Expectation and compassion: two sides of the coin for successful learning outcomes

Celia Ann Evans explains how instructors can balance compassion with high expectations to guide students to better learning gains

Celia Ann Evans's avatar
Cornell University
18 May 2021
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Balancing compassion with high expectations for better learning outcomes

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Effective teaching requires both expectation and compassion. At first glance, these components might appear mutually exclusive, but they are not. Successful outcomes require both.

In any learning environment, expectation and compassion are more mutually reliant than mutually exclusive. The literature on teaching and learning shows that high expectations result in better gains for students. But online teaching has highlighted that students lead varied, complex lives behind their cameras, and that meeting study requirements can be stressful, so they also need care and support.

The best teaching is a dynamic balance between expectation and compassion. Clearly articulating expectations in terms of commitments, deadlines, quality of process, communication and mutual respect is a compassionate practice. It should include expectations for both students and the teacher.

Sharing your vision for roles and responsibilities in the classroom, or for working together, can create a clearer path to success. In an excellent blog, educational developer Sarah Fulmer uses a conversation from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland between Alice and the Cheshire Cat to illustrate the value of sharing the path you expect to tread with your students. Knowing and reflecting on where they are going makes it more likely they, together with you, will find the most efficient path to get there.

Why you should set a clear roadmap of learning


Keeping expectations high

  • Setting clear expectations early in the course will provide a road map. Be sure that students know your expectations for participation and engagement and understand the rules for respectful online synchronous and asynchronous communication.

  • Involve students in the conversation about expectations. This creates buy-in. Create learning contracts that can be referred to as the semester goes on.

  • Use the syllabus as a guideline and a road map. Clearly incorporate your shared expectations in the syllabus. This may mean that the syllabus comes out in the second class, or is adapted for the second class, so that the students can see their ideas incorporated.

  • Start the practices for expecting and creating student engagement as soon as possible. Active learning is shown in many studies to improve learning outcomes. This can be challenging for shy students; but with time and familiarity, participation happens.

Compassion within the framework of high expectation

Build community and inclusivity

  • Use icebreakers regularly, at the beginning or in the middle of your online sessions, or both depending on the length.

  • Learn your students’ names, and have them learn each other’s names.

  • Help students create study groups; and in group work be sure to clarify, use prompts and use peer evaluation tools that allow students to give respectful feedback to each other and reflect on their own participation.

Chunk and scaffold difficult concepts

  • Guide students to master “chunks” using feedback from you and their peers, when appropriate.

  • Once a topic is complete, use concept or mind maps to help students reflect and build the bigger picture from the pieces.

  • Teach and model a growth mindset. Students who believe that they can grow their skills are more likely to improve their knowledge and skills over time, research has shown.

Provide flexibility

  • Use windows of time for handing in assignments rather than set deadlines.

  • For discussions, use asynchronous spaces such as Jamboard and Canvas discussion boards to allow students time to collect their thoughts.

  • Ask students to discuss with peers before sharing responses to more complex questions. This creates more learning opportunities and decreases anxiety for many students.

  • Offer choices for modes of response during classes such as writing in the live chat, unmuting the microphone, writing on a whiteboard, using a shared online document or using polls.

  • Offer choices, where possible, for the format of assignments such as written, audio or video.

Gather and give feedback

  • Gather formative feedback from students, multiple times throughout a semester.

  • Take time to gather student feedback with respect to whether learning objectives were met at the end of each lesson.

  • Invite students to provide feedback on what is going well for them and what is not.

  • Have students share reflection and feedback in ways that allow all to contribute. Simply asking if everyone understands will not generate inclusive feedback. Timely and specific feedback is critical.

  • Create private, safe ways for students to contact you offline to discuss challenges or other concerns.

Expectations without clarity, buy-in or feedback is a recipe for student and teacher confusion and frustration. Compassion truly is key, but without the accompanying expectations that help students be their best and make the most of their learning opportunities, it will not engender learning. These two concepts must be linked in online learning.

Celia Ann Evans is associate director for engineering learning initiatives at Cornell College of Engineering, Cornell University.


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