Connecting to Students: Improving Retention in Online Classes (Part I)


By Rich Russell

In a recent column for The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Rob Jenkins highlights what we need to consider in our zealous pursuit of online education (“the third-rail in American higher education politics”), where retention rates, Jenkins notes, are just 50ish percent, yet few seem to worry. Two personal statistics that might make Jenkins feel better. The first: at my own community college, our online classes are not seeing more significant growth than traditional courses (increases in distance education seem to have leveled off, at least this past year). Many of our classes, too, the administration realizes cannot be effectively translated online (such as Developmental English and ESL). Further, my own online classes have always maintained a retention rate of 75 percent or more. So, take heart, Rob Jenkins — there is a way we can do this! While Jenkins readily admits to no easy answers for improving success online, I have a few ideas I thought I’d share (with more to follow in subsequent posts this summer).

Besides ensuring that students have clear guidelines for completing assignments and understanding the expectations of the course and for individual evaluation (these are essentials for all successful classes, of course, online or off-), communication remains the key for all human relationships and must not be lost through faulty wireless towers. This does not just mean communication between the professor and the students; there must be places established for students to discuss both the content of the course and the content of their individual lives. I’ve read articles that discuss the three main ways that communication must be cultivated in online classes: student-to-teacher (and teacher-to-student), student-to-students-and-teacher (public discussion forums) and student-to-students (with or without the teacher). More now, briefly, on each.

STUDENT-TO-TEACHER/TEACHER-TO-STUDENT. This includes all of the assignments we would attribute to any course: students submitting papers and quizzes/tests; the professor responding with authentic and as much individualized feedback as possible. (Individualized feedback is essential so that the student knows there is a human being behind the screen and not just a computer that is auto-correcting mindless response work.) In my own online classes, papers are submitted through Turnitin; students keep journals in private forums; assignments are submitted through a Course Tool in Blackboard, which can then be made (should the occasion present itself) public for other students to read. Sometimes I insist that students post their informal writing on the discussion boards to solicit feedback from peers. Turnitin also includes a wonderful PeerMarkTM feature, which allows students to review each other’s papers using the same marks that the professor would, in addition to basing their peer reviews on questions the professor selects (or generates) that are germane to the paper topic. This, of course, introduces students to —

STUDENT-TO-STUDENTS-AND-TEACHER [communication]. In addition to opening up once-private papers and assignments to peer feedback (and, of course, as I do in face-to-face classes, I always tell students ahead of time whether their audience will include other students in the class or “just me”: as in a traditional classroom, a safe space must be created for anything worthwhile to occur), usually each week there is a public discussion of the week’s readings; students are graded using the rubric for online discussions. Regardless of subject matter, discussion must occur in an online class in order for that class to be successful: in order for students to feel like they are part of a community and not just a ghost in the machine.

STUDENT-TO-STUDENTS (WITHOUT TEACHER). This final mode of communication is perhaps the most valuable for attempting to replicate the friendships that naturally form in a face-to-face class, where individuals come together once or twice a week to sit in a shared space with other human beings and “only connect” as E.M. Forster notes. As teachers, we can create the conditions for these more lasting friendships to occur, but cannot dictate them; some students with very full lives outside of school log on just as they would come to class, wanting to do the work and be otherwise left alone. Still, for the rest of us, here lie the ungraded, liminal areas of an online class. My own college has created an Online Student Lounge, where any students in online classes can go to chat with and post messages for all of the other students taking online classes during any given semester. The Online Student Lounge is not open to professors; the OSL is supervised by members of our Instructional Technology Department. (I was granted special permission by the Director of the ITD to tour the OSL one week last spring.)

In addition, I have the “off topic” discussion areas in my own Blackboard courses. (In these cases, of course, I am also interacting with students in these informal areas.) Finally, for the millenials who enter my online classes expecting a social networking experience but finding it far more formal than that (a classroom, of course), forming friendships online comes more casually: often during the first week, these students will announce, “You can friend me on Facebook,” and I know through anecdotal evidence that this “friending” has occurred. I’m sure on Facebook they will discuss (read: complain) about their online classes, but that’s an important part of any workplace experience: students (heck, all of us!) need places where they (we) can vent. All of us feel better after a good groaning session, provided that we can then shake it off and recommit ourselves to what needs to be done.

And my students do.

Or at least 75 percent of them.

CODA: When Jenkins closes his piece saying that not all courses or all students are appropriate for an online environment, he forgets to note the last component: that not all professors are able to translate their personalities online; that not all professors are cut out to provide meaningful online instruction. That, perhaps, is the most indelicate balance of them all.

About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell received a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.S. in Teaching from The New School, and an M.A. in English from University College London. He currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing classes (both online and in person) at Atlantic Cape Community College and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He received the Adjunct Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence from Atlantic Cape in 2010.

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