Designing Online for Student Success

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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:; 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:

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:

 Lurene Kelley is the Online Learning Specialist for CBU


Investing in Services for Online Students

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By Lurene Kelley

Walk around campus and you’ll see students wearing backpacks, laughing with friends and ducking into Alfonso for a bite. That’s our student body, we tell ourselves. But what you may not see are those students registered for one of the 180+  seats in online courses this semester. This number doesn’t even include the CAPS program, which offers numerous courses online.

Most CBU students taking classes online are simultaneously taking courses on campus. They are the same ones you’ve seen with the backpacks, joking with friends and munching on a cookie as they leave Alfonso. But there are others you won’t see. Some started out on campus, have since moved and are finishing degrees from another city or state. Others live in the Mid-South, but work full time, have family and are taking what they can online.

So even before CBU launches a fully-developed program of online majors, we already know something about what it means to have students experiencing limited or no interaction with the physical CBU campus. Even if they don’t know how to get to the Canale Arena, though, these students are every bit CBU Buccaneers. We may not see them in the physical classroom or in our offices, but they are our students to teach, mentor, tutor, retain and graduate.

The charge for the Online Learning & Educational Technology (OLET) team and for every office on campus is to provide the same level of service to online students as is provided to on campus students. This straightforward formula, however, isn’t as simple as it seems.

Investing in Online Students 

The National Center for Education Statistics finds that on average, student services and related costs in the 2015-16 school year accounted for 20% of higher education spending at state schools. The expenditure is even more at private schools, where it can account for 30% of the budget.

But this is typically not the case for spending on online students. Robert Ubell, the Vice Dean Emeritus of online learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, found that student services for online students is usually an afterthought.

Ubell says this disparity is particularly troubling, because online students desperately need quality assistance. A 2017 US News survey of online students determined that 84% work while going to school with about 60% working full time. Contrast that with on campus students: an average of 70% work and 25% of those students are working full time.

Given the additional load most online students are already balancing, they may not be able to handle the extra stress of financial aid bureaucracy, ignored emails or calls bounced from department to department. Especially, if they can’t just walk into an office and experience a friendly face.

Student Services for CBU Online 

This is why the OLET team is working to gather or prepare as many services as possible for online students, before we ever recruit our first fully online student. For CBU, it is both an ethical imperative and smart management to treat online students the same as on campus students. If online students are left to fend for themselves, they can leave for another online program or, worse, feel that their time with CBU has been frustrating and isolating.

Some CBU student services are simpler to provide virtually than others. For example, Plough Library offers an always growing database of online publications that students off and on campus access in an almost identical manner. Library staff is available five days a week until 11pm to offer assistance via phone and email. Canvas Help is provided 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by phone, email or even chat. And our Career Services office is already accustomed to giving resume and coaching advice by phone or email.

Of course, the most important connection online students have with CBU is you, the faculty. Whether as their classroom instructor or academic advisor, online students who never or rarely set foot on campus can feel as if they are a valued member of the CBU community because of you. Just as it happens for students on campus, the CBU experience often comes down to the professor/student relationship.

Some services, though, are more difficult to translate to online than others. With just one counselor at CBU and concerns about HIPPA rules, will CBU ever be able to provide counseling services? What about Campus Ministry, CBU 101, Career Fairs? How will those experiences be made available to fully online students? Those are all areas that must be reimagined for a virtual environment.

The Webex video conferencing feature has recently been integrated into Canvas, and we are collaborating with Career Services and Academic Services to determine what it will look like to access tutoring or career consultations via virtual meeting spaces. This conversion to online is about more than just turning on a web cam, however, so we are working together to figure out how these critical needs will be met.

Questions remain, but unlike most universities that have launched online learning programs– we are focused on finding these solutions while we’re still building a full array of online majors. For CBU, how we serve our online students is as important as recruiting and teaching them.

