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Helping Educators Thrive while Teaching Online, so They Can Help Students Develop Their Potentials and Promote Resilience and Lifelong Learning in Their Communities

Dr. Bethanie Hansen 

Strategic Educational Leader and Coach

#106: Mapping the Learner Journey to Enhance Curriculum

#106: Mapping the Learner Journey to Enhance Curriculum

This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Understanding the students’ experience from beginning to end can help educators enhance curriculum and help students be successful. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides steps to map a learner journey including understanding students, designing pathways, mapping the skills gap and establishing a clear goal.

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This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the podcast. As an online educator, you are probably already familiar with the concept of curriculum design. Even though we might all plan our courses differently, there are a few main ideas that make up the final result of course curriculum.

The curriculum is the sum total of the subjects taught and the student’s experiences in the learning process. It can refer to the readings, any other resources, videos, lectures, podcasts, and other content, in terms of the material that will be used in the class. But much more than that, curriculum considers the idea that students will work with new information, gain knowledge and skills, and have knowledge and mastery of that by the end of the class.

Well, today, we’re going to take a new look at curriculum from the marketing perspective. And this means that we’re going to think about the learner’s journey, or we might even describe this as creating an experience map for the student’s experience. And right from the beginning of this description, I love where we’re going with this idea, because the transformative nature of education is like a living and breathing entity—not just a list of topics in a textbook.

What is the Customer Journey?

Just to give you a little more awareness of the marketing perspective I mentioned a moment ago, I want to tell you about a marketing idea called the customer journey. Let’s say that you sell skateboards, and you would like to attract new customers to sell your skateboards. If no one sees your skateboard shop, and they have never heard of you, you have to begin somewhere.

And in the example I’m using here of selling your flashy new skateboards, you will need to begin first with the awareness stage of the customer journey. Before anyone will buy from you, they need to know you exist. That you sell skateboards. And what that’s about. And unless they are already in the market to buy a skateboard, you will need to create awareness over time to help them learn that you sell skateboards, and the awareness that they NEED to buy their next skateboard from you.

And in this particular customer journey, someone who isn’t ready to buy a skateboard could be exposed to your business as a friendly part of the neighborhood. Or as one that gives back to the kids in that neighborhood by reinvesting your profits into the community. Or something like that. Along with this awareness stage of the journey, you can consciously cultivate your brand and your reputation to build a relationship with customers on the general level that helps them get to know you and establishes trust.

The next part of a customer journey might be the offer of education. Perhaps your skateboard shop offers safety tips or something for after-school skate park activities. Or personal safety programming for children taking the skateboard to school. All kinds of free educational materials will provide value to your potential customer who is on this journey with you.

Along the way, you might have a few specific campaigns that connect with your customer. These could be phone calls, emails, flyers in the mail, or other ways in which you contact them to share upcoming events and information.

Eventually, your customer journey is going to include an invitation to purchase the skateboard and the ongoing relationship when working with your parts and repairs department. Or, if the customer never buys, the customer journey will be shorter, and it will end at some point.

One of the reasons marketing campaigns think about customer journeys and customer experiences is that they want to see their customers from within the experience of that individual customer. What does this person actually experience from the first contact with your company all the way through to the purchase and the use of your product? And even beyond that?

Mapping the Learner’s Journey

Back to your curriculum. Mapping the learner journey is a similar concept. What does this person who will take your class next session experience? From the first moment that person became aware that the course was available to them and through the decision they made to enroll in the course, all the way through the moment when the final course grade is posted, and even to the day the diploma is handed out, this student might be on a very specific journey with your curriculum and the class you teach.

What I’m going to share in today’s breakdown of the learner journey concept comes from an article in E-Learning Industry written by Helen Gray in January of 2021.

Step 1: Understand Your Audience

First, consider the students who will take your class, and the objective facts or observations you can learn about them. Gray calls this “your audience.”

When you know who is taking your class, then you are in a much better position to design learning experiences that will help them get started and begin learning right away. Remember, this first step is only descriptive. We’re not planning anything yet.

Here are some questions you might ask about your students to give you clarity about the learning journey:

What are your students hoping to achieve?

What are their goals?

Where are your students coming from in their lives, their work, and experiences when they take your class?

What challenges, limitations, or barriers do your students have?

What level of technical expertise do your students bring into the course?

Although not every student is the same, you will notice some trends in your student population. For example, you might have a lot of younger people taking the class who are new to college. Or maybe you have a lot of older adult learners with some life and work experience to bring in. As you answer these questions about your students, you will get a sense of who they are and begin understanding the starting point of the learner journey.

Step 2: Design Pathways to Help Students Achieve Their Goals

Second, with a clear picture of the people who take your class or enroll in your program, consider what you really need to do to design pathways from their starting point to the goal. This might sound simple, but it could end up both creative and complex.

For example, I once interviewed an educator who mentioned that she had integrated some competency-based teaching practices into her classroom. I got curious and learned that she offered students the opportunity to pre-test any chapter content before the learning experiences began. And any student who demonstrated mastery of the content was not asked to complete the typical learning experiences she had designed.

This makes sense, because if we consider that those learning experiences were created to teach the content itself, then the students who have already mastered it would have a redundant experience. We would even get inflated grades at the end demonstrating that students learned very well, when in fact they already knew the material in the first place.

With this in mind, the educator had an alternative pathway for students who demonstrated mastery on those pre-tests. They engaged in projects and applied learning experiences at a completely different level designed to integrate concepts into the course, rather than teaching ideas for the first time.

Basically, there was a standard pathway and an enriched or advanced pathway in the course, and this was flexible but accessible to all students.

Perhaps this gives you an idea of what you might do in your own subject matter, your own program, or your class. Knowing your students and their needs, objectives, and challenges, you can decide whether they all need one single learning pathway, or whether you might offer other pathways that consider pre-existing knowledge, career experience, interests, or other aspects? At the simplest level, Gray suggests we consider basic, intermediate, and advanced.

Step 3: Map Your Skills Gaps

Third, map your skills gaps. You started out by getting to know your students and where they are when taking your class. And you identified whether more than one path is needed to teach them in the class, and now you’re in search of anything they will need intentional support to learn or accomplish. It’s time to dig deeper.

Digging deeper means you are going to consider what experience they might bring with them into the course. If they might have work experience, could it be relevant to the class? What kinds of challenges do your learners face coming into the course that already put them at a disadvantage? And, knowing this, what can you do to help them navigate in the first week or more to gain confidence?

Your course and the content that you will teach could be introductory, and your students first need a bit of context to relate to the subject. In a course I wrote many years ago about digital information literacy, I used a metaphor of baking bread to illustrate a concept in one of the lessons. Something that is generally familiar with your students can become that introduction to bring them from where they are starting out to where they need to be in order to dig into the experiences you are giving them.

On the other hand, maybe it isn’t just the subject matter. Instead, it might be the technology. Let’s say that you want your students to create a PowerPoint presentation as part of a project because in their chosen degree area, they are likely to pursue career options where they have to give a lot of presentations. You know that the university provides the Microsoft Office suite to all students, and you want to help them get started on the right foot. What experience does your typical student have coming into your class? And what kind of learning experience might you design in their journey to explore this area?

This might be a workshop on using PowerPoint. For example, if you have a lot of adult learners who are coming into college for the first time, depending on their professional backgrounds, they might need support using a specific program. With this skills gap in mind, you can dig deeper into your students’ needs before planning the experiences to get them where they want to go, and where they need to go.

Thinking only about your subject matter, it might be easy to find some of your student’s barriers or challenges to learning. In marketing, we call these “pain points.” For your skateboard business, one of the pain points is going to be the price of new bearings and wheels. Or maybe it’s the worry that a child’s mother has about their possible bruises and scrapes from falling off the skateboard. There will be many.

For our students, and your students, the pain points could be very different. Map your skills gaps between where students are coming into the class and where they need to be when they have mastered the curriculum at the end of their learning journey. This mapping will help you decide what experiences they will need in their learning, but also whether it can be accomplished in one class alone. You can use this to check back on your pathways, to make sure that whether students move along one or multiple learning pathways they still have the opportunity to build needed skills along the way.

Step 4: Get Clear on Your Goal

This means that if you are setting out to teach people how to make soup, by the end of the class, you’ll all be looking into a big pot of soup. Talk about learning activities along the way with the vision of the end-result in mind. This will help you design these smaller experiences that move from basic awareness into learning, committing, engaging with the topic, and digesting it when the soup is finally made.

