Course Design and Student Retention

I think I’ll go back to the trends in online education theme with this week’s article share if you don’t mind.  I think it’s safe for all of us to say that Online has become an entrenched institution in  Higher Ed.  With the growth of degree offerings and growth of students and employers willing to equate online degrees with their face to face counterparts, a lot of the original issues Online has been dealing with for the past decade can be safely said to be overcome.


With that in mind, there remain areas where I believe online can (if not done properly) be considered inferior to face to face.  The one I’d like to focus on this week is student retention.  In this case I’d like to focus on two articles outlining the problem and throw out some ways good course design can help.  I’ve also spoken with one of our Student Success Coaches who is putting together some resources we can share from a more strategic level, but for now I’d like to build a better mousetrap and those will be coming later on.  The articles I’m referencing this week are below:


The New York Times: The Trouble with Online College

NPR:  The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course


I’ll let you read the articles, but the two key challenges to student retention they mention are the difficulty in identifying and addressing student misconceptions and establishing an instructor presence in the classroom.  It’s common knowledge that feedback and interaction with a more knowledgeable other (be it a computer or person) are key elements of student success (Vygotsky’s Social Learning Theory lays this out much better than I can) and finding ways to replicate those interactions online are important to developing an environment conducive to learning.  With that in mind, here’s some strategies I’ve advocated for with faculty and have seen faculty put into motion that serves to address those two issues.


  1. Chunking out major assignments and projects over a period of time so that students can receive feedback as they go.  This works really well for statistics projects and business plans, as well as large essays.
  2. Putting together group presentations (using Jing, Powerpoints with Audio or plain old videos) that allow students to become the teacher and share work with each other – creating a stronger community bond
  3. I know I complained last week about the misuse of automatically scoring assessments, but this is another place where they can shine.  Practice quizzes for students are a great and simple way for them to get feedback on their work without even having to contact the faculty.  Moodle allows for faculty to program in either answer specific or general feedback for each question which, if done properly can help them go back and review their learning resources.
  4. Having the instructor create a weekly video introduction using a webcam or screencast tool is helpful as well.  As soon as we see somebody’s face, we immediately start buying in more.  Just including audio-embedded powerpoints (so that we can hear voice) allows students to get some of that buy in.
  5. Using interactive (media, web tools, games) are great learning activities.  The great thing about games is that you get the feedback and can usually retake it to try and increase your score, which are good ways for students to engage with content and master it.
  6. Providing examples of proficient work and rubrics so that students understand faculty expectations from the get-go and don’t feel like they’re muddling about in the dark.
  7. Finally, and I’m sure you’ll agree because this is the same for face to face courses, online courses, and everything in between, there is no substitute for engaged, knowledgeable and well trained faculty that care about their students and spend time providing regular feedback and support to help them grow.  As an instructional designer, I can build you a Rolls-Royce of a course, but if your faculty can’t drive stick, we have a problem.  Placing the onus of learning on the student should not lessen the amount of time faculty spend teaching, it should break the shackles of the podium and enable them look over their student’s shoulders.


Hope this helps!  Let me know if you have any questions!


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