The ways in which we serve our students has changed over recent years. Distance education has become a pillar in most public higher education institutions and a staple in most college students’ academic path. According to the 2015 Survey of Online Learning, conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), there has been a year-to-year increase of 3.9% in the number of distance education students. Now, more than one in four students take at least one distance education course in the pathway to graduation. Public institutions have the largest portion of distance education students. Online education is now a critical part of most colleges and universities’ long term strategy. If more students are choosing to take online courses than ever before, why are we losing 10% - 20% more per term than traditional classes?
Student retention is a long standing and complex issue. My research on college retention brought me to core theories regarding student departure, from experts such as Braxton, Sullivan, and Tinto. Most of the research explained student retention at the institutional level as it all starts with student entry. There are a total of 6 main factors that influence student retention. Those we’ll save for another post. However, from those 6 factors there have been retention program evaluations created based on 3 principles:
The measurement of these 3 principles indicate effective retention programs and policies. My ending research question was if retention is an institution-wide initiative with multiple factors, what can an individual instructor do to combat the low retention rate in her own online class?
I’ve created 4 practical components instructions can routinely add to their own online courses that directly aligned with the stated effective retention evaluation principles. Then included practical strategies for each component.
1. Clear Communication
As most retention research states, it all starts with student entry characteristics. First impressions count. Every college course begins with the course syllabus. Your clear course communication starts here. This document holds course information, policies, expectations, and student outcomes. In order to reach all of your students at their learning style, create a visual and/or auditory representation of the syllabus content, especially your course policies. For example consider creating an infographic that can be used in more than one course to express clear policies.
Just as every student’s raised hand in a traditional class is valued, every student message should be valued the same in an online class. Through social and connective learning theories, we know that students can’t just learn in vacuum. Consider every student message/e-mail a connection opportunity. Connection to the course content, learning concepts, or just to you, the instructor. Make a commitment to your students that you’ll reply to their messages with a 24 hour period. This creates a sense of real support and builds trust between the student and his instructor.
2. Instructor Presence
The difference between a correspondence course and an online learning course - instructor presence. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, a welcome video allows your students to see their instructor and connect a name to a real face. Start your course by adding this human factor to your online learning environment.
Basic online learning course design starts the first week with an introduction forum. Often times, students report a lack of connection to their reason of departure. So, this staple assignment is the perfect opportunity to connect with each one of your students. Your response does not have to be long, just personal. Not only can you connect with each of your students, but you can also take this opportunity to create connections between classmates… creating the start of a learning community. Student-to-instructor and student-to-student engagement are 2 of the 3 pillars of online learning domains of engagement. Students are people who need connection and to feel that there is someone caring about them and their success.
Weekly announcements are not anything new to online instructors. However, after many conversations with my fellow colleagues, I understand the frustration they face of students not reading announcements. Some suggestions: consider what content you are adding in these announcements. Use these weekly announcements to spark interest, make connections between previous and new concepts, address new assignments and student expectations. End the announcement with an open-ended question. Most learning management systems (LMS) have a function for students to reply to an announcement. Use the open-ended question to have students connect a new concept to real-life and/or their own experience. Their response is also an indication of their comprehension of the announcement.
Think about the end of each traditional class session when the instructor reminds students of upcoming due dates. This next task has the same feel, but in an online environment. Using the amazing tools available in most LMSs, message a reminder to students who have yet to submit an upcoming assignment. This personal communication is indication that the instructor cares about each student and his/her progress in the class. “A personal message for every student, for every assignment… you’ve got to be kidding me, Nicole.” I know that sounds crazy, and I wouldn’t suggest something so time consuming without a shortcut! Find the tool in your LMS gradebook that sorts students by who has not submitted yet, then compose a single message for all in this list and make sure to BCC students for a personal message.
