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Gotham Leadership Consulting
  New York City, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale & Singapore

The Trials and Tribulations of Text-Only Teaching

As an industrial/organizational psychologist, I’ve often found myself in the role of a teacher. Throughout the years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach in several different contexts, including traditional college lecturing, one-on-one in-person teaching, as well as conducting individual and group training within organizational settings, both in-person and remotely via conference calls.

Recently, in preparation for re-entering the academic world via being an online professor, I decided to engage in online tutoring. Within the tutoring service that employs me, most tutoring occurs via chat—i.e., texting without any visual or phone contact.

Challenges Presented by Text-Only Tutoring/Teaching

I’ve found that although the general principles of effective teaching apply to online tutoring, this context also presents some interesting challenges.

Absence of contextual cues from the student

Texting deprives the teacher of contextual information that is present during other types of interactions. Online, we can’t see each other’s facial expressions (which are also absent during phone conversations), or hear each other’s voices. During a face-to-face or phone interaction, a student may answer affirmatively to a teacher’s check for understanding, while actually conveying uncertainty through a tentative, non-confident tone. When texting, there’s really no way to know whether a simple “yes” response is actually a confident “yes” or a shaky “yes,” unless we probe further.

Absence of contextual cues from the teacher

The lack of contextual cues works both ways, as the teacher is unable to express him/herself through tone of voice or facial expression. Because those cues are absent, it is easier for the student to misunderstand the teacher, or interpret as condescending something that the teacher actually meant to be encouraging and supportive. Furthermore, the teacher is deprived of some tools that he/she might normally use to engage the student, such as eye contact and a lively, enthusiastic tone of voice.

The less responsive student

A less responsive student can be a challenge under any circumstances, but the challenge is compounded within an online context, because the teacher may have no clue as to why the student isn’t responding. Furthermore, in a text-only conversation a student can easily multitask and become distracted from a tutoring session, given the fact the teacher is not there to observe the student, and online communication typically involves some pauses.

I’ve found myself waiting on a response from a student, trying to picture what’s happening on the student’s end. “Is he reading through a book trying to find the answer? Maybe he’s multitasking. Perhaps he’s talking to a buddy. Did he go off to the kitchen to grab a twinkie? Is he having problems with his connection? Maybe he’s just staring at his computer screen in befuddlement…”

It’s not easy to effectively deal with non-responsiveness if you don’t know why it’s occurring in the first place. Moreover, if the long pauses keep happening, it’s easy for a teacher to start getting frustrated and ultimately lose patience, which in turn gets in the way of his/her ability to effectively teach.

Effective Text-Only Teaching

Over time, I’ve found myself dealing with the above-mentioned challenges by modifying how I teach. All of the tips below are based on principles that apply to teaching in general, but are especially helpful in—and/or can be modified for—situations in which visual and audio communication are unavailable.

Frequently Checking In

An effective way to avoid a one-sided conversation while ensuring that the student is “getting it” is to regularly check in with the student to confirm understanding. “Is this making sense so far?” This is particularly helpful when teaching students who are less communicative. Also, when there are long pauses, don’t hesitate to ask questions to find out what is going on.

Some online tutoring services have guidelines for discontinuing a session after several minutes of complete non-responsiveness, after warnings have been provided to the student. I find this to be a helpful policy; knowing that there are consequences for continued non-responsiveness motivates the student to take my time seriously and avoid multitasking.

Using Available Online Tools

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Some online tutoring services offer tools besides messaging, such as whiteboards that allow the teacher to draw, graphing applications, etc. Getting yourself familiar with these tools and using them when possible will help to keep students engaged, and will allow you to provide information in ways that would not be possible through texting alone (but would be available in a face-to-face setting).

Expressions of Encouragement

Given the lack of tools such as eye contact and tone of voice, direct expressions of encouragement and praise are particularly important in an online setting, to help motivate and engage the student. These expressions help to foster an environment that feels supportive rather than condescending to the student. I tend to also use (positive) emoticons for this purpose; when used effectively they can help to create a friendly atmosphere for the student.

Requiring the Student to Do the Work and Testing His/Her Knowledge

This is, of course, applicable to teaching face-to-face or over the phone as well. I find that it works very well in conjunction with the check-ins. If I ask a student whether or not he’s understanding the material I just taught, and the answer is affirmative, I often follow up with a question to test whether he really ‘gets it.’ This is typically a more effective check for understanding than the simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
When tutoring a course such as statistics, I will often teach in chunks. I will teach the concept needed to solve the next step in the homework problem, then having the student apply the knowledge by solving that part of the problem him/herself. Then I move onto the next part of the problem. This approach keeps the student consistently engaged, while testing his/her knowledge regularly.

Offering Hints

Oftentimes, a student will become non-responsive when being asked to solve a problem or part of a problem, indicating a struggle to find the correct answer. While the easiest/quickest course of action is simply to provide the answer that the student can’t seem to find, a better option is to offer hints that guide the student towards figuring out the answer. I often find that with this approach, a formerly non-responsive student becomes a lot more talkative. If a student is really struggling, I often offer a series of increasingly obvious hints that guide the student closer and closer to the answer.

Applying Sound Teaching Principles to Alternate Contexts

Most or all of these techniques can be helpful in any teaching situation that does not involve face-to-face contact, such as phone-based coaching sessions. I find that the general principles of effective teaching are the same no matter the environment. Consideration of how those principles can best be applied to a particular context—along with some patience—will go a long way towards ensuring effective teaching.