As an online instructor I’ve encountered too many situations in which a student needed assistance, but was hesitant to ask for help. Online students can be reluctant to speak up if they are having trouble, but raising your virtual hand now will save you a lot of frustration and anxiety later in the course.
We’re doing what we can to monitor your progress, but it’s hard to tell when you’re dealing with issues behind the scenes. “If only I had known,” I find myself saying. I have resources at my disposal, there are referrals I can make, and it’s likely you aren’t the first student faced with the problem you are facing.
Every course and faculty member is different, but if you are asking yourself, “Should I tell my instructor about this?” here are a few situations in which the answer is probably “yes.”
- You can’t find course materials. Maybe you ordered the textbook, but it hasn’t arrived yet, or the bookstore didn’t have enough on hand. It’s also possible your instructor asked you to review a website and the link is broken. If you are having trouble finding something you need in the class, chances are that other students are having trouble, too.
- You got locked out of a test or other assignment submission. Online quizzes and exams often have settings that limit how many times you can open them. Similarly, you may only have one shot at uploading a paper. What happens if the power goes out while you are taking a test? It’s also possible to upload the wrong file. We can usually reset test “attempts” due to problems like widespread power outages. We can also make it possible to submit new versions of an assignment. It’s not wise to make a habit of this kind of request, but we do realize that mistakes happen.
- The group project is at a standstill. Group projects present a unique set of challenges in an online course. Students are asked to collaborate across time zones and around their packed and conflicting schedules. It can be hard to get forward momentum on a virtual project and problems do arise. After, of course, working to get the group project back on track, contacting the instructor is a good next step. Your team many want to ask for a meeting or attend open office hours to share concerns and seek guidance. Approach your instructor with ideas about possible solutions.
- You’re feeling lost in the course. This is especially challenging for first-time online students, and those juggling too many responsibilities. It takes time to learn how to navigate a course site and manage your own participation. Classmates can be a good resource, but if you are truly not sure what you should be working on, please speak up. The longer you wait, the further behind you get with assignments and activities. Consult with your professor to confirm course priorities, timelines, and expectations.
- You don’t understand the material. In an academic program many courses are designed to prepare you for the ones that follow. Developing solid knowledge and skills in each class is required for success as you move forward. Make sure you are maximizing all of the resources available to you in the course: complete the reading assignments, work through practice activities, review notes and recorded presentations. If you continue to have difficulty grasping course concepts, contact your professor. We can suggest supplemental materials for additional review and refer you to school resources, such as reference librarians, writing centers, and learning labs.
- You are very sick. We expect you to work through something like a bad cold, but if you are more seriously ill let your instructor know. I had a student seemingly disappear from a course, and his group, for over a month. After tracking his emergency information down through school records I found he had been in the hospital the whole time. Once we finally reconnected we were able to review all of the options for completing missed work. In a medical emergency your online course should not be the priority, but it’s good to check-in with your classes as soon as you can.
- You missed an assignment. Keep your instructor posted if you missed an assignment and plan to submit it late, or if you already know you are going to miss a future assignment deadline. You are expected to manage your time well in an online course. We are aware that many of our online students juggle school, work, and family commitments, but you may want to let us know if you are struggling with other issues. It’s common to lose points when you turn something in after the due date, but this is usually a better alternative than not submitting anything at all. Initiate a conversation with your instructor to explain the situation and clarify what your options are.
- Something else is missing. Did you submit an assignment on time, but never received a grade? Did your instructor refer to a presentation that wasn’t uploaded, or ask you to participate in a discussion board that was unintentionally “hidden” from view? We make mistakes, too, often on the administrative side of the learning management system (LMS). In fact, all of these examples are from mistakes I’ve made in my own courses. If you feel like something might be missing, it’s okay to ask.
How to Contact Your Instructor
Every school, program, and course has different policies and expectations for not only how problems are handled, but also how you should contact your instructor. The syllabus is a good place to start. Are there instructions for contacting the professor? Look for details that include email, phone numbers, and virtual office hours.
- Often one communication method is preferred. In my classes, for example, students are asked to contact me through the LMS message system, with my school email address as a secondary option. I also encourage use of a specific Q&A discussion forum if students think that others may have the same question.
- Your instructor may not be your first point of contact. In classes with teaching assistants (TAs) or learning coaches, you may be asked to contact an assistant assigned to work with your section or group. These assistants are usually found in larger classes (i.e., 50 or more students), and can address a lot of the issues you may be experiencing, as well as connect you with the instructor as appropriate.
- Be professional. While you may be frustrated and anxious about the course, your grades, and working with classmates, communicate your concerns calmly. Basic rules of netiquette and business communication also apply. Let your professor know what steps you’ve already taken to troubleshoot a problem, as well as any suggestions you have for addressing the issue. Your tone and approach can make a big difference in the resolution process.
In many online courses, especially asynchronous ones in which everyone is participating at different times, it can be easy to avoid asking questions. Going with the flow, however, often leads to a less-than-desirable experience in the course. Be prepared to do some problem solving on your own, but know that there are times when you should contact your online professor directly.
Source: Inside Online Learning Blog