By Lurene Kelley
Retention. It’s a hot buzzword at CBU and every university in this country. But student retention is not your typical academic trend. It is part of the promise we make as institutions of higher learning – that we will attract, retain and produce college graduates and is at the core of why universities exist. As new CBU President Jack Shannon has stated, it is our “moral obligation” to ensure that the students we admit will graduate on time.
That’s a heavy lift, especially considering the many barriers to graduation students face. Our students work (some full time), many have family obligations, financial struggles, health issues, learning disabilities and just the everyday activities and lifestyle that go with being college students. And then you add online education to the mix — a learning modality that is still new to both students and faculty.
The research on online learning retention rates can vary dramatically, however, due to definitions of what “retention” actually means for online learning, and the dramatic differences in the quality of online courses across programs. Just as it is in traditional teaching environments – not all online earning experiences are created equal. As it turns out, how you design your online course could make a big difference in how well students perform, despite other obstacles.
Variables that Affect Student Retention
In research focused specifically on retention in online programs, Berge and Huang (2004) designed a comprehensive model that identified and categorized why students drop out of online courses. They focused on three clusters: personal, institutional and circumstantial.
Personal: These variables include demographics, individual traits (like academic skills and motivation) and past educational experiences. These variables are unique to each student and largely involve who the student is when they come to us.
Institutional: These include university mission, policy, structure, institutional attitudes and how the system is structured in ways that either help or hurt individual students. It is this cluster in which the institution holds the greatest ability to control.
Circumstantial: These are things that happen to the student, both by the institution and outside of it. These include institutional variables, such as interactions a student has with the university, professors and fellow students. It also involves external variables, such as work, family life, stress and health. These are things that happen while a student is with us and can be challenging to predict, control or alleviate.
The Difference that Online Course Design Can Make
It is impossible to help a student navigate all of these challenges while at CBU. Berge and Huang’s (2004) set of Institutional variables is a good place to start, because these are the policies and structures set by our private university. At various levels of our administration, it is critical to examine and bring change to policies and other structures that are frustrating or even stopping student progress.
On the individual level, you already know that as a professor, you can have a significant effect on a student’s satisfaction with their college experience. Dietz-Uhler (2007) took a more granular approach to how professors can impact student retention – by considering the design of online courses.
In their article, Dietz-Uhuler designed and revised two courses according to national standards set by the online course assessment nonprofit, Quality Matters. They found that across multiple semesters, retention rates in these individual classes each exceeded 90%!
You can read the full article here to assess the quality of their methodology and conclusions, but the authors maintain that applying these eight Quality Matters standards to their course design increased student retention:
1. Course Overview and Introduction: Detailed information in the syllabus about course navigation, expectations and information about the instructor. An “Introduction to Online Learning” was also included in one course, which is something the OLET team will be rolling out in the next few months.
2. Learning Objectives and Competencies: “Clearly defined and measurable learning objectives” were included in both the course overview and at the module level. Learning activities that contributed to learning outcomes were included in each of the course modules and the connection to the learning objectives were made explicit through rubrics and other explanations.
3. Assessment and Measurement: The courses included activities that were connected to the learning objectives, such as lecture note reviews, watching videos, interactive puzzles and simulations. The students were required to follow these activities by answering questions intended to stimulate reflection. The student reflections were given detailed feedback via email by instructors. The authors felt it was critical that all activities connect back to the learning objectives and that students were made explicitly aware of the connection.
4. Resources and Materials: Students were supported with instructional material related to resources required for the course. For example, in a course using graphing calculators, the professor provided video tutorials on how to program it. In another class, screen captures were used to create PPT tutorials on how to use a particular program. Another effective tool is a FAQ sheet to address commonly asked questions about resources, material or the course.
5. Learner Interaction: This pertains to meaningful interaction between the professor and the student. This could take place in email exchanges, discussion boards, video conferencing or videos submitted for back-and-forth visual conversations!. This standard also includes interaction between students in the class, all of which can be facilitated with the aforementioned modalities.
6. Course Technology: This standard was met by including “technology that enhances student learning and fosters learner interactivity.” Again, this involved discussion boards, video conferencing and email. The course syllabi in these courses also contained detailed information about downloading or installing any software or plug-ins required for the course. This could also mean instructions in the syllabus about technology and tech assistance provided by the university.
7. Learner Support: The professors provided information about technical, academic and student support offered by the university. Here at CBU, that could include adding our Online Student Success Resource Guide to your syllabus and encouraging students to utilize it.
8. Accessibility: Meeting this standard involved information about disability accommodations for students in the syllabus. CBU has a resource link for faculty with information about how to provide assistance for students with disabilities. One of the authors of this article also designed her coursework to be accessible to student with visual or hearing impairment.