If you are clear on your goal with students and help them be clear about it too, you become a guide in the student’s learning journey helping them navigate through it together. This approach builds confidence for everyone and promotes cognitive presence.

Step 5: Create a Seamless Experience

This part of the learner journey means that we consider everything that our students will do along the pathway to the main goal as part of that journey. These are not separate, disjointed elements. Thinking about a seamless experience provides a nice visualization of keeping the experience within a theme, rather than a series of discussions and quizzes.

Perhaps our students enter the class with an awareness activity in the subject matter. Then, they are guided by video to learn about what a practitioner in the field might do every day. And the next thing they know, they are using the same tool, checklist, or other methods a practitioner might use in their work, and this is a formative check for evaluation purposes on the way to the bigger product.

Ultimately, when thinking about learner journeys or maps, we are taking on the perception of what our students experience before, during, and after the classroom. And we create a whole new set of possibilities in designing curriculum learning experiences through doing this.

And our learners will begin to learn better than they have before. From within the content, instead of as an outsider observing from afar. This is an exciting and new adventure—designing learner journeys. I hope you’ll start out on this trail to give it a try. And I wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#103 Podcast: Insight from Leading the Way in Online Higher Education

#103 Podcast: Insight from Leading the Way in Online Higher Education

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com. 

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education and
Dr. Jan SpencerDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education and
Dr. Kate Zatz, Acting President, American Public University

The pandemic accelerated the prevalence of online higher education. While offering online education was a new endeavor for many institutions of higher learning, American Public University has been delivering online, or distance, education for 30 years. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and Dr. Jan Spencer talk to Dr. Kate Zatz, who served as a university board member for 17 years before becoming Acting President in 2021. Hear insight about navigating rapid growth, the challenges of continuous improvements to technological systems and processes, and the work being done to connect and assist students in an online environment.

Listen to the Episode:

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. This is Bethanie Hansen, and I am so excited to be with you today. We have two special guests, Dr. Jan Spencer and Dr. Kate Zatz. We have just celebrated our hundredth episode on the Online Teaching Lounge, so we’re very excited that we’ve been running this podcast for almost two straight years, helping online educators and other professionals in online education understand students, meet their needs, and really get things going. So I’m going to pass it to you, Dr. Spencer, and, Jan, can you just give us a little bit of an introduction to you, and then go ahead and introduce our guest?

Dr. Jan Spencer: Yes. Thank you so much, Bethanie. It’s a privilege to be here. I serve as the Department Chair for Educational Leadership. That’s in the K-12 arena. And then also I have two programs in higher education, one in student affairs and the other one in higher education administration.

And when I first began this role, I was in a meeting with Dr. Kate Zatz, and found out that she has degrees in these areas. And I thought that would be perfect to ask her to come on and interview her about higher education, and her understanding and her wisdom in terms of student affairs and higher education administration. Since she’s now the President of our university, what a privilege it is that she immediately said, “Yes, I would love to do it.” And so I want to just ask her to introduce herself, and so glad to have you here, Dr. Zatz.

Dr. Kate Zatz: Thank you so much for inviting me, Dr. Spencer. Is it okay if I call you Jan? You can call me Kate.

Dr. Jan Spencer: Call me Jan, I’ll call you Kate. Great.

Dr. Kate Zatz: It’s a deal. I’ve been of American Public University since November 4th, 2021. I’m currently the acting president, but prior to that, I served on the board for the last 17 years. And when I came onto the board of APUS, I was a Dean of Students at the College of Aeronautics at LaGuardia Airport. And that was right after I had finished my doctorate at Columbia University. I hold an EDD in Higher Education Administration, a Master’s degree in Education Administration, and a Master’s in Student Personnel Administration from Teachers College.

Teachers College was the first institution to actually have a degree in Student Personnel Administration, started by Sarah Sturdivant in 1921. It was out of the need for integrating what happens inside a classroom with what happened outside of the classroom, and the need for developing a cadre of people who could help run institutions and focus on student personnel in areas of student activities, deans’ offices, international students, career services, student activities, the whole plethora of what happens in a higher education institution. So, I’m one of those lucky people who figured out very young in life what I wanted to do, which was basically go to college, figure out how to be paid to be there, and never have to leave.

Dr. Jan Spencer: Kate, you are a treasure to all of us here, and you’re delightful to speak with. One of the things that I added to our questions from our original consideration of this was getting your perspective, since you have a longevity of experience with the university. Now you’re the President. That’s a different place of observation of what’s going on. What do you see differently now that you’re the President?

Dr. Kate Zatz: I’m having the time of my life. I always thought when Wally Boston was doing this, it had to be the best job on the planet. And apparently, I was right. It is an amazing experience being the President. We have just so many things in the hopper about moving the institution forward.

The big difference, I think, between being the board chair of the last 17 years—I’ve spent at least 12 years being the Chair of the Board of American Public University, sitting with my colleagues as a board member, you think you know what’s going on, on the inside. You think that you’ve done your homework to advise the management and the administration about the best practices and the best things to do. But being on the inside, it’s really interesting when it comes to actually deploying, or implementing, or figuring out how to do that vision that you’ve heard, and the disjointed parts of it, but also the seamless points of it.

And the unifying fact is how mission-driven American Public University has been ever since I came on the board in 2004, serving those who serve, and how we go about every day trying to improve how we do that, that no matter where you sit, whether or not it’s the board or in the President’s chair, how we really try to focus on the student experience and making it better all the time. And how we go about trying to make it a better institution, serving more students, serving students better, making education affordable, keeping it affordable, and all the time, working on the quality of what we’re providing, that we’re pretty much in sync.

The big differences for me between being on the board and being the President are that I have made a commitment to myself to be a President in residence. It may sound really old school in considering that the pandemic’s going on, but I’m actually sitting in 111 West Congress Street here in Charles Town, West Virginia, where it has been the hub of who we are and what we do for the last 20-some years. We had moved out of here for a while, but we’re back in the building, and it’s really a hub of activity right now. Dr. Smith is downstairs, one flight away from me. Dr. Cottam is in this building. Accreditation is in this building. And the idea that we’re here and we’re able to just walk up and down the stairs to talk to each other about what we’re focusing on and how we’re going to serve students, it’s really a pretty amazing place.

Dr. Jan Spencer: When I got the gist some time ago that you spend a lot of time there in your office, I was very impressed by that. It shows a depth of commitment, if you don’t mind me saying that. I like that. With regard to student affairs in higher education and higher education administration, during your tenure with this university, you have seen an enormous level of changes going on in the online space particularly.

It is during these last 17 years of your involvement that the university has grown very large and very influential in higher education. This is a changing world. Can you enlighten us a bit about what we should be aware of in the changes that are going on in this space?

Dr. Kate Zatz: When I became board chair in 2004, we had 7,000 students, and at that point we were still mailing out books every month. And here we are, and we’re close to a 100,000 students. And boy, have things changed. The one constant is change.

I can only reflect on how many different iterations of what we do, we’ve gone through. In terms of course development, for example, it’s a good thing that we’re on a three-year cycle for updating all our courses, because with technology changing as fast as it does, sometimes when you take a course and look at it once, it could be three years before you update it, things have really changed by then.

So what has changed? Years ago, back in 2004, when we introduced the Partnership at a Distance (PAD), there were some assumptions that we made about students and their ability to be self-sufficient and navigate the online universe on their own with very little support. And perhaps that was true for some students.

But it wasn’t too long after that, that we started in with realizing that there was a space related to student affairs where career development, and advising support, and the ability to talk to people who were in the field that a student was studying. So, very early on, by 2007, we had started the process of actually chartering student groups here at APU, which is, at that time, it was really pretty cutting edge.

That coupled with, somewhere around 2007, 2008, 2009, we started applying for and earning Sloan and Gromy awards for excellence in online education, which meant that for us, our learning outcomes of how we were able to verify what we were teaching was what people were learning, and then taking the information on how to improve courses and reflecting that into the curriculum and improving.

So we went through a whole series of that, while at the same time working toward our initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission. It was pretty monumental when we hit that milestone.

