Trade Secret #5: Show you care and put it in writing!

By Dr. Marilyn Herie

This is no big secret, but paying close attention to the affective dimension is key to learning and teaching. The majority of online courses at this time are still largely text-based, so I pay special attention to the nuances and emotional tone in all of my communications with students, whether via email or in the course discussion board. I also encourage students to reach out to me by phone or video chat in real time when they get stuck or more complex issues arise.

Transcript – Trade Secret #5: Show you care and put it in writing! (click to open)

Greetings and welcome to the online teaching trade secret series. I’m Marilyn Herie and I’ve been teaching online for quite a long time, almost two decades. Over the years, I’ve found some great tips.

So, I’d like to share this secret number five: show you care and put it in writing. So much of how we communicate in online teaching, online and digital pedagogy, is written. And, unlike academic writing, it’s more personal, it’s more engaging, it’s more inclusive to create and adopt a more journalistic style, more conversational, than that very formal academic prose that we would see in a journal article or a reference letter, etc. So I encourage students to approach posting in our online discussions as, not so much an act of publishing, but an active speech. Because people feel very hampered and self-conscious by, like, I have to publish this perfect posting, and make it be perfect, and, like, grammar and spelling. The way I frame it to students is, if you, like, we’re not worried about grammar and spelling. This is a conversation and we’re having this conversation online.

Now, the elephant in the room for me, all through my online journey, online teaching journey, was can I still be as effective online as I am in that face-to-face classroom? And so, that notion of instructional immediacy was really helpful to me. Fostering a climate of instructional immediacy means helping students feel really connected to me as a professor and as a human being. And so, back in 2005, ancient history, I co-authored an article on achieving high touch in high tech with some of my colleagues that were also really engaged in online pedagogy, and exploring ways to get better at it. I also on my blog, educateria, a few years, quite a few years ago, was like, 2014, wrote a post about email tips for when the going gets rough. And what all of this is about is how to put the feeling, the affect, into our communications and not just the content. And so, putting myself in student’s shoes. How are they feeling? What thoughts do they have? What questions are there in their mind? And that notion of a supportive voice, really being infused and integrated into every communication I gave, not just in the videos but also in the written discussion board posts, in my welcome messages, in my keep going, we’re almost there, keep your motivation up, it’s week eight, this is a time when you know your motivation may start to flag, etc. That that was something that students really appreciated. You know, that idea for students that need extra help, I would say, you know, I really encourage you to put your questions in the group, in our group chat, in our small group discussion board. But if you need extra help, please feel free to schedule a telephone appointment. And I found that those telephone appointments never lasted more than 10 or 15 minutes when I came to them with that lens of, how is the student feeling? And started off our conversation with, you know, I really appreciate how hard it is to learn online and how committed you are to your teaching. I’m here to help. I am here to support your success. Even if it was a conversation about their dissatisfaction with the grade I gave, including that emotional, affective component, really helps students to feel heard, understood and respected. Those are things that I would always do naturally in the classroom, but it took me some practice and reorientation to make sure that I was doing them online in the same way that I would face to face.

So I hope you’ve enjoyed the online teaching trade secret tips and please feel free to share your own tips, lessons that you’ve learned, along quite an extraordinary journey of online teaching. Take care.

Check out Dr. Marilyn’s Herie’s other Trade Secrets!

Dr. Marilyn Herie, PhD RSW is Vice President Academic and Chief Learning Officer at Centennial College in Toronto, Canada, with an academic cross-appointment as Assistant Professor (Status Only), University of Toronto Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. I’ve been engaged in online (and classroom-based) post-secondary teaching and research since 1999. My areas of interest include elearning and classroom teaching, interprofessional education research and evaluation, motivation and change, and social media. I blog about education and teaching-related topics at