Increasing Student Success By Showing Students How Much You Care

When I was an undergraduate student studying to become a teacher, one of my professors, Coach Gettis Self, made a point to tell us multiple times every class that, ‘Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” He said it with such frequency that the class chimed in and said it with him aloud every time he began saying this to the class. Being so young and self-absorbed, believing we were going to change the world simply because we were in it, we arrogantly repeated his words of wisdom with him simultaneously out of orneriness.

Years later (and after the obvious truth had set in as to the difficult work of teaching and the fact that my classmates and I would not save the world with our mere presence) when I began to serve as a cooperating teacher hosting student teachers in my high school classroom, I found myself repeating this statement to the numerous pre-service teachers who studied under my supervision. When I moved to the university in 2015 and began teaching preservice teachers, one of the first concepts I wanted to cement in the minds of these future teachers was the importance of connecting with students and how critical it was to let their students know how much they care about them as individuals before they ever tried to teach the first piece of content.

Settling into my second decade of teaching, I can say with strong conviction that what Coach Self taught us in the mid-1990’s is still true today. I may even argue that it is of greater importance today than when I first entered the classroom in the late 1990’s as our students have incredible obstacles and challenges to overcome that are different than they were 20 years ago. Additionally, my generation was a more compliant one where we were raised to do what we were told and to not question authority figures under any circumstance – at least the people I knew and grew up with were raised in this fashion. More and more today it appears that students have to know how or why knowing or doing something is beneficial to them. My perspective could be off but this is how it appears from where I sit.

Despite the challenges of teaching an ever growing diverse population, there are a number of steps faculty can take to show students they care and want to help their students succeed. In this post, I would like to share five strategies faculty can and should use in every course without exception to send the message that you care.

1. Preparing the course. One of the most important steps a faculty member can take to show students they care is to put forth a significant amount of time in getting the course ready for students. When students log in to their course on the first day of the semester, the course should be complete and ready. All course content, assignments, assessments, etc. should be in the course and the course, from a development perspective, should be done. While there may be small edits and changes that need to be made throughout the semester, the course should be finalized and student-ready.

In preparing the course, faculty should work with university’s instructional designers or other instructional support staff, especially if they have not received extensive training on course design and pedagogy, to ensure their courses meet the current course delivery standards. The use of backward design, development and use of effective classroom assessments, implementation of the learning sciences, classroom management techniques and practices, as well as motivational and learning theories should all be properly used to prepare the course for students.

2. Making the learning experience meaningful. Ask yourself, ‘Why should students care about this lesson/lecture/assignment/topic?’ Answering this question will help you set the stage for learning by making the connection between what students are learning and why it is important to the goal of the course and/or their career goals. Additionally, thinking about why this lesson is important helps faculty identify ways to best situate students more closely to the real-world experience they are ready for at each stage of their learning.

The more relatable we can make the learning experience and the more intentional we are about explicitly telling students how the learning will benefit them, the more likely students will take the learning opportunity seriously. Let’s face it – in today’s fast-paced, Information Age, students are bombarded with distractions. Faculty must be diligent to thwart those distractions and help their students maintain their focus on achieving their goals of earning their degree and securing a job in their chosen industry.

3. Make failing safe. Think back to a time when you first learned something. Maybe it was a video game that you now love. Maybe it was how to parallel park. Or, maybe it was how to make pancakes. Did you get it right on your first attempt? Did you win the game, park the car perfectly, or make the perfect golden brown pancakes on your first attempt? Heck no! If you are like me, it took lots of practice and I still cannot make pancakes!

Faculty must create a space for students to get it wrong, for them to need to try and try again. Students need to feel as if it is okay to fail and that, more importantly, failure is vital to their learning.

So, how can faculty do this? That’s a great question and the answer is easier than one might think.

  1. Ask a lot of questions in class. Quiz students in class verbally or using some simple-to-use technology that allows for every student to submit a response. Then, provide the correct answer immediately. Doing so prevents students from continuing with their misinformation.
  2. Use retrieval practice activities. This is one of my favorite learning science principles, one that has over 100 years of empirical research that shows it improves learning. There are endless ways to do this and I write about a few of the ways I have done this in one of my classes in this post. Doing a search on Twitter will provide endless examples from educators all over the world. And don’t think you cannot use an idea from an elementary teacher in your higher ed class because you can! I steal ideas from elementary school teachers all the time!
  3. Allow multiple or unlimited attempts on quizzes and assignments. Whoa! Yep! You read it correctly! Isn’t the goal for students to learn? Or, is the goal to measure what students do not know? The latter is the mentality of a system of exclusion, for which I am not a supporter. I am a fan of creating a space so all students can succeed. Allowing students multiple or even unlimited attempts on quizzes and assignments is a strong way to show that you care about students.
  4. The objective is to learn. Particularly for novice learners, failure is a critical step in mastering foundational content that is important as their learning advances. The use of Productive Failure, an approach that requires learners to struggle (Steenhof, Woods, Gerven, & Mylopoulos, 2019), has been shown to better prepare students for future learning of new but related content.

