The Power of Instructor Presence

What do we mean when we say “Instructor Presence?”

“Instructor Presence” has become another buzzword in both popular articles on online education and student critiques of their online courses. How might we define it? A good working definition for this term comes from Kassinger (2004): “[instructor presence is]  the instructor’s interaction and communication style and the frequency of the instructor’s input into the class discussions and communications.” [Read more about what students say are important indicators of instructor presence in this article from the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching]

Many other definitions of instructor presence highlight specific actions and interactions that all fall within the realm of humanization and connection. In talking about “instructor presence” in our online courses, we aren’t just trying to replicate some of the humanizing interactions in face-to-face courses (such as: eye contact, nodding, and casual banter). We’re also talking about intentionally creating moments of exchange, feedback, and personal framing for the learning that our students experience.

Why should we work to build this in our online courses?

Simply put, building your presence in your online course helps your students perform better. Students in online courses, especially asynchronous ones, can express frustration and dismay at having to “teach themselves.” Researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University have shown that in online courses with relatively low interaction between instructors and students, students earn nearly an entire letter grade below those in courses with high interpersonal interaction. 

Read more about their findings in this short paper. 

So what can I do, QUICKLY?

  • Clear, consistent communication about your course is one of the things that students value the most in their end-of-semester evaluations, and it goes a long way towards building a sense of presence. What things do students need to know about your course prior to starting it? What things do students need to be reminded of at regular intervals? Where in a unit or module do you often need to send small bits of encouragement? Creating a plan for this communication at the beginning of the semester can be hugely beneficial for your students, both to help keep them on track with deadlines and to remind them that you, their instructor, are there for them if they need support. Review your syllabus, and the UD academic calendar, and make some reminders to send emails or make announcements at regular intervals and key moments in your courses.
  • Reflect on your own capacity for connection and engagement during stressful times. Some instructors have found that incorporating mindfulness practices into their courses has improved their connection with students, as well as their own wellbeing. For others, intentional flexibility in either course structure or assignments significantly reduces anxiety for both instructors and students. These considerations are part of being intentional about your connection with students, and will create a sense of meaningful, authentic, and honest instructor presence in your course. Read more about the value of “slowing down” and being present in your courses here.
  • Plan ahead for student feedback. With multiple courses and hundreds of students, plus research and service loads, it can be extremely challenging to offer all of your students detailed feedback. But not providing feedback at all, or offering it too late, can leave students feeling alienated and hinder their ability to improve their skills in future assignments. As you plan your courses with student workloads in mind, also consider when you can block off regular intervals of time to keep on track with student feedback. Consider engaging the teaching support services offered by the library, as librarians can help provide feedback to students on research topics or questions about information resources.
  • Make sure your materials are current. In some cases, there are good pedagogical reasons to use previous classroom recordings of lectures, or older articles or course resources, and these can be contextualized for students. But if your course materials are largely made up of older classroom recordings, students will be less responsive to it, less engaged in the class, and may feel more distanced from you.