Distance learning students can easily become frustrated and disheartened by their educational experience. I have had multiple students who, stressed and toiling over an assignment, scramble to finish, only to encounter a technical error upon submitting. Frequent stumbling blocks, however minor, can create angry, exhausted students who frequently consider quitting.
The struggle for online student retention is not new, and students often lack the accountability that is more easily created in the face-to-face atmosphere. Therefore, the temptation to passively approach the classroom is rampant. The often condensed, fast-paced course can easily overwhelm and discourage any student, especially those who compound a full-time career with educational demands.
In “Preventing Online Dropouts: Does Anything Work?”, Marc Parry refers to Kennesaw State associate professor Elke Leeds’ suggestions concerning this rapidly growing problem: “…figuring out the retention puzzle might boil down to pinpointing particular traits that are tied to success in online classes, such as time-management skills and motivation.” Indeed, time is of essence in successfully completing an online course. An instructor must remain sensitive to this fact and promote these skills whenever possible.
In light of time-management, here are three practical ways to engage your distance learning students:
1. Outlines and drafts: If your university permits, require that students submit outlines and drafts in preparation for a final or cumulative paper. This will (ideally) reduce the number of hastily-written final papers and will encourage your students to get a jump-start on their assignments. This could also help to evaluate and assist students in problem writing areas.
2. Call your students: While calling each student at least once during a course would be ideal, it may not be possible, especially if you are teaching multiple classes. After about 1-2 weeks, try to identify those students who are taking a passive approach to discussions, struggling with online attendance, or submitting poor writing. By ‘checking in’ through a phone call, you can get a feel for the student’s individual situation (work, family life, etc.) and show that you are a real person who cares about your students. In initiating this open line of communication, you may be able to discern the student’s ability to manage time. Help the student format a realistic plan to balance work, school, and any other responsibilities.
3. Create an assignment timeline: Again, if your institution permits, create and promote a timeline of when readings/assignments are to be completed. You can turn a daunting, fast-paced course into something more manageable by breaking down weekly readings/assignments into daily allotments. While some students may never utilize this timeline, others may greatly appreciate and benefit from it.
The effectiveness of these ideas for promoting time management will vary from one student to the next. Unfortunately, the distance learning community is one in which instructors must go above and beyond to reach their students. Since many online students have adult responsibilities, it is important that time management skills are exercised and refined. It is the hope that engaging students in the online classroom will lead them to an earned degree.
Marc Parry, “Preventing Online Dropouts: Does Anything Work?”, The Chronicle of Higher Education.