November 5, 2020 8:25 am

Norman Eng

If you’re teaching online, you WILL lose students. Some will engage less. Others will disappear.


Many reasons, of course.

But today, I’m focused on one: Because online, students get less “touches.”

In the world of business marketing, it takes anywhere from 7 to 15 “touches” to get prospects interested. The first time they see your ad, blog post, or Facebook ad, they’ll probably ignore it.

If you’re a pharmaceutical sales rep, you have to visit a doctor’s office many times—many touches—before they trust you and recommend your products.

When you’re deciding what to eat for dinner, you won’t likely try that new restaurant until you read their reviews, check out their their website, hear word-of-mouth, and receive a 10% discount.

Every single one of those interactions is a touch point.

Without them, customers—and students—will fade away. Lose interest. Forget about your message.

Ever wonder why you see so many annoying ads from Seamless on YouTube? You may hate it, but who do you remember when it’s time to order takeout?

As a former marketer, I’m painfully aware how “bad” touches can turn people off.

But bad touches do not obviate the underlying principle: When done well, touches can be highly appreciated, effective, and even valued. 

In the case of students, they want you to check in.

Many professors don’t maintain those touches. They write a syllabus, stuff it with policy, and then never mention these policies again. Instead, they expect students to remember it.

Students need more touches. Whether the touches are reminders or check-ins.

That’s why I constantly remind my child development students the purpose of the course: To help children develop into successful adults. It’s noted in my syllabus, during our synchronous meetings, in my LMS weekly assignments, and in my videos. That’s at least 4 different medium of touches.

My students are sick of me saying it. But every single one (I think) can repeat it back to me. So they are less likely to think, Why are we doing this assignment?

Clearly, touches are even more important in the online world.

We take for granted those informal touches in a traditional classroom environment: the informal chats before, during, and after class (joking on Zoom is simply not the same); the proximity (yes, even something as simple as walking near a distracted student is enough to get her to refocus); and the looks you give when you need students to simmer down.

So the things we do informally (and automatically) in a classroom have to be planned formally in the virtual space.

We have to plan our touches. One way I do this is through text messaging, via apps like Group Me.

I plan messages like this:

Normally, I’d say all these things in the classroom. Online, I plan them out; everything: the reminders, the motivational previews, praise, etc.

Do you know how many times I tell students to post questions in the chat? Every week, I’ll write: “Don’t forget to post questions—no matter what kind!—here in the chat.”

Basically, online, you have to overcompensate for the lack of in-person touches.

Even if you meet face-to-face on Zoom, it’s not the same as in-person. While I could say, “OK raise your hand if you’ve completed at least 15 fieldwork hours for this class” during a synchronous session, I still have to plan (i.e., write out) the question on a word document, just so I can copy and paste it into the poll function.

Like I said, the informal has to be planned formally.

So I plan check-ins with students.

The big three you should incorporate into your regular touches (whether through videos, emails, chats, etc.):

  1. Reminders (of deadlines, procedures, rules/policies);
  2. Community-building (e.g., praise and encouragement); and
  3. Follow ups (checking in with struggling students, reminding students of missing assignments or attendance issues, answering questions, etc.)

Want to see an example of a video touch?

Here’s a mid-semester video (8:00) I created last week that addresses all three: A little reminder (about the syllabus), some praise, and some follow up (a preview of what’s coming up—something students have been asking about). I love videos because, well, a golden rule in marketing is that videos convert better than text (i.e., they get more attention). As modern day professors competing with social media, we are in the attention economy.

And, yes, my informal videos are planned in advance. For example, I knew that Week 7 (around mid-semester) that I would send out a “state of the union” video—looking back and looking forward. The video itself was delivered fairly extemporaneously. If you watch it, it’s clear I’m going off the cuff and making lots of unforced errors.

But informal is good. No need to create highly polished videos. It helps you touch more effectively.

Next Steps: Have a plan to touch students (even informally) and keep them engaged, motivated, and connected, based on reminders, community-building, and follow-ups.

What about you? What are you doing to maintain these “touches”? Would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Thank you for sharing your tips Norman. I always concentrate on multi touch with the recruitment of colleges to our Ascender program but had not thought of this strategy as it pertains to student engagement. I will share with our teachers.

  • What a great reminder! Like this idea of thinking about touch points and that there are many ways and medium to do this. Thanks for posting.

  • Excellent post! I do the reminders, followups and pre-class banter but I liked the idea of video touch. Probably more effective than my emails.

  • This is very good information, it sort of puts a name to what I’ve been working on since the pandemic started and we moved to remote teaching and learning. I knew we wouldn’t be able to replicate the classroom experience, so I’ve included more team and individual ‘practical assignment activities’ and do at least one breakout room session in every class.
    As to actual efforts to ‘touch’ students, I try to populate an announcement with something other than coursework every so often. Now that I know there is value in planning my informal efforts to commend engage, I’ll look for additional ways to do so for the Spring semester.
    Great stuff👍

    • I appreciate this idea of populating announcements with non-academic stuff every once in a while. I’ve told students if it’s a nice day – to enjoy the weather!

  • Yes, I’m finding this to be absolutely critical in my online classes.
    Another really effective “touch” method is checking in with students individually. I know this is tough with lots of students but it really makes a difference.

  • I did do this with my students after Midterms!! But I didn’t do it “intentionally”…. I call mine the “MOM” talk! (I teach all young women) but I think this really is helpful, even for me. I want to be sure that the students and I are all on the same page and to remind them that we are now on the downhill side of the semester! Don’t run out of steam now, the end is in sight!!

    • Love the “mom” talk! Maybe I’ll call it the “dad” talk in my case. I think most of us do this to some extent automatically, but it is nice to make it intentional from a planning perspective. We can even think about what weeks to say certain things, or plan reminders the day before an assignment is due. Some of us may be able to do this intuitively and others may need that intentionality!

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