This task is something I can not stress enough… the power of timely feedback. My M.Ed. in EdTech and teaching online included an entire course on assessment and feedback. Although I gained high understanding in theories, methods, and strategies, my number one takeaway from this course was that academic feedback is literally pointless if not provided within a timely manner. Students move-on, and the feedback loses relevance with each day. What a missed learning opportunity. Providing guiding feedback is one of our main responsibilities as online instructors. My suggestion is to commit to providing feedback for every assignment within a 7- day window. Making this commitment to your students at the beginning of the term keeps your accountable and let’s students know that you are serious about their learning and value their time and work. This will also help you gauge their workload if yours is reflected in your grading time.
The effectiveness of online class discussions has been debated for years. Most dread the “then reply to two peers” assignment. Can an online discussion really mirror the gold found in traditional class discussions? This is a topic that I could spend an entire series on describing strategies, do’s and don’ts, and best practices. So, here, I’ll just suggest that instructors can further instill their commitment to student learning by engaging in these discussion forums. Be the facilitator of deeper discussion by replying to a couple of student’s post each week. Show that you care about their thought process in the development of their own understandings.
3. Student Voice
Here’s a two for one task, a student cafe. This “cafe” is in the form of a discussion board that is open to student to student conversations, questions, and chats. The first benefit is the peer-to-peer connection and engagement. Another piece of the retention pie. The second benefit is the instructor insight gathered from this student discussion. What concepts are they struggling with? What assignment types most challenging? What topics are the most engaging? Through this strategy students are connecting with one another, as well as giving you high value information for reflection and instructional adjustments.
Canvas Hack: You don’t need to create a different cafe/discussion forum for each week. Just click, drag, and drop the existing forum into the new week.
Midterms are synonymous with a large test or assignment to gauge learning outcomes at the middle of the term. Nothing new, right? Use this halfway point for students to give you feedback too. An anonymous online survey can provide you critical information on how your course is going thus far. Students can tell you what assignments are helping them understand the concepts, what supports are most useful, self-assess their own ability to complete a course learning outcome, as well as give helpful suggestions for their success. This is my 5th term using a midterm student survey, and I’m so happy to read the results each term because I actually have time to adjust for student success before the end of the term. I’ve also experienced student appreciation of my interest in their voice and experience.
4. Student Supports
It takes a village. You, as the instructor, are not the only support your students have. Many colleges have both academic and personal support departments available. Your job is to connect the students and departments when you see the need. The college I currently teach for has a retention system is called Early Alerts. This system ultimately allows the instructor to flag a student who is in need of extra support. Lucky for me, the retention specialist then contacts the student to offer multiple academic and personal supports depending on the information I’ve stated and their own conversation. Submitting these Early Alerts pays a two part role, as it also provides a system for me to track my tried interventions and communications with each struggling student throughout the term. My most important suggestion is for instructions to do this (retention system or tracking interventions) multiple times throughout the term, not just at the end of the first week for financial aid information.
Nicole, how am I suppose to remember all of these retential tasks, let alone complete all of them?! Not to worry friends. I’ve created a detailed one-pager that includes the 4 retention components with each of the strategies described here for efficient reference. Select two strategies to start with and add one each term. Take note of your DFW, or retention rate, as well as your end of course evaluations. Please share your success or challenges below. Remember, this is a community where we learn, support, and grow together.
Routine Retention Tasks Freebie
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Akanegbu, Anuli, et al. “50 Striking Statistics About Distance Learning in Higher Education.” Technology Solutions That Drive Education, 12 July 2012, edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2012/07/50-striking-statistics-about-distance-learning-higher-education.
Babson College. “2015 Survey of Online Learning | News & Events.” Babson College, www.babson.edu/news-events/babson-news/Pages/2016-babson-releases-2015-survey-of-online-learning.aspx .
Braxton, John M. Understanding and Reducing College Student Departure: ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report. 2004.
“Student Engagement Strategies for the Online Learning Environment.” Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning, 16 May 2017, www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/student-engagement-how-to-help-students-succeed-in-the-online-environment/.
Nicole Mace believes that distance education is a true game changer. She has spent close to a decade in education and spends her free time reading anything she can get her hands on about online learning.
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