And then, as time has gone on, there is no doubt about it that we continue to be a leader in student learning outcomes, program outcomes. One of the things that is just truly amazing to me is how library services and information has changed to the point that obviously we no longer send books out to people. What we do is that we subscribe and make available some of the best online reference platforms there are, period, point blank. The fact that regardless of where you are in any one of the 24 time zones, that 24 hours a day, you can do things like log into the library and get help with something that you’re studying. So the changes have been ever increasing.

And for the future, what I see happening is, as we were a pioneer in online learning, oftentimes when we would put up a system, it would be not necessarily a smooth transition to the next part. For example, if you applied, how your application got transitioned to financial aid, or how we took information about you and your interests, and lined you up with the right curriculum. Some of these processes would take longer than we would wish. So automation has been one of the hallmarks of one of those things that we continue to work on. Where we’ve been able to automate something, we’ve pretty much done it.

And where I see still some benefits for students in the future are being able to automate things that are currently manually done on their behalf, where some of those big questions about when one is applying to come to APU, about if you decide you want to take a program or you want to study something, you still have to figure out how you’re going to pay for it, and how many credits you’re going to be able to transfer here.

So, some of these things, the accuracy of how that happens, but also the speed by which we’re able to give a student the answer of how many credits we’re going to take, and how much it’s going to cost, and how much aid they’re going to get, are still critical issues that we can always continuously improve upon. And that’s one of the really cool things about this place is that we learn from doing, and then we take the information, and we turn around and improve the processes. And it’s one of the things that I’m really very proud of that we do that because we’re always striving to be better.

Dr. Jan Spencer: That’s great, Kate. Thank you so much for that. As you’re speaking and sharing about some of the changes that are happening, one word that came to me is the word “challenge.” Because I am overseeing the higher education administration program and student affairs, there are some left curves that may be up ahead for somebody who’s going to be entering that field.

What are some of the challenges that we may encounter in working and preparing students for a degree in higher education that we may not be aware of even yet in terms of it being right in front of us? Help me understand some of the challenges that you now see as the President.

Dr. Kate Zatz: So, student affairs, I think has always been a passion, and it is an area that causes people to think holistically about students. And I think one of the challenges for people going into this field is, as COVID has certainly impacted us, we’ve been teaching online, we’ve been a remote institution for the last 30 years.

What has not caught up is how we educate people to be in student services and student affairs. In some ways, it’s been a field without an epistemology. The closest you can find perhaps is Chickering or some of the work of Knefelkamp. And those issues of student development theory and how they apply in an online environment, they’re not always as easy to see.

And what happens is, I think that one of the things that we’ve lost is our connection to students. We have to really work at it. And what I see as a challenge is people who go into the field not realizing that a lot of the work that they’re going to end up doing is online. It’s going to be remote. It’s going to be individualized, and it may not be on a traditional campus.

And what I’m really seeing is traditional campuses, nonprofits who have decided to go online, who don’t have the staff support infrastructure to do a really good job teaching online. What they’re trying to do is, they try to poach people who know what they’re doing.

So here at APUS, one of my challenges has been working on retaining our very creative, dedicated staff and student advisement, for example, financial aid, admissions, making sure that we are at least where other institutions are in the market in terms of pay.

But, we have a different quality of employee because many of them not only understand the theory and the practice, but have taken the time to learn how to do that in an online environment, which is not an easy thing to do. So learning how to navigate online for the current student affairs professional or the student in student affairs, coupled with the challenges of doing this online, I think, are part of what faces us.

Dr. Jan Spencer: I have in our programs sought to establish things like a Student Union where students would come together every month. We encourage mentorship. It’s hard, though, to get students to buy into that. Even though our professors are willing, sometimes it’s difficult for the student who is signed up to have a remote education because they basically don’t want to deal with people so much. Can you help me with that?

Dr. Kate Zatz: Some of the fun that I’ve been having is I’ve showed up at the orientation for doctoral students, but we have some really active groups on different platforms like Quill and Scroll, Saber and Scroll, that I’ve been invited to. There are so many different student groups that are meeting. And I don’t know how to get this across to students that are studying student affairs, but how you go about networking with each other. There’s some positions I’m looking for to fill here at APU, and I’ve been able to use my network to go, “Hey, we’re hiring here. This is what I’m looking for. Is there anybody you can nominate?”

And the thing is, is that’s done because I’ve got a very large network of people who have worked in student affairs. And that, along with doing things like getting involved in the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) where there’s different groups within NASPA that focus on different topic areas and different service areas within the field, it’s really worth somebody’s while if they’re new to the field or are looking to be promoted.

There’s only so many years you want to spend at an entry-level position, but there are opportunities to move your career forward by getting involved with the professional organizations that are out there that are specifically related to student affairs administration, and it’s really worth one’s while.

For years, I was a vice president for student affairs and would attend NASPA as a chief student affairs officer and as a senior student affairs officer, and those networks are invaluable to me now.

Dr. Jan Spencer: Thank you so very much. I’m going to throw this back over to Bethanie for some follow-up questions before we move ahead.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you, Jan. Kate, I really appreciate all of the expertise you’ve been sharing, and especially some background about how the university has developed over time, and some of the things that have changed, and some of the things that may need to still change in the field of student affairs.

I’m thinking myself a little bit about the part-time faculty who teach with us. I’ve just heard a lot from them that they learned how to teach online by teaching at APU. And when the pandemic came along and they needed to, at their full-time jobs, help others, they had the skills, they had some things they could share.

And we have listeners all over the world that listen to this podcast. Many of them are listening to it to get some of those ideas. If you had some suggestions for things that online professionals, whether they’re the faculty members or student affairs professionals could do to just step it up and really provide good quality online help to those that they teach and work with, what would you recommend as some real tips?

Dr. Kate Zatz: When one is looking at teaching part-time online, before you sign off on that contract, there’s a couple things that you’re going to want to look at, like, for example, who owns your content? Pretty simple. How much of your course do you personally need to put together? Is there a requirement that you know how to write HTML? Or is that something that the institution that’s hiring you is going to do?

Because these days, when a course goes live online, there’s some expectations that are built into how that course is going to operate. Is it compliant with ADA? Does it meet the student learning outcomes for a particular course program? And how does it fit into the overall curriculum for a degree?

So if somebody is just going to pass off a fully developed course to you, before you sign off on it, make sure that those bells and whistles are already in place so that you’re not doing it yourself. Take a look at what you’re getting in terms of remuneration, or what you’re contributing that is original to that.

Also, the whole phenomenon of learning about open resources that can be used in coursework. To what extent do you need to become an expert on what’s out there that you can put into your course as you’re doing that? One would hope that there is support for looking at those kinds of things.

So, it’s one thing to get your course up and running, but when you get to the end of the first week, and you certainly have students that have not logged in, or you see that people are struggling, those kinds of interventions that you can do as a faculty member by reaching out, even before you get there, some of the best practices go like this. We’re going to get to the point at APU where a student can log into a course before the course starts. I think it’s really important, and it’s one of the better practices to be able to log in and see what is on that syllabi, what the due dates are, what the breadth and depth of the expectations are for a student.

Later into 2022, I’m really hoping that that goes live, because what I’ve found is that if a student is able to plan their life around due dates, and understands what the expectations are for them in that particular course, they’re more likely to enroll and stay enrolled. Because what happens is, is that it’s not a Sunday when they’re figuring out what it is that they’re going to have to do. So let’s say you’re a faculty member, and your course, before it goes live, a student looks at it.

Well, I would hope that a faculty member does some outreach, acknowledges the students in their class, and does things like sends an email out to the class, or figures out different ways to interact with them before the class even starts. And then after the class starts, are those students participating in the way that you would want them to? Those kinds of things that help push people along, keep them engaged, go directly to retention and persistence in what students end up doing. And it’s really important that that gets done.

So, I know that for American Public University, there are nearly 2,000 people who teach for us part-time, are folks that are expert in their field, they’re practitioners. And they’re some of the most interesting people there are because we could never replicate that kind of knowledge and direct application of what they’re doing out in the field if we tried to get them all to come to Charles Town. But what we can do is value what they’re doing for our students all over the world, because we have faculty members and students in all 24 time zones, and it’s really pretty cool.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Agree. I agree completely. And I appreciated you mentioning some of those strategies that really help engage students, like sending the message before the class begins. We have an episode about welcome messages that I just want to refer our listeners to in case someone wants a few tips about how to do that, what that could look like. And in the transcript from this podcast, there will be a link that listeners can click on just to check out that episode.

