It’s no secret the phrase “customer service” has a mixed reputation in higher ed. Are students “customers,” or is their relationship with their professors and their alma mater fundamentally distinct from buyers in a marketplace? Luckily, it is possible to set aside these philosophical questions and focus on ways to improve your students’ experience, no matter how you feel about the concept of customer service in our field.
Whether you teach face-to-face or online, the following standards are important ways to build a good relationship with your students:
- Be clear and honest about your expectations. Providing behavioral expectations, accurate information about policies (late work and extra credit for example), and clear objectives/outcomes for your class will give your students a much better idea what to expect from you. Once you’ve told them what you want, make sure to apply these expectations consistently.
- Do what you say you are going to do. Sticking to this standard can be harder than it seems. For while, in the abstract of syllabus construction, it might seem easy to meet a one-week turnaround for grading, real life can make stacks of bluebooks seem higher and time go faster than you imagined. Even so, keep to your stated turnaround times as best you can. If you must miss one, update your class and stick to your revised schedule. In addition, meet your class on time, come prepared, and answer your emails and your phone.
- Know something about your students’ experience. For example, do you know the actual cost of the required materials for your class? Going to the university bookstore and not relying on a publisher rep’s price quotes will remind you what it’s like to be a student, and also give you an idea if buying used books is even an option for your class. Once your course is underway, get to know your class: do your students work? Play sports? Will they be in the upcoming play? If you cultivate an interest in your students’ experience, you’ll create ties with them, and over time you’ll have a better idea about what they need to know.
In addition to these general tips, if you are teaching online, your students have some special challenges to address, and you can help them do that.
- Provide clear instructions about how to begin. Face-to-face classes have the advantage of centuries of social expectations, and your students have had a lifetime of training in those expectations. Online classes are different. We do not have much of a history upon which to build expectations about online course construction, and courses can vary significantly one to the next. Wichita State, like many other universities, offers optional course templates to help, but even if you construct your own organizational scheme, remember to add a “start here” (or similarly named) area so your students all know how to get started.
- Be scrupulous about getting back to students via email, in-class discussion, and other contact methods. Because your online students can’t just come up to you after class, the relationship you have with them online is automatically a little bit distanced. You can decrease the gap by giving them very clear information about your communication turnaround time and then sticking to that standard no matter what.
- Remember, a typed comment is forever. In a face-to-face class, an off-hand remark or a light joke at someone’s expense can add to the texture and richness of your contact with your students. But online, that can be different because those off-hand remarks can be revisited by your students over the course of several days. It pays to take a moment to think about the consequences of small jokes in your class and make sure they are likely to be experienced in the way you intend, even if they are read multiple times.
In the end, basic customer service is nothing more than applying the “golden rule” when thinking about students, and the key to making that work is clear and accurate communication.