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Good online teaching is often just plain good teaching

One teacher learns that the secret to good online teaching is all in the approach

I have heard a lot of people say that they don’t think that online schooling works well because there isn’t in-person interaction between a student and their teacher. This belief is a myth. When both teachers and students participate the same way they would in a face-to-face setting, amazing things happen in the online world—just as often as they do in the traditional classroom.

A couple of years ago, I taught a student in an online creative writing class. At 19, John was behind in school and still trying to graduate. Classes were arduous for him, and he often didn’t pass them. These failures discouraged him, so he stopped trying completely—which caused his already low skill set to deteriorate even further.

Since traditional brick-and-mortar classes clearly weren’t working for him, John attempted online courses through his local high school. Online classes offered John a new method of learning that was previously unavailable to him and a more flexible way to get back on the path to graduation.

When John first started in my class, his academic skills were minimal:

  • His reading was well below grade level.
  • His writing was riddled with so many errors that it was difficult for me to read.
  • His poor spelling created puzzles for me to figure out what he intended to say with each word.
  • He did not understand how to construct complete sentences, so his paragraphs were often written as one long, never-ending sentence.

These issues made it extremely difficult for me to decipher his thoughts and grade his assignments. However, John was especially motivated to graduate so that he could get a well-paying job and be able to live on his own.

The path to success

Although online courses provide many benefits, they can also create unique challenges. Because I didn’t see him in person, I was unable to sit down with him face-to-face to go over his mistakes and help him correct them. To fix this problem, I used the “sandwich approach” in the feedback I gave him.

The sandwich approach is a strategy often used in education and business, as outlined below:

  1. Begin by telling the person at least one thing you liked about the work.
  2. Then, offer up the constructive criticism or items to improve upon.
  3. End with at least one more thing you liked about the work that was done.

Using this approach with John, I first told him something good about his assignment, which was often problematic because of the difficulty I had when reading his work. This feedback was usually something simple like, “I love your idea here!”

Then, I would give him one thing to correct for future assignments. At first these were basic things like constructing complete sentences.

I would then end the conversation with another good comment about John’s writing. This was often another simple, “You are so creative, and I love the passion in this piece!”

I utilized the sandwich approach through the Creative Writing, Semester 1 course. I would focus on one aspect for him to correct in his writing until he got that down, and then I would move on to another aspect.

Sparking a love of learning

After successfully completing the course, John enrolled in Creative Writing, Semester 2. By this time, he was able to write complete sentences, and I was able to direct my feedback more toward the actual writing style and plot lines of his stories.

This part of grading John’s work was fun because he had a vivid imagination and his stories were very creative. With non-stop action and unexpected twists and turns, you never knew from the beginning how a story would end. John’s story ideas were something akin to movie plots, and these unique plots captured your attention.

Throughout Semester 2, John’s stories got more and more advanced, and his errors became fewer and fewer.  While his grammar and punctuation were never perfect, they interfered with comprehending his writing less and less.

Just before John finished Semester 2, he sent me a message thanking me for diligently working with him throughout our two courses.  He told me that because of the online classes and me, he had taken back all his birthday presents for refunds and used the money to buy a Kindle. He pointed out that he knew Kindles were just for reading books, but that was exactly why he wanted it. John had gone three years without even opening a book, but now he was reading at least a chapter before going to bed each night on his brand-new Kindle.

John credits me with this drastic change in his interests. Before our courses together, he thought that he couldn’t read or write, so he simply hadn’t. This misunderstanding dramatically impeded his school work and other areas of his life.

Finding a job had been especially trying because he felt that he could neither read nor write, so even filling out a simple job application was a challenge for him. But, because he had a teacher focus on what he was doing well and encourage him to improve, he steadily got better, increased his confidence, and discovered that he actually did enjoy reading and writing. Not only had he discovered that he enjoyed reading and writing, he decided to continue his education at a trade school.

John had gone three years without even opening a book, but now he was reading at least a chapter before going to bed each night on his brand-new Kindle.

A year before our classes, the idea of continuing any training beyond high school seemed an unviable option to him. However, once he realized that he could be accomplished in school, he also realized that he could be accomplished in life as well.

This story is special to me, though it is nothing unusual in the education field. This type of success story is what all teachers live for: being able to make a difference in a student’s life (and finding out about it). However, the difference with this story is that I was teaching online.

This piece originally appeared on the Fuel Education blog.

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