How to ask your online teacher for help

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When you’re new to online learning, there is a big fear that you will be left alone to your own devices (literally and figuratively!). While learning online does require a lot of independent study, it’s not like you’re marooned on an island in the middle of the sea. On the contrary, because of the available technology today, online learners have more options to connect and collaborate with their teachers (and classmates) than ever before. In fact, many learners are now discovering that high quality interactions are more possible in an online class as each student can be given an equal amount of attention, compared to a classroom situation wherein a single outspoken student can monopolize a session. Moreover, such interactions can be done not only during a scheduled class, but 24/7 through asynchronous interaction.

If you are an online learner or planning to be one, one of the first things you should know is that support is always available to you. E-facilitators or mentors make themselves available for inquiries, consultations and discussions. They know that constant interaction is needed to motivate and encourage learners. Here are some tips to help you maintain a continuous and healthy interaction with your e-facilitator:

  1. First things first: Read course description and follow instructions:

  2. Read the course description and introduction thoroughly. Teachers know that they need to provide clear instructions, rules and introductory material so that students won’t feel lost. Most of the time, all your basic questions will be answered by exploring this page.

    • Look for the FAQs. Read the FAQs to know some elementary things about the course. Reading this will also prevent you from asking questions that have already been answered, thereby saving time and effort.
    • Introduce yourself – This will make you visible to your instructor. It will also help her assist you better if she knows your interests, learning goals and expectations.
    • Get to know your e-facilitator – Read your online instructor’s bio to know her field of expertise as well as interests and personality. The way she introduces herself can give you clue as to whether she likes to be formal or casual. But to be safe, it will always be good to communicate with your instructor formally.
  3. Note down ways to connect with your e-facilitator or online instructor

  4. Instructors will indicate the ways they will prefer to be contacted. Usually, they will provide you with several options depending on your concern and the urgency of your concern:

    • Email – use this for questions or requests that do not need an urgent answer. You can also send an email for longer questions or discussions.
    • Skype (or other VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol tools) – this is best for synchronous or real time discussions. If you need an immediate answer to a question or if a concern is best explained “face-to-face,” this is a good option. However, if you want to meet with your teacher beyond a session or class time, you may need to set an appointment.
    • Social media – this is often used for sharing resources (e.g. links to websites or relevant articles).
    • Blog – your instructor may have a regular blog where you can read her views on certain topics within her field of expertise. This functions almost like a lecture and would be valuable to read. You can usually leave comments or questions below the write-up.
    • Discussion board – participating in the discussion board is one of the best ways to get the most out of an online class. Teachers often moderate it so it is a great venue to ask questions or share your learnings. You can also discover your classmates’ views, exchange resources with them, even connect and build friendships along the way.
    • Phone – some instructors will provide their number as a way for you to reach them but only for very urgent matters.
  5. Ask for help the right way

    Teachers are always eager to help and share their expertise. They especially appreciate it when students ask well thought-out questions. But whether in an online or face to face course, always use the active approach when asking for help. The active approach is processing a problem first and working to find the solution before asking for help. Active learners use the following phrases:

    • “I have read the assigned reading and understand pages __. But I need help in understanding the part about ____.”
    • “I’m not sure why ______.”
    • “Something isn’t making sense, but I’ve tried and I can’t figure out what I’m missing.”
    • “In the notes for our lesson on _____ I read that ______. However, I found in my research that ______. These ideas are not compatible. May I know your views on this?”

    This is the opposite of the passive approach where you expect your teacher to solve all your problems and think for you. Teachers may not be as eager to help when a student dumps all their questions on them without making an effort first. Passive learners usually say:

    • “I don’t know what to do.”
    • “My teacher can’t teach, so I’m lost.”
    • “I can’t do this. I just need to get this done.”
    • “This subject makes no sense.”

    (Active and passive approach definition and samples adapted from The right way to ask your teacher for help, Jay B.).

  6. Ask for help in making a personal learning plan

    If you’re feeling lost in an online course and you need a bit of structure, a personal learning plan can help you. A personal learning plan takes into account your learning goals and priorities. It makes it clear to you which areas you should focus on first and the type of learning activities you should undertake. Share your learning goals with your instructor. She can assist in making a plan to help you navigate the course better and more fruitfully.

Sources: 7 tips to form relationships in online learning, Judi Muhammad, Ashford University; The right way to ask your teachers for help, Jay B., Signet Education; How to reach out to your instructor for online courses, Abree Murch, Study.com. All accessed September 20, 2017.

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