Reading these standards can feel overwhelming but know that building a high-quality online course does not have to happen all at once. It can be done by revising or building your course with what you feel are the most important or simplest changes first, and then continually improving your course each semester. You can also contact one of the Instructional Designers on the OLET team to evaluate and recommend changes to your course (Email: email@example.com; Call: (901) 321-4004.)
Any change that moves your online course closer to these standards can result in students feeling less frustrated and better prepared to learn. Despite the myriad of personal, institutional and circumstantial barriers that my come their way – your online classroom could be the one place where they feel well supported to thrive.
Want to Learn More About Designing Online for Student Success?
If you are interested, you can check out the Showcase of Best Practices on the Quality Matters website that demonstrates how professors across the country are making changes to their online courses to increase student success.
You can also read this brief post about tweaking your course to be more student-friendly: 7 Ways to Improve Your Online Course Retention Rate via Learning Revolution.
Berge, Zane & Huang, Yi-Ping. (2004). A Model for Sustainable Student Retention: A Holistic Perspective on the Student Dropout Problem with Special Attention to e-Learning. DEOSNEWS. 13. Retrieved October 10, 2019 from: https://tinyurl.com/y2tseub3
Dietz, Beth & Fisher, Amy & Han, Andrea. (2007). Designing Online Courses to Promote Student Retention. Journal of Educational Technology Systems. 36. 105-112. 10.2190/ET.36.1.g. Retrieved October 10, 2019 from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249233937_Designing_Online_Courses_to_Promote_Student_Retention
Lurene Kelley is the Online Learning Specialist for CBU
By Dale Hale
It has been said that some people learn to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can tell you that having good lessons can go a long way toward helping a person learn to swim properly.
Some people have been “thrown into the deep end” of software and been expected to learn on their own. Humans are resilient and can educate themselves. Although, it can be similar to self-medicating — it is rarely best practices and sometimes does more harm than good! It never fails that when someone who really knows the software comes along and shows the self-taught person how to properly use the application, things “click” (no pun intended) and they get it.
I am happy to tell you that we (OLET) never want anyone to miss an opportunity to learn. We do not believe in throwing people into the deep end to fend for themselves. That’s why we have offered approximately 30 sessions of Canvas Basic training since March and are still offering them this month.
We believe so much in online teaching that we have created an Online Faculty Training course that will help faculty learn to make the switch from the traditional classroom to the online classroom. This training course will give you the very basics of teaching in the online environment. It is a short, four-week, asynchronous class designed to fit the busy faculty’s schedule. The next one is beginning very soon. If you’re interested, just click here to go to our website and enroll in Online Faculty Training. Oh, and by the way, successfully completing the training and then deploying that training in an online course will gain you a stipend!
We have another opportunity that will take you beyond Online Faculty Training. We call this multi-day event, “Course Design for Today’s Student.” It will equip you to build an online course that is immediately ready to deploy online. Because this is an actual course development, it comes with a sizable stipend for the successful completion of the course, including designing and building the complete course. This opportunity is open to twelve faculty who have completed the Online Faculty Training and are interested in developing a fully online course with the expectation that this course will be used online in the very near future. You can register for the workshop here.
Friends, we want to help you do your life’s work – to enlighten, inspire and enrich the students who enroll in your course. We truly believe you can do all of this as well in an online course (or maybe even better!) than in a physical classroom. Be on the lookout for even more training opportunities. In mid-October, we will be rolling out offerings for both WebEx and Canvas Studio (both video platforms). Beyond that, watch for trainings in online grading, taking attendance, and more advanced features of our Learning Management System, Canvas.
We’re here to help. Let’s work together.
To register for all course offerings by the Center for Digital Instruction visit our website: https://www.cbu.edu/cdi-training
Dale Hale is the Director of Online Learning & Educational Technology.
By Tyler Isbell
Lou Holtz is the only coach in NCAA history to lead six different football programs to bowl games. Of these programs, the most memorable is Notre Dame. Including a win at the 1988 National Championship, Coach Holtz led the Fighting Irish to bowl games for nine consecutive years and finished eleven seasons with a 100-30-2 record.
Although his performance at Notre Dame serves as the crown jewel of his coaching career, it also serves as one of his biggest regrets. In a commencement speech to the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Holtz shared this from his time at Notre Dame:
We took a program on the bottom and we took it to the very top… We put it on top and we maintained it. That’s the thing I regret the most. See, there’s a rule in life that says you’re either growing or you’re dying. The tree’s either growing or it’s dying. So’s grass. So’s a marriage. So’s a business. So’s a person. Doesn’t have a thing to do with age. My birthday candles cost more than the cake. It has everything to do with trying to get better (Inspire Bingle, 2017).
Holtz admits that he became complacent with where he was as a coach and where his players were as a team. He believed that they had arrived and simply needed to maintain their success: no risks, no improvements, no drive, and no growth. It would only be a short period of time before their success quickly passed away.