I love also the variety of faculty that you just mentioned. We do have a lot of experts in many fields that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Thanks, Kate. I’m going to pass it back to you, Jan, and any other questions you have.

Dr. Jan Spencer: Thank you, Bethanie. And two questions I was going to ask you next, you’ve really already referred to, and that’s the importance of retention, keeping students on track, innovations to assist the university to help students to get an edge. And I think that the whole idea of classroom access is a part of that.

My other question really has to do with the value of an education that focuses on higher education administration. You’re an expert in that. How can I encourage our students to have a high value of expectation about what it can create for them? We are in an online environment. I want to presume that online education is proliferating in the world. What’s the value we can give to higher education leadership in today’s marketplace?

Dr. Kate Zatz: That’s a really good question. I think the sky is the limit for people who are seeking to have a career in higher education right now. And the reason why is because everything is up in the air. We’re a really solid institution. We know what we’re doing. But I had been doing consulting work off and on and where small institutions that are tuition driven, are really struggling, and will continue to struggle because they can’t afford the infrastructure to go online. And students aren’t necessarily gravitating toward that kind of an education.

What I see is almost unlimited opportunity in the field of higher ed if you figure out things like the value of continuous improvement, organizational behavior, doing things like learning how to do coaching. And if you keep current in practice, one’s career could go pretty doggone far.

Dr. Jan Spencer: That is great. One last question I have for you, Kate, and it’s really off the script here of the things I wanted to ask you. But it has everything to do with what we as a world and a nation have gone through in the last couple of years. And as a university, we haven’t had public graduations for two years; twice we’ve had to miss. Now this coming summer, we plan to have a public graduation. You’ll be the President.

What are you thinking about as you look forward to that time when we’re all going to come together for the first time, many of us who work, like me, who work remotely, the first time in nearly three years we’ve been together. What’s your level of expectation for that? What’s going to be happening in you as we build up to that time?

Dr. Kate Zatz: There is no doubt about it in my life, the commencement day at APU is my favorite day of the year. I’ve only missed, I think, one since 2004. So, frankly, I’ve been working on the strength in my right hand so that I can shake hands. And I’d like to be funny and say I’ve already started signing off on diplomas because there’s over 30,000 of them.

I am so looking forward to seeing people in person, I can’t tell you. There is a list of people that I need to get some hugs from, and a list of people I need to give hugs to. There are people who have been working so hard here at APU. Halfway through this last year, we did a major switch around about fixing some things that were going on in enrollment and in admissions, and people worked double time to do a roll out of a new customer relation management system. And people here at APU have been working so hard that coming together and celebrating at the National Harbor, I am so looking forward to it. I can’t tell you. I hope you’re there.

Dr. Jan Spencer: I plan to be there. Kate, it is a delight to have you as our guest. Before we conclude this session. Is there anything else you can give us in terms of insights, or just what you’re feeling about, or things that you know we need to be thinking about as your team?

Dr. Kate Zatz: We need to keep up the good work that we’re doing. We really do. And we need to make sure that people have the support that they need to work with their students and get done what they need to get done. I’m just really honored and grateful to be here. And like I said, being the President of American Public University is the best job on the planet. It just is. And we just need to keep on serving those who serve the best we can.

Dr. Jan Spencer: Thank you Dr. Zatz. Bethanie?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I echo that. Thank you, Dr. Zatz, for being here. And for our listeners today, we’ve been privileged to hear from Dr. Kate Zatz, current President at American Public University, and Dr. Jan Spencer, a Department Chair in the School of Arts, Education, and Humanities.

Thank you both for being here, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in today. We wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#101: Preparing for Peak Performance in Online Teaching: Part 1

#101: Preparing for Peak Performance in Online Teaching: Part 1

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Teaching online can be a challenging experience, especially if you are new to the technology or much more experienced with face-to-face teaching. Even if you are experienced at teaching online, a few specific preparation methods before the class begins will promote student success and renewed teacher satisfaction throughout the course. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares tips to help you prepare to teach online before your next class begins, aiming for peak performance in your online teaching.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. We all know that preparing to teach is a worthwhile practice. In fact, preparing has been compared to “sharpening the saw,” by Steven Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people.” Preparing to teach means to approach an upcoming class with a balanced plan for peak performance in your teaching, while also focusing on healthy wellbeing in your physical, social-emotional, mental, and spiritual self. By preserving your greatest asset—yourself—you can be at your best in your teaching and keep fresh to adapt as needed.

In today’s episode, we’ll take a look at part one of a two-part topic. This first part will take you through the practical preparations to teach an online class, including preparing the online classroom, anticipating students’ needs, scheduling your daily work, and focusing on results and outcomes.

Next week, come back for part two, when we’ll take a deeper look at the personal preparation it takes to really sharpen the saw. That will include healthy wellbeing through daily habits, like taking the time to care for your body, mind, spirit, and social and emotional areas.

Peak Performance in Your Online Teaching

Peak performance is a state in which you are able to perform at your best, when you’re feeling confident, wrapped up in the flow of engaged work. You might compare this to the state at which an athlete is performing well with their game, or the way in which a musician is immersed in their performance, feeling the activity to be both natural and effortless, despite the work they are putting in. Where athletes and performers naturally seek out peak performance experiences, people can actually achieve this state in any professional field, including teaching.

You might be thinking that teaching is a learned skill or something that just anyone can do. And, both of these ideas could be true. To enjoy the work, do it well, and feel confident, educators can learn to teach at their own peak performance threshold. Peak performance is highly desirable because it can result in feelings of happiness, fulfillment, and consistent success. And when we teach at, or close to our own peak performance level, everything can seem easier, with greater impact.

The basic building blocks of peak performance include consistent practices in the way we manage time, resources and energy. There is a heavy focus on Covey’s 7th habit of “sharpening the saw” to first cultivate personal wellbeing and inner resources. And there is also a heavy focus on rituals and routines, consistently doing the work now, and focusing on excellence as a habit.

While building a personal foundation for wellbeing and inner resources comes first, the rituals, routines, and consistent work and focus on excellence include preparing well in the work itself. And, this is where our topic today comes in. We’re looking at the personal foundation part of peak performance in next week’s episode, which you’re not going to want to miss.

Preparing your Online Classroom

Preparing your online classroom can become a routine. There are basic steps you can take to ensure that everything is set up to guide your students effectively, and that you are ready for the first day of class.

First, prepare your syllabus, and post it in your online classroom where students can easily see it. If the class is built by someone else, read through the syllabus to refresh your ideas around the goals for the class, the weekly topics, and the assignments.

Next, review the assessments and assignments, including discussions and things students will submit to demonstrate their learning.

As you do this, consider the student perspective to decide whether the instructions and guidance are adequate to help students complete their work, or whether a little revision is needed. And include a scoring breakdown, a grading rubric, or some other clear indication of how students are evaluated, so that they are able to plan for success.

Once you have checked your syllabus, assessments, assignments, and discussions, review your content. If needed, add it to the online classroom. As you review the content and reading materials you’re providing students, again, try to take the student’s perspective. And as you do, ask whether these materials clearly prepare students to demonstrate mastery with their assignments and their assessments, and whether the content supports the course goals.

If some of those areas are not represented in the content, you might need to add a reading, a video, an instructor note or recorded lecture, or some other content to more fully support what students will learn and need to be able to do by the end of class.

And once you’ve reviewed these areas, consider your course announcements and introduction to you, as the instructor. I personally prefer images, videos, and intermittent written materials to guide students in the course announcements and in my introduction as well. Breaking up your content with images and other engagement can help students interact and remember what they are seeing.

As you finish preparing your online classroom, look for a student view. Many LMSs have the ability to transition to student view so that you, as the instructor, can see everything as your students will see it. As you do this, note anything that is not visible or needs adjustment, and make those adjustments.

As you walk through your own classroom preparation routine and write down your steps, you can add to your process and adjust over time to make preparations more efficient. Writing your routine can also give you the space to reflect around what works, what doesn’t, and where you can take the quality up a level. This routine and repetition loop is where you can focus on excellence and set yourself up for peak performance in your online teaching before you hit day one of the class.

Anticipating Students’ Needs

Before class begins, learn about your students, and try to anticipate their needs. You might be able to tell whether your students are in their first semester, whether they have taken classes before, or whether they are repeating the course after a previous attempt. If you cannot learn these details before class begins, you can set up your first week’s discussion to ask students more about their backgrounds, their experience with the subject matter, and their comfort level with online classes.

