepts of is there a right interpretation and a wrong one, clearly these student understood the material in a certain way. What if you were to use the class discussion board as an opportunity to ask the students to explain how they came to the interpretations that they did. Their context and assumptions may bring different lenses to the readings that cause them to see the material in a different way. You could then ask the rest of the students if they see the material in the same way and if so why and if not why not. By facilitating a discussion of the material you might end up at a richer discussion. Granted, this is much harder to do in a online class and the room for fuzziness, vagueness and misreading increases.

    Personally, I try to stay away from stating my position on things. Given the power dynamics students are likely to take my interpretation because I'm the instructor and will circumvent their own thinking to please me or align their thinking with mine. I personally don't find that very useful to the learning process.

    Interested to find out what you do and what the outcome is.

    1. Felicia,
      Thank you for your comments. I like your idea here about encouraging the students to talk about how they got where they did. In most cases, this would be interesting and a really fruitful experience. In the situation I discuss above, it wasn't so much about interpretation, it was more similar to missing the "not" in a sentence, or misreading the introduction which says, "I'm going to explain what is wrong first." There are places, especially in what we're reading where interpretation is important; there are other places where I think we need to acknowledge what the author is writing, and not ignore important words like "not" or "I disagree" that the authors use to set up their arguments.

  5. Isn't this a bit of a first-world problem? There are places in the world where a teacher isn't worth his salt unless she/he corrects students. And if she/he is nice and thoughtful about it, that's considered an added bonus.

  6. I am a nontraditional student in the class that Dr. N is referring to. I will graduate this May with an MBA and I took every single one of my graduate classes online.

    There were several unequivocal misunderstandings of the assigned readings by my peers this past week. For example, some of them thought “positivism” meant a positive attitude as opposed to the instrumental model of technical communication, and others completely misquoted what one of the authors stated in her article. When she says a student made a mistake, she is talking about a black-and-white mistake, not one that has any grey area or interpretive wiggle room whatsoever to speak of.

    I like to think that I have a fairly solid grasp of the material, but even I found myself second-guessing my understanding when I read my peers’ incorrect interpretations. However, after reviewing the articles, I confirmed to myself that my peers were, in fact, incorrect.

    I wondered whether or not Dr. N. would correct the mistakes publically on the discussion board. I greatly appreciate her desire to save “face” on the students’ behalf. However, I think that she would do her students an even greater disservice by not publically correcting their mistakes on the discussion board. If I think 2 + 2 = 5, then I am wrong, and I would want someone to tell me that I am wrong. Plain and simple. Furthermore, I would hate for any of my peers to start to question their ability to add as a result of my mistake going unchecked by the instructor. Besides, privately emailing her students individually could tie up an unreasonable amount of her time.

    1. Liz,
      Thank you for your comments (and for reading even more of my thoughts and murmurings than you already do for class). I ultimately made the decision I did based on what you talk about in your last paragraph. Because we're all thinking in different "time," it's important to acknowledge and correct things when we can so that we can move on - and everyone involved can reorient themselves and move on.

  7. Danielle,

    I would have to agree with Liz. To become something better than I currently am, I need both guidance and support. Guidance to point me in the right direction and support to keep me motivated on achieving my goal.

    Online learning is a challenge to participants for many reasons. Communication clearly suffers when cut off from the approximately 70% of the message in the form of non-verbal components that we [humans] have learned to 'interpret' throughout our lives.

    Through struggles inherent in online teaching you will learn from successes as well as mistakes and become something better than you are.

    1. Hi Acoustic Analyst,

      Thank you for your comment and for reading what has become a spirited discussion!