The objective is to learn. Particularly for novice learners, failure is a critical step in mastering foundational content that is important as their learning advances. The use of Productive Failure, an approach that requires learners to struggle (Steenhof, Woods, Gerven, & Mylopoulos, 2019), has been shown to better prepare students for future learning of new but related content by assisting learners in obtaining the conceptual knowledge needed for future, more advanced learning concepts.

4. Provide Thoughtful & Timely Feedback. Another way to show students you care is by providing thoughtful and timely feedback on assignments and assessments. Nothing frustrates students more than not knowing where they stand in the class or thinking they are performing well only to find out near the end of the semester they are not performing as well as expected.

Providing feedback is another way of increasing student content knowledge. For students who performed well, this is a fantastic time to extend student understanding and advance their knowledge beyond the set standard in the course. However, when students do not perform as expected, this is a great time to correct misconceptions before they are strengthened further. Unlearning is actually more difficult than learning.

When teaching large classes, providing timely feedback can often be a challenge. I like to keep a spreadsheet with each assignment and the feedback already created for different levels of achievement. Typically, I will include additional comments per individual student, but at least I have the gist of what I want to be sure to share with all students depending upon their performance.

Below is an example of the way in which I organize my database of feedback per assignment and based upon performance level. Notice the positive and friendly nature of the feedback. This is one of the ways that I work to develop the growth mindset in my learners. For more information on Mindset, I recommend reading Carol S. Dweck’s 2016 edition of her book, Mindset – The New Psychology of Success.

Trick of the Trade. Notice the {FirstName} in each set of feedback. Within your Learning Management System (LMS), most systems will offer a list of strings such as {FirstName} that allows you to personalize the feedback, in this case, without having to type the student’s name individually. So I like to copy and paste this well-thought out feedback based upon what I want learners to know and be able to do at every juncture of the course. Now I can easily add a little individual feedback on top of this and students think I spent so much time giving them feedback, which I did do, but working smarter and not harder.

Quiz Feedback
Perfect ScoreA perfect score! Woo-hoo! Nice work, {FirstName}! This is great work! Although you have earned full credit for this quiz, I really want to encourage you to come back before taking the midterm and final exams and continue practicing this quiz. You will never lose your perfect score so no worries about your grade! Retaking quizzes is an excellent way to study for your exams and ensure that you have mastered the content! Yay! I’m so proud of YOU!!
Above AverageGreat job, {FirstName}! You are off to a great start!Keep working until you earn a perfect score! Plus, retaking quizzes is a great way to prepare for the midterm exam!
AverageThank you for taking this quiz, {FirstName}!I encourage you to continue working to improve your grade for this quiz until you are happy with the grade.Remember, you can take each quiz an unlimited number of times until 11:59 pm on the university study day (December 6, 2018). Retaking quizzes is a great way to study as well! Keep up the great work!
Below Average{FirstName},Keep your head up! I recommend that you read the chapter, take your notes, and practice the Kahoot!s before taking your quiz if you did not do those things already.If you did do those things and are unsure of how to help yourself perform better, consider changing up the way you take notes. Research has shown that taking what is called sketchnotes is a lot more beneficial to learning than the traditional outline-style notes we have taken for years. For more information, check out the Verbal to Visual site here:
Not Attempted{FirstName},Remember to take the assigned quizzes before class begins the following week. When you do not take the quiz, I will score the quiz as a zero until you take the quiz, at which time your grade will be updated to your new grade/score. No need to worry. So long as you take the quiz, your grade will surely improve. Let me know if you have any questions or if you need any help!
Not SavingYour grade has not come through because you did not save a couple of your answers. Please go in and save the answer so the grade can be submitted. Until this is done, your grade will show up as a zero in the grade book.