With information about your students’ needs individually and collectively, you’re in a good position to anticipate their needs throughout the course. For example, if you have students who are in their first semester and new to online learning, you might create a screencast to walk them through the classroom in the first week.

And, you might consider a topic organizer to help them think about their project, as well as a video-walkthrough of the technology they will need to complete their project. As you anticipate students’ needs, ask yourself, “What would help me most, if I was the student?” And considering the background, experience, and other information your students have shared, you’ll be in a good position to help your students make progress in their learning and handle the technologies of the online classroom. The more you learn about your students and prepare to help them with their needs and challenges, the more capacity you will have to teach well at peak performance.

Scheduling Your Daily Work

When preparing the online classroom and then teaching the class, scheduling your daily work will give you the consistency to build on for peak performance. After all, planning your time makes you the master of your work and your schedule. And you will be able to avoid feeling overwhelmed and crushed by what can seem like a heavy load when teaching online classes.

One idea to help you schedule your online classroom preparation work is to stop by the course each day to complete one readiness task per day, leading up to the first day of the class. Using the process of preparing a class I mentioned earlier, you might first review or prepare your syllabus.

And the next day, review assignments and discussions. And each day, tackle one task. Not only does this give you power over your time and help you to pace yourself, but it also helps your subconscious brain realize that you’re getting ready to teach the course, so that you’re making mental space to get into your peak performance teaching mode when class begins.

Just as you might break down your course preparation tasks into a routine that happens consistently each day, scheduling your daily work for teaching the class will help keep you moving on schedule and make your teaching time a regular, routine part of your day. As you create a habit, or a routine, around scheduling your daily work, you can build in learned optimism to think about each day as a fresh start, let go of temporary setbacks or challenges with students, and push forward to keep improving your experience.

Focusing on Results and Outcomes

Focusing on results and outcomes is an important part of continuous improvement and developing peak performance. If you were a ski racer, just imagine, you would be able to use the timing of your race and other factors to gauge whether your performance is at the level you want and whether you keep improving.

In a similar way, you can use data to help you see the results in your teaching. Planning ahead to think about this data before the class begins may help you further plan for your students’ needs, so that you get the information you really want at the end of class, to see your own teaching performance better.

One obvious source of data for results and outcomes is your students’ performance in formative discussions and in course assessments. You might be able to look at your students’ average course grades, assignment grades, the level of their engagement in discussions each week, and other statistics that give you data to interpret and from which you can take action.

Another source of data could be your own records of daily and weekly teaching work, the time you’re spending, and the reflections you have about where you’re confident and performing well, and where you feel like additional attention and growth might help you.

If you’re tense, anxious, and restless about different parts of your teaching, these feelings suggest that you’re not in the peak performance space. Focusing on specific areas will help you know what is influencing your experience, so that you can adjust the one or two areas where you have room to grow, and you can recognize where you are doing well.

Peak Performance Tips

As you prepare your online class and your habits for peak performance in your online teaching, keep in mind that you can find flow every day at work. Flow means that you get the most reward from what you’re doing, and you can even learn to love those parts that you have to do by focusing on excellence in your routine or your delivery of that aspect of your work. Finding flow in your work will always require skill and challenge, and it feels like the state of being completely focused, immersed in the activity, and absorbed in what you’re doing.

Preparation is one key to teaching well, and focusing on what you can control and do gives you the space to take action and prepare for an excellent class. As you prepare, consider which parts of your online teaching can become routines to be consistently used and improved over time, and consider where you might need some positive self-talk or conversations with other people to maintain motivation and mastery over your time.

And lastly, consider a performance routine. An athlete might have a lucky shirt to wear, or a chant before taking the field. A musician might have a particular warm-up method or visualization practice to get ready to step out on that stage. And an online educator might have a favorite mug or background music, an outfit that makes them feel like they are in the work zone, or an exercise habit before work that brings focus and energy. Whatever might work for you, the value of consistent routines can pave the way for an excellent online teaching experience.

Thank you for joining us today to talk about peak performance in your online teaching by preparing the classroom, anticipating your students’ needs, scheduling your daily work, and focusing on results and outcomes. When we start a course having thought through these areas and thinking about the goals to be achieved at the end, and we aim for peak performance. We can serve our students much better and maintain a high level of teaching quality throughout our time with them. If you’ve heard something valuable today, please share this episode with a friend.

And, of course, I wish you all the best in your online teaching this week and invite you to come back next week for part two on this topic.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#100: Celebrating 100 Episodes with 5 Most Popular Topics for Online Teachers

#100: Celebrating 100 Episodes with 5 Most Popular Topics for Online Teachers

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Agility and continuous improvement are essential parts of online education to meet students’ needs now and in the future, and these attributes require a knowledge of online education best practices, awareness of students’ needs, goals, and challenges, and a regular habit of learning and reflection. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares highlights from the first 99 episodes of the Online Teaching Lounge podcast, a countdown of listeners’ top 5 favorite episodes, and ways in which we’re celebrating our 100th episode.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Pandora

Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. This is our 100th episode, and we’re celebrating!

Today, we will reflect on highlights from the first 99 episodes of the Online Teaching Lounge podcast, which began with its first episode in April 2020. We’ll dive into listeners’ top 5 favorite episodes, which help you to know about online teaching topics trending in our podcast and which listeners have chosen most often. And, we’ll close out our 100th episode today with some fun ways we’re celebrating this milestone.

Highlights from Our First 99 Episodes

Looking back, the Online Teaching Lounge podcast began April 15, 2020. I started the podcast to contribute some of my own experience and professional expertise to help educators and parents who were turning to online platforms to keep education moving forward during lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schools and higher education institutions everywhere sent students home and taught them virtually, using a variety of methods. And, parents were also asked to teach their children remotely with lessons given by teachers or schools, which was a significant challenge. It was these circumstances that launched our podcast and why we continue to focus on five major topical areas in the podcast over time.

After those first 25 episodes, our talented team of professionals coordinated by American Public University began sponsoring and producing our podcast. This helped us to significantly increase the quality of each episode and provided transcripts so that you could also read the materials we produce every week. I’ll mention some of these skilled professionals at the end of today’s episode.

One of our main topic areas is 1) best practices. We also have four other main topic areas for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. These are: 2) reaching students, 3) using video and other technologies, 4) professional development for the online educator, and 5) wellbeing and work-life balance when teaching and working online. We have covered many topics win these five areas to get you teaching online, help you learn the basics and best practices, and learn how to transfer your face-to-face class into a great online course.

We have taken a deep dive into engaging your learners, with episodes that help you ask great questions and try creative approaches. We have explored the area of online discussions many times to help you keep these fresh and avoid the repetition of standard discussion approaches. A few episodes have specifically focused on the needs of military and veteran students, students who are new to online learning, and adult learners.

We have covered synchronous and hybrid online learning, as well as a heavy focus on asynchronous online courses. And, we have focused on K-12 education and higher education. We have walked through curriculum planning, adding videos and video conferencing, and integrating multimedia apps.

One area that I’m especially pleased to have brought you through the Online Teaching Lounge podcast is a focus on your wellbeing and your work-life balance. In this area, we have focused on your energy and managing your online teaching time. Some of the topics to help you enjoy your online work are these:

And, of course, we have even shared tips to help you with some of the tricky tasks everyone encounters when teaching online. These include giving effective essay feedback, handling academic integrity and plagiarism, managing course extension requests, and increasing student retention and success.

In the first 100 episodes of our podcast, you will find a wealth of tips, strategies, tools, and guidance to help you teach online effectively and enjoy your work. And, we invite you to send your feedback about any of these previous episodes, as well as your requests of topics for future episodes, through my website at BethanieHansen.com/Request. One of the best parts of our podcast is knowing that we support you in what you need and being able to present content that will keep you going.

Counting Down the Top 5 Listener Favorites

The topics we bring you come from a variety of sources, covering anything from tried-and-true experience and researched best practices to trending topics and issues. But you might be wondering what other online educators find most valuable and important. To help answer this question, we’re going to count down the top five episodes of our listeners, as shown in the listeners statistics:

#5: Episode 28, 5 Ways to Make Online Forum Discussions More Creative. In this episode, we took a deep dive into discussions that almost every online course provides, especially asynchronous online classes. The first and most important idea is that an educator who participates in the discussion early in the week sets the tone for students to get involved. And this tends to lead to much more engagement and a lively discussion.

