Welcoming Students to Their Online Class

This post is part of a series to help you build an online class. If you want to begin at the beginning of the series, start here.

A warm relationship with at least one professor is a high leverage practice–one that helps protect vulnerable students from dropping out. Small schools with low teacher to student ratios often promote the warmth between professors and students as part of their success, and they are wise to do so–because these relationships matter a lot.

They matter online, too; the notion that online courses are just MOOCS and that students simply watch videos and click through online quizzes, like your university’s ethics training, is false. Online courses can be highly interactive, and students can come to know their professors well. (Part of this, I think, is even achieved through high-quality online lectures, which can feel more intimate that lectures in large in-person classes.) And instructors can get to know their teachers well, including through deep discussion.

One way to quickly establish warmth is through a video welcoming students to class. This should be available on your course’s homepage and accessible to students before the class begins. (If your university does not allow students to preview online classes, consider sending the video to enrolled students a few days before class begins.)

The video should be short–just a few minutes–and should both provide an overview of the course and indicate a bit about your approach. This is a good place to establish your ethos as an instructor.

Above, Myron G. Barlow’s Hospitality. The painting shows three women and a girl around a small table, drinking tea. One woman brings the girl close to her for a sideways hug.

Below is my script for my Social Statistics course. It focuses on the question I get most often during enrollment and in the weeks leading up to the class: What if my math skills are weak?

Hi all,

I’m Dr. Rebecca Barrett-Fox, your professor for Social Statics this semester. I’m eager to get started on our work together. I know that many students are nervous about Social Statistics and that most students take this course as a degree requirement, not as an elective. I know that many of you are worried about how well you are prepared for this course—especially since most people don’t take a dedicated statistics course in high school and may have only studied statistics briefly in a longer math course taken years ago. And, finally, I know that many of you didn’t like statistics in the past if you took it at all. If you liked computation or thinking in numbers, you’d probably be a math or physics or even chemistry major, right? Instead, most people in this class are hoping for a career in the helping professions or at least are more interested in people and how they act rather than in numbers and how to work with them. You may feel like statistics is unrelated to your work in those fields.

I want to begin by affirming those feelings. Statistics is a different way of working with data. This class won’t just require you to learn new computational skills—it’s going to ask you to think about how you engage information differently. That can be very difficult. But there is a lot you can do to set yourself up for success, including reminding yourself that you can do this and reminding your classmates of that, too, if you see them struggling to stay engaged. If your professors thought that Social Statistics was impossibly hard for students, we wouldn’t waste your time with this class. We know that this class is considered one of the most challenging in the degree for most students—and that’s true not just of our students but of criminology, sociology, and social work students at many universities. But we also know that, with planning and dedication, you can do this.

Why is learning social statistics important for you? There are a few reasons almost all undergrad majors in the social sciences require a statistics course:

First, you have already been taught how to conduct secondary research, such as locating books and peer-reviewed journal articles about topics of interest to you. You may have also already completed some qualitative research projects. Interviews, observations and ethnographic research are all examples of research that produces verbal, rather than numeric, information. If you haven’t learned much about these forms of research yet, you’ll get the chance to do so in our Methods of Social Research course, and you’ll develop your skills further in Applied Research if you are sociology major. But you’ve probably had few opportunities to practice analyzing numeric information. This class gives you that chance, thus expanding your toolbox of research skills.

And that is important because many of you will be seeking future employment in jobs that require the ability to use statistics. The ability to perform even basic statistics will make more jobs available to you and give you an advantage over job candidates with little or no experience.

Additionally, understanding statistics will make you a savvier consumer of information. You may have heard the quotation (attributed to a variety of different sources) that there are three kinds of untruths: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” It means that statistics are often used to bolster arguments that aren’t supportable by other kinds of facts. Of course, we don’t want to produce those kinds of statistics; it’s unethical, for example, to deliberately take wrong samples or to overstate conclusions based on a sample that is too small. But we know that people do this—and so we want to be able to recognize when marketers, politicians, and others use statistics to present faulty arguments. Quantitative literacy makes us smarter consumers and better citizens, more prepared to engage with statistical information and identify when it’s useful and when it’s inaccurate, irrelevant, or even deceptive.

I think if you can keep these larger goals in mind when you may feel frustrated by the smaller but challenging computational tasks of the course, you’ll remember why you should learn statistics: to be a better researcher, a more competitive future employee, and a smarter consumer of information.

Statistics will require work because, unlike most of classes, most students haven’t thought much about the topic before, and we don’t really have much personal interaction with the topic like we do, for example, with classes about family or religion or race. So we’re starting without much prior knowledge and without points of reference that are meaningful for us.

You can prepare for success in this class now by doing the following:

  1. Committing to the class. You probably need to pass this class to earn your degree. I want you to pass on your first try so you can go apply your new knowledge in other classes.
  2. Deciding when and where you will study. Schedule a place and time to get your work done. I highly recommend small daily doses of statistics rather than cramming immediately before an assignment is due. Most of the information you will be studying will be brand new to you, so it’s easier to learn if you do it in 10-20 minute increments, one concept at a time, rather than in long and grueling study sessions.
  3. Identify classmates who will help you stay accountable. Find a friend or two in the class, and commit to checking in on each other. Maybe agree that you will text each other 48 hours before work is due to encourage each other to get it done on time.
  4. Stay on track with your work. Statistical knowledge builds on itself, so you can’t easily get back on track if you miss a week of work.
  5. Do your work carefully. There are many opportunities to make mistakes, especially if you are rushing. Take your time. This means starting assignments well in advance of their due date.
  6. Turn in your work on time. Don’t undermine your ability to earn a good grade by doing the work but then losing credit for not turning it in on time.
  7. Make use of tutoring services.
  8. Practice, practice, practice!
  9. Know that I want you to learn this, to show me you’ve learned this, and to earn a good grade. Entering “A”s into A-State’s online grade reporting system is one of my FAVORITE tasks as a professor. Give me a reason to cheer for you at the end of the course!

Practically, you will also want to get a copy of our textbook, which you will use regularly;  read the syllabus carefully; check out our Blackboard (Bb); and email me if you have any immediate questions.

I think we are going to have a great semester together. I look forward to seeing you learn statistics, and I’m glad to get to support you as you do your best in this class!

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