Regardless of your level of experience, past success, or confidence in teaching off or online, it is important to remember that no one has arrived. The rule in life that applies to trees, grass, and football also applies to planning, designing, and teaching online. For those that seem to have it all together, this might be a disappointment. For most everyone else (including me), this is an encouragement that trying new things and making mistakes is only a part of the growing process to becoming a better instructor.
Today’s ‘Small Teaching Online’ Tip: “Cultivate Your Online Teaching Practice.”
Gardens rarely sprout and prosper without cultivation. The same is true when it comes to your online (and offline) teaching abilities. It’s essential to “find ways of impassioning yourself so that you don’t become stale in your online classes” (Darby & Lang, 2019). Strive to care for and work on your online courses with the same dedication you have for your in-person classes – we want ALL of our students to learn, earn a degree, and successfully begin a career, regardless of modality or location. In other words, making time to grow is also making time for your students to grow. These small strategies are great ways to foster positive change in your practice:
- Take an online course – All teachers were once students, and their personal experience often shapes how they approach instruction. Taking an online class, whether it is for credit or for a personal interest, is an excellent way to see what works (or what doesn’t work) in the online classroom. Being an online learner will help you build empathy for your own online students.
- Look for and ask for exemplars – Examples can inspire you or model strategies that work for other instructors and students.
- Start small, but continue to try new things – Build confidence and mastery by trying something new each week or term. Incremental growth is still growth and will help you avoid burn out.
- Seek quality certification for your online course design and teaching – OLET offers in-house training and workshops geared towards best teaching practices and course design. Sign up here.
- In-person Trainings, such as our upcoming Canvas trainings and instructional video trainings.
- Online Faculty Training (OFT): This four week completely online training course allows you to study and exercise best practices as you create your own course.
- Course Design for Today’s Student: A three day workshop that investigates student needs and how an efficient and effective online course can be developed. Individual feedback and support is provided to participants after the workshop until an actual course is completed.
Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Inspire Bingle. (2017, September 15). Lou Holtz – Silver spoon motivational speech | University of Steubenville [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfoQBmNW_JQ
Tyler Isbell is an OLET Instructional Designer & Trainer
By Tyler Isbell
‘Small teaching’ is an approach to improving instruction based on the belief that “minor modifications to our teaching can have a major impact on student learning” (Lederman, 2019). Essentially, effective improvement is made when faculty make small changes to their teaching based on research. This small change approach allows instructors to avoid the overwhelming pressure of complete overhauls or time-consuming restarts.
Based on James Lang’s approach from Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, Flower Darby presents the micro-actions you can take to design, facilitate, and motivate so that your online class is a huge success. The name of her recently released book is Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. Her book is divided into three sections: Designing for Learning, Teaching Humans, and Motivating Online Students (and Instructors).
Today’s Small Teaching Online Tip: “Online Classes are Not Slow-Cookers.”
Your new online course should NOT resemble your favorite slow-cooker recipe (Darby & Lang, 2019). Students need more than a quick set up and then a few days to cook the material by themselves. Most students will not thrive in such an environment – They did not sign up to take an electronic correspondence course. Students need to feel a connection with their instructors (and with their peers) in order to feel supported in their learning and avoid being discouraged from finishing the online course. Here are some ways to build your teacher presence in the online classroom:
- Show Up for Class – Schedule time several times each week to visit your course as if you were attending in person. Make announcements (this can even be scheduled to help you be present when you cannot be present), answer questions, respond to discussion boards, and give feedback. With Canvas, your responses may be text, audio, and/or video – more on students hearing and seeing you in the next point.
- Reveal Your Personality – Students want YOU. They want to know that you are there and that you are a real person. Use the ‘About Your Instructor’ page in the template to share more about you, including a picture and a welcome video. With Canvas Studio within the LMS, you do not need any third-party software to shoot, edit, and share a webcam or screencast video. CBU faculty members who participated in the Online Faculty Training (OFT) course this summer had the opportunity to create their own welcome videos within Canvas.
- Design and Teach for Cultural Inclusion – Create a safe learning environment for ALL students. Make your expectations known and demonstrate how students should interact with you and with other students in the online classroom. Consider how ethnic or cultural contexts might shape your students’ experiences in your course.
- Convey Caring and Support – In the same way you want your student to know you are a real person, remember that your students are real people, too. There are many obligations and commitments that each student must meet. Consider offering every student an opportunity to receive a deadline extension or an opportunity to revise an assignment if something unexpected occurs. Think of ways you can “checkup” on each of your students individually. One faculty member requires her students to meet with her individually at least once during the term. She prefers a face to face meeting, but offers a web conferencing option for students that cannot meet in the same physical space.
Darby, F. (2019, April 17). How to Be a Better Online Teacher. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from: https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-online-teaching
Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lederman, D. (2019, June 26). Small Teaching Online. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2019/06/26/bringing-small-teaching-online-classroom
Tyler Isbell is an Instructional Designer & Trainer for OLET