Another tip is to be creative with your first week’s discussion to encourage students to interact with you and with each other, as well as to create psychological safety for your students. Additionally, you might consider scaffolding complexity in your discussions, from the early weeks of class toward the final week, to foster critical thinking and further develop psychological safety in your online class.

This episode also featured some creative approaches, like using case studies and alternative histories in discussions, and hosting debates. The goal here is that we all know discussions are a great way to connect students to each other and to their faculty member who is teaching the class, but we really want to get out of that rut of repetitive formats or using the same type of prompts all the time.

#4: Episode 2, “The Online Education Dilemma-Efficiency vs. Connection.” In this episode, we dove into some of the areas that tend to overload online educators, such as the need to be online all of the time to help us do a great job, meet our students’ needs, and still have time for life outside of work day.

Some of the tips from this episode include taking at least one day completely offline for a clear separation from work and an opportunity to refresh, finding ways to connect with individual learners to help them have transformative learning experiences, and communicating your availability to establish those expectations with your learners. This episode focuses on ways in which you can streamline your practices and yet focus on your relationships with students as a priority.

#3: Episode 1, “Time Management for Online Teaching.” In this episode, I mentioned the book I wrote on Teaching Music Appreciation Online, published by Oxford University Press. The topic of time management was covered in that book, and I shared tips from chapter 15. These include creating a master schedule to plan your daily management of online teaching, making a grid of your various teaching activities to schedule that out, and reviewing multiple obligations you might have.

This episode also shares suggestions for efficiency strategies, like using grading tools, dictation software, a grading toolbar like GradeAssist, a Microsoft Word add-in, to help you use time well and enjoy your online teaching. And, I want you to know that I use all of these strategies myself as well, and I find them especially productive for efficiency while promoting connection.

#2: Episode 38, Asking Great Questions Can Improve Student Engagement. In this episode, we explored how asking great questions can up level your teaching in the online environment. Many of us know that asking great questions can be a great practice, and it happens in discussions. Sometimes we ask questions in our feedback. We might ask questions during a live synchronous session.

There are many ways we ask questions when we’re teaching, but particularly when we’re teaching online. In this episode, we talk about why asking good questions is important, and even we also talk about how to create great questions, which can be challenging. And lastly, we use a strategy to turn any statement into a question to make your teaching even more effective.

#1: Episode 33, Andragogy in Online Education and Strategies for Teaching Adult Learners. Andragogy is an approach to teaching the adult learner that is quite different from pedagogy and in this episode I cover those differences.

We address why we should care about andragogy, how it helps our students, how it helps us. And then some ideas to help you apply it; some ideas from the presentation I attended at the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate conference in the fall of 2020, and also some from my own experience.

Adult learners are essentially different from our typical college-age population of the 18-to-25 year old group, and understanding this, we can reach them where they are. We can meet their needs much better, and we can be a lot more creative about the kinds of work that we guide them through so that they walk away with things that are relevant and that they can apply to their real life and their professional endeavors. They can learn it and use it immediately and keep using it into the future. And perhaps one reason that this particular episode is the #1 listener favorite at the Online Teaching Lounge is the fact that adult learners often seek out online education, and we need to be able to support them effectively.

How We are Celebrating our 100th Episode

Celebrating our 100th episode is an opportunity to express gratitude. There are many people who make this weekly series possible, and I’m taking the time to let you know who they are and to thank them for what they contribute.

At American Public University, Leischen Kranick is a leader in supporting and working with our podcast. Leischen brings excitement to her work and helps me develop helpful topics and ideas focused on what you, our listeners, need most in your online teaching and work. Thank you, Leischen, for the work you do to make our podcast happen, and for being a champion of all of our podcasts at American Public University and American Military University. And a big “thank you” to Andi Crowe, who manages scheduling and many other parts of our podcast effort as well.

At Harvest Creative Services, Mark Miller, Colleen Murray, and Bob Miller have been valuable contributors to the quality of our sound and final production. And Mark, thank you for the way you work and your ability to adapt at times and keep us rolling.

Our theme music is called “Lead the Way” and is licensed through Melody Loops. We appreciate Sascha Giebel who wrote the music.

During our first 100 episodes, we had several guests. Our guests have included faculty members Dr. Lisset Bird-Pickens and Dr. Greg Mandalas, Department Chairs Dr. Jan Spencer, Dr. Kathleen Tate, and Dr. Jackie Fowler. Faculty Directors. Dr. Doris Blanton and Dr. Craig Bogar, one of our university chaplains Kyle Sorys.

We also had recent guests who have worked in student affairs and other higher education leadership roles, and who are also faculty members with us at APU, including Dr. Barry Dotson, Dr. Sean Bogel, Dr. David Ferreira, and Dr. Scott Kalicki, each of whom were invited guests of my colleague Dr. Jan Spencer. We recognize our Dean, Dr. Grace Glass, and my colleague Dr. Bjorn Mercer who is also a podcaster here at American Public University, and our Provost Dr. Vernon Smith.

Thank you for being a listener of the Online Teaching Lounge, and for the important work you do changing lives through the power of education at a distance. This is great and challenging work, and we need committed educators to continue reaching students and helping them learn, grow, and develop their potential, especially when delivering education online. We appreciate you. And thank you for what you do!

As we close this 100th episode, I wish you all the best in your online teaching this week, and I invite you to keep listening as we continue to bring you tips, topics, and strategies to help you in your online teaching for many more episodes to come. This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#97: Tips on Teaching Writing: From Essay Maps to Critiquing

#97: Tips on Teaching Writing: From Essay Maps to Critiquing

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education and
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler, Department Chair,  English and Literature

Being an effective writer is a foundational skill but teaching students how to write can be both challenging and overwhelming for educators. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to author and educator, Dr. Jaclyn Fowler about her strategies for teaching writing. Learn how she uses writing workshops to teach writing through the eyes of a reader and a writer, and why it’s so important to teach students how to properly critique each other’s work. Also learn about the building-block and essay-map concept she teaches to help students outline their papers as well as tips for grading and assessing student writing effectively and efficiently.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Pandora

Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to The Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into The Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to The Online Teaching Lounge podcast. Today you’re in for a special treat. We have a guest with us, Dr. Jaclyn Fowler. She is the Department Chair over English and Literature at American Public University. Jackie, welcome to the podcast. For our listeners, would you mind telling us a little bit more about your background?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. Thank you, Bethanie. And thanks for having me on the podcast. I have spent the last three years at APUS and loving every minute, teaching and also being an administrator in the department. So, I’m the Chair of the English Department, as you said.

And before that I spent about four and a half years in the Middle East as a professor in Canadian University Dubai. And the way I like to say it, is I was an American woman of Irish descent living in Dubai and teaching at Canadian, pretty multicultural background right there. And I’m a writer. So, I write novels and I write memoirs and short stories, and I’m excited to be here.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Well, just to help you know a little bit about our audience here. We have online educators all over the world that listen to our podcast. So, they are in for a treat hearing from you. I’m just curious what one of your areas of focus might be in teaching writing online, specifically?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, the funny thing is, Bethanie, I write, I teach writing, I coach writing. Truly, I need maybe to get another exciting habit or hobby, but it’s one of the things I really love. And I think one of the ways I like to teach writing is through the eyes of a reader and the eyes of a writer. And I think so often we don’t do that. We teach writing as teachers and we forget that there’s an audience and that there’s somebody who’s doing it. So, one of the things I like to bring to my classes is the idea of writing workshops.

Even in an online atmosphere, it’s really fun, I teach the students how to critique each other’s writings. And by that I don’t mean give criticism, but actually critique the structure of what’s being put on a page. And what do I mean by that? Well, I want to know how the thesis statement works, how it flows when you read it, how somebody’s turn of a phrase works. So, we give writers the opportunity to see their writing through the reader’s eyes. And that’s an unusual thing. Usually, we put our writing out there before we understand how the readers will view it, and so it’s a really nice addition to an online classroom.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love the way you said this critique was more about structure. And what I heard when you said that was artistry, it made me think about an art critique.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Exactly. What I say to students all the time is, “Look, they’re words on a paper, don’t get overly focused on them being your words on the paper. They’re just words. And so, if somebody has a critique for you, if somebody says, “I’m not sure what that word means, and I’m not sure it’s helping the sentence,” for instance, don’t be defensive about it. Have an open mind, look at it the way the reader is seeing it and say, “Well, maybe it doesn’t belong there. Maybe I need to do something that reshapes that area so that it does read more fluidly for a reader.”