What You Can Do

While the bulk of preparing services for online majors is the responsibility of OLET and other offices dedicated to serving students, there are a few things that faculty can do as you advise and teach students:

  • When advising a student who is working full-time and only taking classes online, suggest they take fewer classes, not more. Yes, we want students to get their degrees, but succeeding in an online course is time consuming and requires students to stay on track or else quickly fall behind. At NYU, advisors have found that online students who also work full time should try to limit their load to two courses a semester.
  • When you set a deadline for an assignment, such as midnight Sunday, remember that even for on campus students – it’s difficult to get assistance on the weekend. If you assign a Sunday evening deadline, remind students that at CBU, there is a librarian on call until 11pm Sunday and Canvas tech support is available 24 hours, 7 days a week by calling (901) 318-3024 or by using the Chat feature inside Canvas. You may also want to check your email more frequently the evening of the deadline to see if students are requesting help.
  • Use the Webex feature in Canvas to meet virtually with online students. CBU has an enterprise license with Webex, meaning that every person with a CBU account can host a WebEx meeting. The OLET team is developing training for this service, but in the interim, feel free to dig in. Just go to and log in with your CBU username and password. You can set up individual and group meetings, breakout sessions, webinars and events.
  • If your online students need more assistance than you can give or if you are concerned about their progress – send them to me! I will do everything I can to help them create a plan or find needed resources.

Lurene Kelley, Online Student Success Specialist

(901) 321-4456


(2018) Expenditures: How much do colleges and universities spend on students? Retrieved September 12, 2019 from:

Friedman, J. (April 4, 2017). U.S. News Data: The Average Online Bachelor’s Student. U.S News & World Report. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from:

Smith, D. F. (May 22, 2014). Who is the Average Online College Student? EdTech. Retreived September 12, 2019 from:

Ubell, R. (July 17, 2018). Does Online Education Help Low-income Students Succeed? EdSurge. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from:

Westra, K. (October 29, 2018). Online Student Services: What, Where, Who, When, How, and Most Importantly, Why. EDUCAUSE Review. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from:

Lurene Kelley is an Online Student Success Specialist.

Appreciative Advising

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By Lurene Kelley

The red pen.

Aside from the apple, it’s the object most emblematic of teaching. The red pen that relentlessly sniffs out errors and makes snarky comments in bright, scarlet ink! But that is our job, right? How else can students improve if we don’t point out what they are doing wrong?

What if the key to improved student outcomes, though, isn’t about identifying problems and trying to help solve them? Perhaps there is equal or even greater value in focusing on what students are already doing right.

That’s what’s behind Appreciative Inquiry, a model that positions transformational change as possible when we help people develop a positive mindset through the inquiry process. According to the model, this is accomplished with “powerful questioning” to locate a person’s hidden strengths, help envision a successful outcome, create a plan to get there and shepherd the student along the way.

You may already do much of this in your interactions with students, but what makes Appreciative Inquiry a unique approach is its grounding in you, the advisor. It is dependent on you maintaining an appreciative mindset with every student, no matter how hopeless their situation seems or frustrating their personality or lack of progress. Your sincere acceptance of the person before you and your unyielding belief in their potential… is at the core.

“Appreciative Inquiry seeks out the best of what is to help ignite the collective imagination of what might be.” (Cooper Rider & Whitney, 2000).

Appreciative Inquiry is an organizational management change model developed in the 1980s (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987). It is largely associated with the corporate world but has since been adopted as an approach for academic advising (Bloom & Martin, 2002).

As a CBU advisor, you may think that helping a student develop a “new mindset” sounds like quite a bit to expect out of 30-minute advising sessions, especially when many of you have dozens of students to advise each semester!

But first, take a moment to apply Appreciative Inquiry to yourself – have you ever advised a student who later told you that you changed the course of his life or helped him through a difficult time?

If that question brings a student or even dozens of students to mind, then you know you are already capable of bringing important, positive change through advising. This one powerful question allowed you to identify times you were successful. Now we can develop a strategy based on your strengths to enhance your advising with Appreciative Inquiry!

This is exactly how Appreciative Inquiry works in an advising session – powerful questions allow you and your student to unearth past successes and then develop strategies around those strengths to produce positive outcomes.

The Phases of Appreciative Inquiry 

An advising session guided by Appreciative Theory would follow its five phases: Define/Disarm, Discovery, Dream, Design and Deliver/Destiny.


