Online Learning: Creating a Caring Environment that Encourages Critical Thinking

By Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

The impact of the coronavirus is being felt everywhere.  As I write this, schools, colleges, and universities across the country are temporarily closed and planning to move classes to online instruction when they reopen. For faculty in nursing programs, this directive is manageable, as many face-to-face courses involve some level of interaction online. However, as I talk to faculty from across the country, I hear concerns regarding the loss of a caring learning environment among students and faculty in courses delivered only online. I also hear concerns that implementing teaching-learning strategies to stimulate critical thinking is more difficult in an online environment that in face-to-face instruction. Perhaps during this national emergency it would be helpful for all of us to think about “best practices” for online instruction, particularly those that involve creating a caring environment that encourages critical thinking.

A Caring Environment
Caring is a concept with many definitions, but in the context of online nursing courses, the definition that seems most appropriate is one developed by Sitzman and Leners (2006): “Caring is one person mindfully and appropriately attending to the spoken and unspoken needs of another.” To add clarity to this definition, Sitzman (2007) and colleagues reviewed the literature and compiled a list of faculty characteristics students identified as representing a caring faculty. These characteristics include:

These characteristics of a caring faculty are not surprising, but we must admit that they are easier to convey in a face-to-face classroom via voice, body language, and facial expression than in an online environment. So the question becomes:  “How can faculty demonstrate caring in an online environment, when the faculty and students are rarely, if ever, physically in the same place?”

Sitzman (2010) reports the result of a survey of RN-to-BSN students designed to determine what caring means to students enrolled in the online classroom setting. An analysis of the responses of 122 RN-to-BSN students led to the identification of several strategies that students believe demonstrate caring by online faculty. The ten most important strategies, designed to reduce the anxiety for students resulting from the unknown, include:

    • Write out and post clear instructions regarding schedules and due dates.
    • Provide students with a detailed class calendar that includes all due dates.
    • Responds to student postings and emails within 48-72 hours.
    • Post clear, written instructions regarding acceptable length/quality of required online communications. (For more information on instructions for students, see our post on student strategies for online success.)
    • Demonstrate respect for the learning process by exhibiting excellence in creating/presenting online content.
    • Provide supportive/corrective guidance to individual students via personal email or telephone rather than any public venue.
    • Express belief that students will be successful in the online setting and verbalize enthusiasm for learning.
    • Recount challenges experienced in the online classroom setting and share remedies.
    • When responding to student work, refer to specifics so that students know their work has been thoroughly read and evaluated.
    • Provide scheduled phone availability so that students know when the instructor will be available to speak to them. Note:  In today’s world with the availability of technology such as Zoom or Skype, face-to-face communication is also a viable option for communication with students.

An article in Nursing Education Perspectives by Reilly, Gallager-Lepak, and Dillion (2015) entitled “Me and My Computer”: Emotional Factors in Online Learning illustrates a significant student complaint of anxiety and isolation resulting from taking on-line courses. Students experience these emotions, which can be detrimental to their learning, because they don’t feel they are connected to a community. These authors implemented telephone focus groups to elicit students’ descriptions and perceptions of RN-to-BSN online courses in the Wisconsin state university system. Responses could be categorized into five themes related to a lack of community: aloneness, anonymity, nonverbal communication, trepidations, and unknowns. All of these themes give clues to strategies faculty can take to alleviate these negative feelings. Here are some specific suggestions to encourage a sense of community for online students.

Although developing a caring online environment benefits all students in the course, Sitzman (2016) has outlined cues that faculty may use to identify students who have a specific need for a caring intervention.  These cues were derived from a survey of 56 online nurse educators from twenty institutions in ten states. The survey elicited specific cues in the online setting that prompted faculty to initiate caring interventions with individual students. These cues included:

Critical Thinking
Providing a caring online environment sets the stage for ensuring that teaching-learning activities require application and analysis and ultimately effective critical thinking.  Several strategies stand out as particularly important to support these outcomes. For example, discussion boards can provide an opportunity for students to use their initial response as a springboard into deeper and more meaningful thinking (McDonald, 2018).

Faculty’s first job in structuring an effective discussion board is to identify content or activities that students must engage in in order to meet the course objectives. Secondly, the faculty must pose questions related to this content to encourage students to engage with the content. Because of the asynchronous nature of discussion boards, students have the opportunity to reflect upon their answer before they respond.

There are several types of questions that are effective in encouraging critical thinking. Similar questions can also support the ongoing discussion between the student and the faculty throughout the discussion process rather than simply saying “Good Job!” in response to students’ initial efforts (McDonald, 2018).

Another strategy to provide a sense of community for online students is group work. We can all identify the advantages of group work in preparing students for teamwork in the clinical area, including developing communication skills, building relationships with classmates, and increasing the level of collective competencies as each group member brings something different to the group. However, the challenge of promoting teamwork is even greater in online courses. Since most of the work in an online course occurs asynchronously, students may resist having to work with others on graded assignments.  Yet, students need experience in working with others online too.  Who knows what their future jobs may require?

Budhai (2016) outlines some strategies to effectively implement a group project in an online class including:

    1. Intentionally create teams to insure that each member can bring something different to the project. Getting to know your students as much as possible through introductions and responses in the discussion board can help you to intentionally make assignments.
    2. Keep groups small and odd-numbered (for example, three in a group). Small groups will make scheduling easier and an odd number makes decision-making easier.
    3. Set clear expectations for individual contributions.
    4. Create a virtual group space to allow the team to connect with one another and share ideas. The virtual space should include a discussion board, a file sharing area, and a space for live, real-time sessions or chat.
    5. Monitor online group space. Make it known that the faculty will be “present” within the virtual space, offering advice and feedback as necessary.
    6. Develop a peer feedback template and share it with students prior to the project. The constructs on the template can be based on key interpersonal skills that you are expecting students to exhibit throughout the team project.
    7. Assign both individual and team grades.

Online instruction will continue to be an important component of the faculty responsibilities. Certainly, we hope that the coronavirus will be contained in a timely manner.  However, online, asynchronous learning will remain an important part of our ability to reach a diverse group of students. I hope that these suggestions will help us all elevate our online teaching-learning activities to a high level.

In the meantime, stay safe and wash your hands!


Boettcher, JV (2013) Ten Best Practices for Quick Guide for new online Faculty: Design for Learning.  Accessed, March 2020.

Budhai, SS, (2016) Designing Effective Team Projects in Online Courses. Online Education Faculty Focus.  January 29.  Accessed, March, 2020.

McDonald, D. (2018) Critical Thinking in the Online Classroom.  Center for Teaching and Learning/ Wiley Education.  February 27. Accessed, March, 2020.

Reilly, JR, Gallagher-Lepak,R, Killion, C. (2015)“Me and my computer”:  Emotional Factors in Online Learning.  Nursing Education Perspectives.  33(2) March-April.  100-105.

Sitzman, K., Leners, DW, (2006) Student Perceptions of Caring on Online Baccalaureate Education.  Nursing Education Perspectives. 27(5) September-October. 254-259.

Sitzman, K. (2010) Student-Preferred Caring Behaviors for Online Nursing Education. Nursing Education Perspectives. 31(3) May-June. 171-176.

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