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Words of Advice for Online Students

Dr. Tara Jernigan Written by Dr. Tara Jernigan

VSA faculty member Tara Jernigan wrote the following excerpt for her students, and invited us recently to share more broadly in hopes that these practical tips would bless many VSA families. Enjoy! - Dr. Bob Cannon

Coming up on final exams in so many school contexts has me thinking about what advice I would give to today's college and seminary students.  A word from the other side of the desk or computer screen, perhaps, is in order.  So if the reader would allow me to be so bold: 

A word of advice for students (especially online students, especially my online students):

1.  Do not be afraid to ask questions.  Ask me to clarify an assignment or an idea.  Your success is my success, quite literally in this field.   Your questions enable me to succeed and my answers should do the same for you.  An instructor who doesn't understand the difference between being an active question-asker and being a nuisance has no business teaching human beings.

2.  Do not be afraid to disagree and read critically.  Your grade may be lowered by knee-jerk responses, but a well thought out and crafted disagreement should be respected by any instructor who hopes some day to welcome some of his students as peers and colleagues.  You do not have to love the textbook I assigned.  In fact, I may not have loved it either to have considered it important for you to read.  

3.  Show your enthusiasm.  Students who are excited about the material and want to discuss it with their professors and classmates are not pests, they're why we are excited to start work every day.  Be one!

4.  Turn in papers early and often.  If your instructor has time to give you feedback before the due date (we don't always, but many of us will try) take it!  Papers where the instructor has invested his time and expertise will always be better papers and be more kindly graded. 

5.  Engage your senses.  When material is hard to understand, read it out loud.  It slows you down and engages both the eyes and the ears in reading so that your brain can marinate more in the material.  Best advice I ever got from the meanest professor I ever endured. 

6.  Seek relationship.  Even (perhaps especially) in online classes.  Don't just come to class, do your thing and leave.  Connect with your classmates.  Kvetch with them if you like.  It lets you know you weren't the only one who found that last quiz to be a challenge, that last paper a bear.  Stay after class to ask the prof a question if you have one.  Find a study buddy, even if that person is in another state or country.  Read your instructor's and fellow students' biographies in their online profiles; learn what you have in common outside of class.  Connections like that will keep you at the table when the going gets rough. 

7.  If at first you don't succeed, swallow your pride and ask what you did wrong.  Teachers who "bleed" all over your papers do so because they care enough to see you do a better job next time.  If you don't get timely feedback from your instructor, it is your right and responsibility to request it.

8.  Not all red ink is criticism.  I love to talk to my students in the margins of their papers.  Some of it is a serious show of enthusiasm.  And I do grade in red.  I'm old school, and I like my words to stand out.  Don't just look at the final grade and the length of comments and toss the paper aside.  I cared enough to read your paper, you can care enough to read my comments. 

9.  Despite the old saying, it is better to ask permission than forgiveness.  If you need an extension on a paper ask for one, don't just turn it in late.  If you have a serious cause, many instructors are gracious and will work with you so that you can keep the standard of the course and your sanity, both.  Do not expect a free ride, but in serious cases you can expect us to facilitate your best work.  If you ask, the worst that can happen is a "no."  If you don't ask, the best that can happen is a late penalty.

10.  Google with caution.  The internet is a vast clearinghouse for material that could not be legitimately published anywhere else.  There are some amazing resources out there, but also a lot of junk.  Online students often suffer from a lack of access to a good scholarly library and good internet resources can be like finding a needle in a haystack.  Ask your instructor for trustworthy direction and for goodness sake stay off of Wikipedia.