If I can put aside my oh-so-fragile ego, I can learn a great deal from my students. I am trying to listen more to what they say. One way I am learning from my students is by requiring my first semester freshman English composition students to write a short researched persuasive essay on a topic that is relevant to our college specifically or to one of the communities it serves.
Students can choose from a list of research questions I brainstormed, or they can submit their own questions for approval. Most of the time, the students pick one of my groups of questions. One set that became much more popular during the pandemic has been about online learning:
- What is our college doing to help retain online students? Is it enough? Why? or Why not? What are some things that other schools are doing that our college might do to help retain online students? Is our college doing any of these things?
This short summer semester, without any prompting from me, two of my best students chose the same group of questions. After research, including separate personal interviews with the college’s Director of Teaching and Learning, my students argued two different, but similar, theses. Happily, both recognized the students’ role in their own success and offered suggestions for what students could do to help themselves complete online courses with the desired results.
However, one student emphasized the faculty’s role in improving online retention, and the other argued that the administration could take steps to help more students achieve success. I found both viewpoints interesting and insightful.
So, what did I learn?
The two big takeaways–Faculty should interact more with students, and administrators need to lighten instructors loads so that students can do so. Wow! I mean, my students didn’t teach me anything I didn’t know already. I’ve been saying it for years; however, what is new is hearing about the importance of interaction and building a personal relationship from online students themselves, one who has had six semesters of online classes at my institution.
Both students indicated how helpful it is when instructors quickly respond to inquires and return graded material as soon as possible. This is the first time, however, that I have had a student discuss the administration’s responsibility to be sure that faculty do not have an overload.
Their arguments are well-taken.
A case in point was my schedule this summer. I had three classes and a shortened semester of ten weeks instead of sixteen. Since I have been teaching sixteen-week English composition in eight weeks the past couple of years, ten weeks seemed like a summer vacation. With the lighter load, I was not only able to communicate more often and with more detail but also had time to develop my courses and further refine them for our mutual benefit. In addition, I was able to hold more live virtual sessions and record them for the sake of students who could not attend the sessions. Students mentioned how helpful these sessions were.
Both students mentioned the need for proper advisement when students are registering for online classes. Sometimes, they said, students are ill-prepared for the rigor of online classes and may not possess the time-management skills to be successful. I have found that some of my eight-week online students are not even aware that they are taking an accelerated English course and quickly drop out.
One student mentioned in their essay the problem of recruitment taking precedence over retention. This point resonated with me. For example, on more than a few occassions, I have had developmental and other ill-prepared or otherwise weak students placed in my eight-week courses, or even worse, with advising restrictions removed since the pandemic, students are signing themselves up for classes, which can easily lead to misplacement. Most of these students withdraw; the expectations and pace are simply too much.
The hope is that administration will return to advising restrictions, but the lure of classes filled beyond capacity, and the funds that generates, so far seems to be too strong. As long as enrollment numbers are considered above all other considerations, including limiting the number of students in online classes, hiring more instructors, and better preparing them, I, and two of my most talented students, recognize that we will most likely continue to have low retention and success rates in online classes despite the efforts of even the most dedicated and talented faculty.