And the idea is, you want to write for an audience. You want to make sure your writing is understood by an audience, so be open, be flexible. And then, in the end, remember, you’re the artist. So, as a writer, you’re painting with words. That’s what you’re doing.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. That’s beautiful.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, it’s your choice on what paint colors and the texture and everything you use, but as any good artist would, they would open up to the critique from those who are looking at or reading the art.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Speaking of the critique. So, many of our educators that are hearing this podcast are not writing teachers. And I’m curious, what advice would you give them to get better at helping students in that area?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, we can’t expect students to just critique. They don’t know how to do it, so it’s part of teaching. So when I teach writing, I’m also teaching critique. And for those of you who think that’s a really hard job, it is. But in the end, you’re also teaching writing by teaching critique because we’re giving the writers the opportunity to learn how to critique themselves by critiquing others first.

So, our students come to the classroom knowing how to give criticism. So, something like, “I don’t like that. I don’t think it sounds good. It’s not really good.” Or the perennial favorite for students, “Yeah, it’s good.” And what does that say to the writer? Nothing. None of those criticisms say anything to the writer.

So, a critique is more focused. You learn the building blocks of writing: a thesis statement, a paragraph, how to write a topic sentence, how to be creative, how to join sentences together so it makes a variety, and it makes it interesting.

And then, you allow the reader to say, “I’m not sure if this paragraph is flowing the way it should? It sounds a little funny. Maybe you need some transitions. Let me give you an example of what I would say. I might put, for example, here.”

The difference is as a writer you know what you want to say, and you know what you have in your head, but we often time short circuit that we just put enough for us because we have it all in our head. As a reader, the reader is saying, “I get where you’re going, but I need a little bit more.”

And so, to teach critique to a student, to teach them how to critique, it requires the teacher to model it. So, in an online classroom, everything is written, and so one of the things I do is write out critiques for every student the first few weeks of my classes, for every student, for every building block.

And what I find is that students start to mimic what I’m doing in the classroom. They come up with their own ideas, but I use a lot of different colors. When I’m talking about a thesis statement, for instance, I say, “You need a topic, you need an argument, and you need a three-point essay map.” And I put them in different colors so that students can see the critique right away.

And what I find after a couple weeks is students begin to use colors in the same way too. Or they begin to look at, for instance, how punctuation works. I know it sounds like just punctuation, but semicolon makes a big difference sometimes, or a comma might make a difference, and so students begin to mimic the way I’m teaching them to critique. And they recognize early on, because I’m really clear about it, it’s not about the author, it’s not about the writer, it’s about the words on the page.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I hear that. And you said something that I was going to ask a question about, I’m sure listeners probably wondering this too, you said something about building blocks and then I heard you say, “topic, argument, three-point essay map.” Could you explain a little bit what some of those things are?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. So, the thesis statement, which is the English teacher’s favorite, favorite thing to teach. In my life I’ve maybe taught it 110 million times, but it’s important for every new group of writers—and now we’re talking academic writing—for every new group of academic writers, they have to learn how to write a thesis map. It is a thesis statement. It is exactly what it says. It’s giving the topic.

So, in a thesis statement, the way I teach it is I say, “You need a topic, you need an argument, and you need a three-point essay map.” An essay map tells us how we’re going to argue the argument. And each of those points become the topic for the body paragraphs. So, once you write a good thesis statement, you have your whole essay mapped out, which is cool. I remember in college writing my first paragraph and thinking, getting through it after hours and saying, “Oh gosh, that was great. I’m done. Oh no, I have more paragraphs to write, what am I going to write next?”

Well, if you spend the time on one of the building blocks, which is a thesis statement, you know exactly where you’re going for the whole rest of your paper. So that’s why we talk about building blocks, one would be a thesis statement. Remember, the thesis statement has three parts, topic, argument, three point-essay map.

My next building block would be to take the three-point essay map and then to use that to build the three topic sentences for the three body paragraphs. And that’s how we teach it, one step at a time, one step at a time.

So, once you break up an essay into steps, students can start to see the critique. “Oh, this would work better if you did three points in your essay map instead of two, or this would work better if you used your essay map to write your topic sentences.”

So, once you take it from the big elephant in the room, the essay, down to its smaller components, students will find it easier to create them—essays—and also students will find it easier to critique them.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. That sounds like a really easy flow to work from. And I was playing in my head as you’re explaining this to me and to our listeners, I was thinking, “Okay, maybe I could just throw out a thesis idea and you could tell me how I could make this better.”

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Just because at the time of this recording it’s winter, and, of course, our listeners might listen to this at any time of year, but that just jogged the idea for me of snowmobiling, right?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, I was thinking, well, let’s just say, for example, I’m going to write my essay on snowmobiling.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So that’s your topic.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: And I’m thinking, everyone should ride a snowmobile to work in the winter because it’s exhilarating, it’s gas efficient, which is probably not true, but we’re going to pretend, and then because it will renew your zest for life.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Okay. They’re your three essay map points, right?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So now you have your topic, which is snowmobiling to work. So, you narrowed your topic a little bit, snowmobiling to work, and your argument is everybody should do it. So, you’re going to prove that everybody should do it. Now, one of the things I would say to a thesis writer is “Are you sure you want to say everyone? So, what about the guy in Fiji who doesn’t have snow?”

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah, I think he’d wreck his snowmobile.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, we always talk about, in academic writing, narrow your audience, because if your audience is everybody, your audience is nobody. So, narrow your thesis statement. So those who live in winter climates, do you see how it narrows it down?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Where there’s a snow floor, yeah.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Where there’s a snow floor. Now you have your argument, your topic and your three-point essay map is great, because what you’ve done is each of those become the topic of your body paragraphs. So, the first would be all about it being exhilarating. The first body paragraph would be all about it, it being exhilarating. I forget what the second one, oh, it’s gas efficient. The second paragraph would be all about being gas efficient. And it gives you a zest for life would be the third body paragraph. So, with one sentence you’ve outlined your whole essay.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I like that. That’s nice. And then, I’m curious about how one would come to that thesis in a concluding paragraph without simply just saying it exactly the same way.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Oh, Bethanie, I think you might be a budding English teacher over there.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, what we always say is, you paraphrase yourself. In your concluding essay, you want to take your thesis statement and you want to restate it in a way that captures the topic and the argument. And if you want, the essay map, but you don’t have to, but you want to do it in a way that the reader doesn’t recognize the words.

English has 800,000 words to choose from, and you could put them together in so many different ways. You don’t have to use the same words that you used in your original thesis statement to say some of the same things. And so, the idea is to just turn the phrase, paraphrase yourself in a way that concludes your essay. Can you imagine if I say to a student, “If you write a good thesis statement, you have your concluding sentence for your whole essay.”

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love that. And that simplifies it, I think, for the student too, especially, who’s not feeling confident about the writing.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Yes.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, Jackie, we were talking about how to help a student learn to write an essay, how to lay it out. I’m wondering if there are any other tips about the writing part before we go on to maybe the evaluating, grading that many of our listeners are also wondering on about.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. So, one of the things that I always say to students is “Variety is the spice of life.” If you’re an American, you know that saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” In other words, the more things change up, the more exciting they are. And it’s the same with writing. Variety is the spice of writing.

So, you can write a simple sentence, you can write a complex sentence, you can write a compound sentence, you can put sentences together and build one long sentence out of two or three or four shorter sentences, the idea is you work with all of those in one essay.

What that does, let me give you an example, one of the best novels I’ve ever worked with that showed this is Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” And what he does beautifully is he moves from short, choppy sentences where your heart is beating, to longer, more sonorous sentences where you feel relaxed.

And then he comes in again with the short, choppy sentences and you’re taken off guard and your heart starts to beat again. And so, that’s the kind of stuff you want to do in writing. Even in academic writing, you could write these long, beautifully, complex sentences, follow it up with something really short and to the point so it wakes up your reader. You want to have that kind of variety in your sentences.

And one of the ways I talk to primarily American students, because students who learn English from other languages don’t have the same problem, but grammar is such a beast for students in the United States. And one of the reasons is, because they just don’t understand that the words that we’ve chosen to name our grammar, nouns, and verbs, it’s all from Latin. And it used to be that we all learned Latin in university, but not anymore.

