Friday, March 11, 2011

Online Retention

I read an article this week in Campus Technology titled "Strong and Steady Wins the Retention Race" (for those interested in the article click here). The article, written by Angela Naginey, Director of Retention at Cal Lutheran University, outlined steps taken to improve student retention.  Naginey's article provides a brief background into the creation of her position within the university and conveys the principles and recommendations she has employed. Many of Naginey's assertions are logical and reasonable, so it made me think about the online environment. How can we at Baker do better to retain online students, or is it even possible? There are some variables outside the scope of online instructors, such as recruiting and initial orientations, but then there are some variables online instructors can directly address. In a previous blog I discussed how to engage online students, which I think relates to retaining students as well, but for this post I want to present specific strategies for the purpose of retention. Ultimately, once students enter the online environment instructors become the first line for implementing best practices in retention. The university still has an important role with its internal support, but the instructor is often the first line of communication. With that said, what are some ideas to consider implementing in your online course that blend with our students and Moodle?
  1.  Do you gauge your student's abilities early on? Particularly with writing or math? Assigning a short assignment in week one or two, informal or formal, provides a beginning assessment point. From there you can evaluate direct areas of needs, provide direct feedback to those areas, and monitor them for the duration of the course. In the instance a student has multiple needs, this is where we can work them to obtain extra assistance, or build a focus plan for them that sets up obtainable benchmarks. Something subtle like this early on can alleviate frustrations later on in the course and build a positive relationship with students that can aid in retention efforts.
  2. Do you ever survey your students after a couple of weeks to get a feel for where they are? I would always suggest adding a forum in Moodle where students can ask questions, but have you ever considered adding a survey or choice option (both available within Moodle) to gain a sense of how students are coming along? Particularly if you've taught the course before and know of trouble spots for students, then it may behoove you and the students to pose a survey or choice question in Moodle about their comprehension or progress in a particular area. From that you can target a lecture to better explain that area or hone in on assignment feedback that prepares students for the potential difficulties. This process of coaching students along can assist with retention.
  3. How do you build an online community in your class? A constant found within studies of student attrition in online environments is the lack of community, or feeling of isolation. How do you combat that within the confines of Moodle and Baker's policies? Have you thought about it at all? Maybe in week one have a forum available for students where they are asked to say something brief about who they are as a student and person, and you reply with some tidbits about yourself. Add an introductory audio piece where your personality can come out.It should be brief and doesn't have to necessarily be course related. Do you do an icebreaker in week one? I realize that many of our cohorts, depending on where you teach in the program, are familiar with one another, so use this as an opportunity for them to get to know you. Do you put your picture in your Moodle profile? Giving students a visual image of who you are can assist in making a better connection (besides, all those smiley faces begin to drive me nutty after a while). How accessible are you; more importantly, how accessible are students for one another? Do you ever assign peer work outside of learning teams? Incorporating a peer activity where a student is forced to step outside their learning teams is an ideal way to expand their support within a cohort. Small steps such as these can go a long way in reducing the isolation feeling students sometimes have and cultivate the feeling of online community.
  4. How do you champion student success? Often as instructors we are immersed in critical assessments, where we focus on what is wrong in order to improve our students. But, how do you give accolades to students that succeed? Do you merely give a "nice job" comment? Do you present their work to the class? Do you go into detail about which aspects were done well, so they can capitalize on those and continue to develop them? It is vital we critically evaluate students, but it is just as important that we give them their earned acclaim as well. Particularly if you are aware of hurdles they've overcome in order to reach a certain point, boosting their confidence makes the accomplishment personal and recognizable.

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