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Psychological Climate In An Online Course

“We had started calling the program the “The Revolving Door,” because things had gotten so bad. Students would take a few classes, disappear, and then reappear. We never had any idea why.” Kelsen, the manager of the department’s online programs was describing the situation in the office. The tension in her voice was notable, and she twisted a piece of paper in her hands.
“It didn’t make sense. Enrollments were at an all-time high, we were getting all sorts of positive publicity, and we had been approved for an increased budget. We had money for more activities, online textbooks, faculty training. But, the students did not seem to be happy.”
Why is morale bad when online courses are getting better and better? Many institutions experiencing a boom in their online course enrollments are confronting this issue. Because of the rapid growth and rate of change that characterize most online learning programs, morale within the student body may be very low. No one knows about it until it’s too late. Vroom’s expectancy theory helps explain it, as does the concept of “psychological climate.” This article explores the theory and applies it to the online learning program.
For many years, V.H. Vroom’s 1964 classic, Work and Motivation, has been pointed to as a model for how the expectations that individuals have of their workplace, their coworkers, and their employer, can deeply influence motivation. In the second edition of Work and Motivation, Vroom writes that “the choices made by person among alternative courses of action are lawfully related to psychological events occurring contemporaneously within the behavior” (Vroom 1982: 14-15). In other words, there are psychological “laws” that govern the way a person feels and acts.
Kelsen’s experience supported what Vroom found. “It starts with students starting to email their advisors. They start by blaming the recruiter. Later, they say it’s not like the experiences they have with FaceBook MySpace, and their iPhones. The were hoping for something like the things they’re used to.”
“In the past, though, students had low expectations. They were always happy — perhaps because they found the courses better than they thought they would. Now, in the age of iPhones and BlackBerry, everyone thinks they should be able to access their courses any time, any place. They also expect raw, spontaneous video clips, like the ones you might find in YouTube.”
Vroom goes on to articulate his “expectancy theory”: “The force motivating a person to exert effort or to perform an act in a job situation depends on the interaction between what the individual wants from a job (valence) and the degree to which he/she believes that the company will reward effort exerted (expectancy) on that job with the things he/she wants. Individuals believe that if they behave in a certain way (instrumentality), they will receive certain job features (Vroom 1982).” This definitely helps explain why it is so important to not arouse expectations unnecessarily, and that if managed well, expectations can be huge motivators, and can connect to one’s behavior and/or performance.
Recent studies have expanded Vroom’s expectancy theory, and have pointed out that expectations have a great deal to do with how the “psychological climate” is formed in the workplace, classroom, or even virtual meeting space. The psychological climate, which can be positive or negative, is made up of various aspects which contain expectations. Lawler and Suttle (1973) developed various categories of expectations, and many researchers, such as Darden, Hampton and Howell (1989) and Sims, Szilagyi, and McKerney (1976), further connected them to leadership qualities. According to Litwin and Stringer (1966), leadership style is critical in managing expectations and one of the most important determinants of psychological climate.
In 1988, researchers Good and Sisler conducted a study of individuals in retailing to determine the components of psychological climate. Here are the resulting categories:
Note that these can also apply to online learning.
Role clarity
Role harmony
Task autonomy
Task variety and challenge
Task importance
Role assignment
When Kelsen heard the description of psychological climate, she gave a wry smile. “Yes, that’s precisely it. We have a very toxic psychological climate. I’m not proud of it, but that’s what it is. I’d like to know what to do.”
She also related to later studies. For example, Woodard, Casill, and Herr (1994) completed a study which required employees to rank the components of psychological climate and to assign relative importance to each one. The results are strikingly applicable to the management of an online program team which includes support staff, administrative personnel, faculty, and administration. Here they are, with comments that make connections between the original results and apply them to the online learning organization:
#1 — Role Assignment: Team members are given sufficient time, training, and resources are provided to perform an assigned task so that it is clear what outcome is expected of them.
#2 — Role Harmony: Student receives information about what is expected of him or her in the execution of the job, and it is compatible with job expectations; and later, when detailing the behaviors involved in the performance of the job, expected behaviors are consistent with the employee’s understanding of the job. The expectations, requirements, and desired outcomes are clearly spelled out and updated regularly. Models of successful behaviors and outcomes are provided.
#3 — Role Clarity: Expected role behaviors have been clearly defined to the employee, and everyone involved has the same expectation.
#4 — Organizational Identification: In reviewing his or her role in the organization, the student believes his/her organization performs an important function, and in doing so, offers unique opportunities for growth and reward, resulting in the fact that the employee takes pride in the organization. Risk-taking is encouraged, and if an idea does not work, team members are encouraged to explore how their expectations were different than the outcome, and how lessons learned can help salvage or repurpose the results.
#5 — Leader Goal Emphasis and Work Facilitation: The instructor encourages and stimulates individuals to become personally involved in meeting learning goals by stressing high performance standards, creating an atmosphere that rewards high performance, and then participating in the work himself or herself, therefore setting an example. The leaders does not co-opt or deliberately outperform the individuals.