Source: Coaching Psychology Manual, 2012,

Bloom and Martin (2002) provide specific suggestions for improving academic advising through four of the phases of Appreciative Inquiry:

  1. Believe in the goodness of each student who walks through your door. Treat him or her like you would want your son/daughter/best friend to be treated.
  1. Utilize positive open-ended questions to draw out what students enjoy doing, their strengths, and their passions. Listen to each answer carefully before asking the next positive question (Discovery phase).
  1. Help students formulate a vision of what they might become and then assist them in developing their life and career goals (Dream phase).
  1. Give students a clear idea of what they will need to do by devising concrete, incremental, and achievable goals to make these dreams come true (Design Phase).
  1. Be there for them when they stumble, believe in them every step of the way, and help them continue to update and refine their dreams as they go (Destiny phase) (Bloom & Martin, 2002).

Bloom, Hutson & He (2008) have since expanded the model to six phases and refined the Appreciative Theory model for advising. Bloom developed this guide with specific actions and questions for each. The Bloom Appreciative Advising Guide

Appreciative Advising Online 

All of this can be adapted to advising online learners. Even more than your on-campus advisees, students learning entirely or primarily online can feel disconnected from CBU. As an academic advisor, you can often provide that critical connection that increases engagement and allows a student to feel a sense of belonging.

Just like their campus counterparts, online advisees need your expertise to guide them through majors and to opportunities to improve their chances for success after graduation. But applying the lens and phases of Appreciative Inquiry can help academic advisors truly get to know online advisees – particularly through phone or via webcam sessions. It’s these interpersonal moments with a student that can make follow up email contact more meaningful to both you and the advisee. (This link will take you to the CBU WebEx web version. You just log in with your CBU email and contact a student to get started!)

It would be an unexpected and, likely, welcome moment for an online student, if an advisor asked the student to share an accomplishment that made the advisee feel most proud. Most online students simply expect advisors to tell them which classes to take and how to stay on schedule for graduation.

Asking powerful questions produces answers that inform the advisor about an online student’s strengths. Those questions also allow the advisor to get to know an online student on a more personal level and give the student the sense that the advisor wants to know him as a whole person, not just a name on an academic record.

Obviously, note taking is a critical aspect of Appreciative Advising for both online and on campus students. This allows the advisor to add to and follow up on stories the student has told about herself at each advising session, as well as track the progress of the plans the advisor and advisee have developed together.

Want to Get Started?  

As part of a course at the University of South Carolina on academic advising, Dr. Jennifer Bloom, one of the authors who first applied Appreciative Inquiry to advising, had graduate students submit articles to an academic advising journal. This piece provides academic advisors with a reflection exercise based on the phases of Appreciative Inquiry, while also demonstrating how this approach to advising works with students. Genius! Truschel (2007) also provides examples of “powerful questions” here that can help you identify your advisee’s strengths and past accomplishments.

Backup Provided

We know that as professors, academic advisors, scholars and colleagues – you are already wearing many hats. It may feel that a more intensive advising approach only adds to that weight. But know that as the Online Student Success Specialist, I’m also here to help with online students who might need more assistance than you can offer or with whom you’re having difficulty connecting.

So, please, feel free to refer students facing difficulties with their online experience to me. And, of course, for those students facing challenges on campus, CBU’s Academic Services and the Student Success Center are always there to help and they value your student referrals.

Online Student Success Specialist 

Lurene Kelley, PhD

(901) 321-4456


Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Bloom, J. and Martin, N.A. (2002, August 29). Incorporating appreciative inquiry into academic advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 4 (3).

Cooperrider, D. L., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In Woodman, R.W. & Pasmore, W.A. (eds). Research in Organizational Change and Development (Vol. 1, pp. 129–169). Stamford, CT: JAI Press.

Olson, N. S. (2009, July 10). Appreciative advisers: Be advised. The Mentor: An academic advising journal. Retrieved from

Truschel, J.H. (2007, July 6). Using Appreciative Inquiry in Advising At-Risk Students: Moving from Challenge to Success. The Mentor: An academic advising journal. Retrieved from

Lurene Kelley is the Online Student Success Specialist for OLET.