In the biological and social sciences, the phenomenon known as the Butterfly Effect describes how tiny small changes in the system leads to very large changes or differences in the system. There is a Butterfly Effect principle at work in nontraditional education — and especially, though not exclusively, in online courses — that relates to student satisfaction in their course experience.

Here’s the principle: the better your quality of communication as an instructor, the greater satisfaction your students are likely to report in your course

I have been studying the data from student course evaluations from the last couple of years. While I always take these with a grain of salt, one important trend worth paying attention to is emerging. One factor more significantly accounts for students being highly satisfied with their experience in a course: communication [1]. Notably, it is not the grade received, or how easy or hard they thought the professor was, or how much they like the material. Instead, communication from the instructor had the greatest influence on whether students reported being satisfied with their experience in the course. This communication occurs in two places: clarity of expectations and timeliness of faculty response.

Clarity of Expectations

Students want to be know what is expected of them in the course, especially regarding graded work. This is less about what is in the syllabus or on grading rubrics and more about your expectations as the instructor. Prebuilt rubrics are usually not specific enough or individualized enough to answer that question. Students are all too aware that expectations can vary from one instructor to the next in spite of what a prepackaged rubric might say. Part of what they are actually looking for  is what you as an individual instructor are thinking and looking for in their work, especially big projects or papers. Think of it this way: they read the syllabus or the rubric knowing it says one thing but wondering if you are thinking something different.

They are also concerned with your general expectations for the class and your overall approach to grading, although students rarely realize they can always ask. I have written elsewhere about the importance and value of producing your own grading philosophy and sharing it with the class early on. A good grading philosophy that is well-written, understandable, and communicated up front to the students goes a long way in establishing clear expectations for them at the beginning of the course.

Another easy way to clarify expectations on specific assignments is to provide a short personal note at the beginning of the week. Here, you can just briefly review the instructions for particular assignment and provide a little bit of commentary about how you are going to be grading it and what you are looking for. I have done this in the past, often doing little more than reading through instructions and providing a few tips or clarification about what they should do. In a face-to-face class, I’ll do this several weeks before the assignment is due. In an online course, I’ve sometimes done it via video and other times in written form–I strongly recommend a video or audio announcement. You can also host a virtual conference using something like Zoom or Skpy and invite students to join as you walk them through what your expectations are. Whatever the format, every time I’ve done it, the student response to that preview of the assignment was very significant. Students tended to do much better and complain a lot less. You can do this as a one-time thing for assignments that repeat throughout the course, such as discussion postings, reflection papers, weekly summaries, and the like. However, you approach it, this is 5 to 10 minutes well spent for both you and the student.

Timeliness of faculty response

The more critical of the two components of quality faculty communication is the timeliness of your response to student inquiries or questions. Here’s the catch: A timely response usually means a matter of a few hours. In most cases, the faster the better. Experienced online instructors understand that students in an accelerated course need feedback from the work and previous week so that they can make adjustments and turn workaround for the current week very quickly.

The policy in many online or accelerated adult programs is for faculty to respond to student inquiries within 24 hours. But this is the maximum, not the recommendation. The drawback to this is that it can often create a set of unrealistic expectations that the faculty member should always be on a short lease.

Practically speaking, I recommend trying to respond to most questions within just a few hours or at least on the same day, if at all possible. Now, this may be nothing more than just an acknowledgment that you receive their message and that you will have to follow up later, but at least respond with something. That tells the student your listening, that they are on your radar, and that you will follow up with them. This is for your benefit as well as the student’s satisfaction. My personal goal is to at the very least respond to the student within 2 hours with some kind of acknowledgement that I’e gotten their message and will follow up when I’ve had more time to investigate their question. If its easy, I can usually answer it right then.

However, when students reach out to you and a day or two goes by, it creates a great deal of frustration. From the standpoint of expectations management and student satisfaction, committing to a goal to respond within a few hours buys you a great deal of flexibility and appreciation.

Guiding the way

There are many factors tha involved in being an effective online instructor. But in our current climate of information overload, digital static, busy lives, cramped schedules, and competing priorities, no faculty behavior  has greater potential to influence student satisfaction than communication. So let me summarize my suggestions:

  1. clarify, specify, and share your grading philosophy at the very beginning of class and talk about it frequently early on
  2. take the time to provide assignment – specific preview commentary, at least on big items that carry a big class grade
  3. have a goal of responding to student inquiries within two hours, even if it’s just to acknowledge the message and set up a later commitment to respond further
  4. be personal, listening, attentive to student needs and situations, and positively challenging and encouraging and all of your communication with students

If you implement these four suggestions above, student satisfaction scores will certainly go up. However, our ultimate concern is not what students say on their student evaluation forms, but what actually happens in the lives and learning of students. We know from many different research findings in higher education that faculty engagement — with communication at its heart — is one of the most important factors for whether students complete their program and eventually graduate. If faculty communication is a major contributor to student satisfaction, then your small changes in these relatively simple areas above have the potential to lead to significantly larger effects in the form of students crossing the stage at graduation. So embrace the power of the butterfly effect and communicate well!

[1] See Jackson, L., S. Jones, & R. Rodriguez. (2010). Faculty actions that result in student satisfaction in online courses. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 14(4). Accessed Nov. 2016.