5. Frequent & Consistent Communication. In all relationships, communication is key to the quality of that relationship. Similarly, faculty should see educating learners as a relationship as well. The relationship is one of where the learner depends heavily upon the instructor to take the lead on setting most of the parameters of the relationship. For example, an instructor might have firm office hours or only allow communications via email.

One of the best ways to establish the communication parameters in this learner-instructor relationship is through the use of a Welcome Email. A well thought out friendly Welcome Email can set the tone for the semester and let students know before the semester begins that you are a caring instructor.

A Welcome Email is also a fantastic time to collect a little demographic information about your incoming learners, which will help you be a better instructor for this particular class as each class is different and instructors should adjust as needed to the needs of each set of students. Below is an example of the Welcome Email I sent out to my Intro to Exercise Physiology students for the Spring 2018 semester.

Hi, all!! Welcome to ESMS 3700, Introduction to Exercise Physiology. 

I am very excited to have you in this class and look forward to getting to know you better this spring. 

In the past, many students have struggled with this course so I wanted to take a few minutes to share some information with you about the course so you could have a little extra time to get prepared for the semester. Please read this email carefully and let me know if you have any questions. 

First, do know that I have designed this course with you, the student, at the center! 

This course is designed to allow you to be successful. Please make no mistake –  the content in this course is rather challenging, especially if you are new to the material, and you will have to work hard to learn and be successful. However, I think I have designed the course in such a way as to put the student in control of their final grade, but more importantly, their learning. 

With this in mind, please take a few minutes to complete the student information survey to help me learn more about you and to help me make the final preparations for the upcoming semester. 

Follow the link below to complete the survey. 

Please read through the syllabus carefully as you will be quizzed on it the first day of class. I will not read the syllabus to you in class. We will play a Kahoot! game (so please download Kahoot and Nearpod to your phone prior to coming to class on Wednesday, January 17, 2018), which is part of your grade and one of three ways to earn bonus points. 

We will get into groups for your class project and get started with learning right away on the first day of class. 

Kahoot will also be used to take attendance so if you do not join the game, you will be considered absent. 

Course Syllabus: (Pay careful attention to how you will be graded. Do note that you will take a quiz after each class that has new content. Each quiz will be delivered inside of eCourseware and will consist of 30 questions (15 from the current day’s lesson and 15 questions randomly pulled from all the previous quiz banks from previous lessons/quizzes). Students can take each quiz an unlimited number of times, keeping your highest grade earned. Quizzes are worth 30% of your total grade! FThqwIQzmc24BHcJymVbUHPbbs/edit?usp=sharing

Preview Group Project: (I am only sharing the first page of the project guidelines until I finalize a couple of things on the details page. This project will bring the content we will learn to life. Your group will work with a live client and will work together to create a website that demonstrates your learning and growth.) LCpQmfvqE/edit?usp=sharing 

I think the information above covers some of the bigger topics that students always want to know. Please feel free to email me if you have questions! 

Happy Learning! 

Niki Bray, Ed.D. 

Instructor & Instructional Designer School of Health Studies Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) The University of Memphis 
Go Tigers!

One of the best ways to communicate with learners on a frequent and consistent manner is through the use of your LMS’ course homepage. Most courses offer a homepage that will allow the instructor to post messages to learners. Using the News widget allows all students to stay abreast of the latest updates in your course. I also send the exact same message to students using the university’s email just as a way to increase the likelihood of each learner seeing my message. Here are a couple examples of messages I left for students on the News section of our course homepage.

Example of a message posted to the course homepage for my Spring 2018 Intro to Exercise Physiology course.
Example of a message posted to the course homepage for my Spring 2018 Intro to Exercise Physiology course.

Although there are many more, these five strategies can help you create a climate and culture in your class that lets learners know you care about them. For many learners, all they need is just one faculty member somewhere throughout their program to show an interest and belief in them to help them increase their own self-confidence. I encourage you to take every opportunity to let students know you care through word and deeds.

As we embark on the Fall 2020 semester with so many unknowns ahead of us, learners need all the support we are capable of giving them. Remove the fear of failure in your class. Make sure students know how much you care by the way you prepare the course, ensure that their experience is meaningful and safe to take risks by providing thoughtful and timely feedback in a consistent and frequent manner.


Published by Dr. Niki Bray

Director of Academic Innovation & Student Success in the School of Health Studies at the University of Memphis. ePortfolio: Email: Twitter: @adaptivechat Instagram: nikibray1 Facebook: Niki Bray LinkedIn: niki-bray

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