So, our students, they have a hard time with the words. And so, one of the things I do in any writing class is I start at the very beginning. So, I explain to them what each of the Latin words means so that they can finally get a grasp on grammar. And then I say to them, “Hey, let me tell you this, if you are writing, 85% of what your words say is the important part of an essay. 15% is the grammar. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about the grammar, but that shouldn’t be the only worry.”

And this is the way I like to tell my students, “If you were lucky enough to go by a beautiful Monet painting, you flew to France and you bought the Monet and you came home and you went to put it on your wall and you realized you didn’t have a frame for it, and you went down to Walmart and you bought a 99 cent frame to put your beautiful Monet painting in, the Monet will not have changed because of the frame, but it will detract from the Monet because of the frame.”

And that’s the same with grammar, you want to put your writing, your words, the painting with your words in a beautiful frame, which is grammar. And the frame allows the beautiful words, the painting with words to be enhanced rather than the frame taking away from the understanding of the words. Does that make sense?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Absolutely. And it sounds like you have to craft with the grammar what supports it to flow well, or to show the beauty of what you’re saying.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Right. You want your words, the words that you’re painting into a beautiful picture to mean the same coming from your mind into the mind of the reader. And the way we do this is we have this shared structure, this shared format. And we use nouns, and we use verbs, and we use punctuation and they only account for 15% of the final overall painting, but it’s an important 15% because it puts us all on the same page. We all know, reader or writer, what you’re doing with a period, what you’re doing with a verb, what you’re doing with a noun. And so, that’s why it’s important.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to just shift gears a little bit to the evaluating part, the grading. One of the complaints online faculty sometimes have is that grading writing takes so long, it’s so involved. And I want to just make a confession right here that when I was first teaching online, I would bleed all over the essay. I would be doing what I’m sure you’re going to say we should not do, and that it was editing. So, I’d be making a comment here, there, everywhere. Since then, I totally approach it differently, but I would prefer listeners hear from you about what they should do, what your suggestions might be.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: There’s a couple ways to go at this. What I say to my faculty members, “Remember, English we grade 500 to 600 pages of writing every single week. And so we need to teach. That’s why we do assessments, to teach through assessments, but we also have to be reasonable with our time so we can teach in the classroom.”

And so, I always say, “If you spend more time writing than the students spent writing, you’re doing it wrong. You’re not engaging a paper for a long-term affair. This is speed dating. You want to be thorough, but you don’t want to be in there all day long. So, you’re not making a commitment to the paper, you’re going through it.”

And here’s the first thing that we do wrong as academics, as teachers in general, we correct every single mistake. And that’s a mistake, because we’ve done the work and now we understand how, for instance, grammar works, but we’ve done all the work for the students and so therefore they haven’t learned anything.

So, you’re not an editor. You’re right, we often edit. What you want to do is you want to read through the paper. If you see that there’s issues, for instance, with grammar, you want to pinpoint about three big pieces of grammar, the things that you think, if they were cleared up, the paper would be more intelligible.

And then you clearly correct it and give a comment that says, let me give an example, “This sentence is a run-on sentence, that means you have two or more sentences smashed together without the correct punctuation. Let me show you how to fix it.” Fix it. Then you fix it. And then you say in a comment, in the end of your comment, “I want you to go through your paper and find all of the run-on sentences and correct them. Next time I grade your papers, I’m going to be looking for the fact that you corrected your run-on sentences.” Do you see what I mean? You tell them what it is, you define it, you show them how to fix it, you tell them that’s how they’re being evaluated in their next piece of writing.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That sounds like a wonderful approach. It’s going to save us lots of time and energy. So, I’m hearing you say that we should ask for a second submission.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, a lot of times in writing we do a second submission in English papers, but I’m also comfortable if it’s a single paper and the next time they’re doing a paper on something else, I make it clear, “When you write your week five paper, I’m looking for this.” So, it doesn’t necessarily have to be another paper or resubmission. You hope that they take your feedback and rewrite all the run-on sentences, but they may not. I don’t think I did when I was in college, but you hope. But you make it clear that you’re looking for them in the next paper.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That makes a lot of sense. And then if you’re just telling the student to just apply this, you don’t necessarily have to track each one, follow up, see that they did it, you’re just advising, basically.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Exactly. You’re not the police. You’re there to give support, to teach, to help. And you don’t want to forget the lesson that you taught in the first assignment. You want to make sure that that lesson was understood.

Because sometimes they don’t understand what you’ve said. You may think you put the most time into your comments on a paper and you find that nothing’s changed in the next paper. Well, maybe they didn’t understand. And so, you want to give another opportunity for them to succeed.

So, the idea in writing is you want people to succeed. So, you point it out, you define it, you correct it, you show them, you tell them what you want them to do for the next paper. And if they don’t do it, you do it again.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Gain confidence.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Gain confidence. You don’t let it die. You’re right, Bethanie, gaining confidence is important when you see it done well. The students in my class laugh because I teach the semicolon rule, an easy way to fix a run on sentence is to take the period, where you would put a period, for two sentences and put a semicolon in. It’s the easiest rule. And so, when I see it on papers, I make a big deal out of it, “Semicolon, this is great.”

And so, they get the idea that I’m looking to see what they do well, as well as what they don’t do well. And I think that’s important because all of us sometimes accidentally do something well. And so, if a teacher points out, “This was perfect, this was so well said, this was so well done,” if it was one of those moments when it was accidental, you’ve gelled, “Hey, I did this, right and I didn’t even know I did it right, but I’m going to do it like this forever now.” That’s the hope.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love that you’re pointing out a positive as well, because I think when you’re working online, oh, maybe you’re doing this eight hours a day, all week-long kind of thing, if it’s your full-time gig, you’re really spending a lot of time. And I know it’s easy to get fed up with the same problem you see, and have a difficult time being positive. Sometimes you see that same thing over and over, especially if you’re correcting it or stating the problem and explaining and it’s not getting fixed. So, bringing out the positive probably helps balance it for the student too and ensure that you’re not just getting stuck in that negative zone.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: No. And I don’t think corrections in writing should ever be a negative. I think it’s support. It’s a writing workshop where I’m saying, “Let me give you some advice on how to make this even better.” Years ago, I gave up using a red pen. Years ago. And it’s because people saw red pen and panicked. So even if I wrote something nice with a red pen, students weren’t seeing that.

And so now I just dialogue, I consider it a dialogue. So even when I say this is a run-on sentence, this is what it means, okay, a run-on sentence isn’t good, but I don’t make the student feel like, “She found a mistake, I did something wrong.” No, of course you’re going to make mistakes. You’re human. Welcome to the human race. And so, it’s okay. Make a mistake. I’m going to define it and teach you how to not make that mistake. If you want to learn how not to make that mistake, I’m going to give you that opportunity.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, I know we’re getting short on time for our session here or our episode, I’m wondering if we were to pull all this together for some key points that we really want listeners to take away, what would those be?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, I would say the first thing is that writing is never a punishment. So, for anyone out there who thinks I’m going to make you write a theme for doing something wrong, please don’t do that. Writing is the articulation of your innermost heart and your innermost thoughts. And so, what a beautiful gift to give to our students, to teach them how to write in a way that the reader can understand, fully understand, the expression that’s coming from their heart and minds. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is if you think about teaching writing, instead of, one of the things I always say to students is how do you eat an elephant? It’s overwhelming. Think about eating an elephant. It’s about 26,000 Big Mac’s if you sit down to eat an elephant. How do you do it? And eventually someone will say one bite at a time, and that’s it.

So, if you think about the essay like the elephant, how do you do it? It’s one bite at a time. So, you teach the building blocks. Let’s start with a simple thesis statement, it’s one sentence. One. We can write that. And when they do it, well done, let’s go on the next building block until they get to the essay. It doesn’t take that long to do it that way.

And then, finally, as we’re looking over it and providing feedback, remember feedback is not a “gotcha.” It’s not a moment of “you made a mistake and I’m going to point it out.” That’s not what it’s for. A feedback is to help the student improve. I’m going to give you the key that if use it you can unlock a more fluid, more interesting, more understandable writing style. And as teachers of writing, you’re not editors. So, when you are grading it, your feedback is a dialogue between you and the student. You’re not an editor, save that for the publishing companies.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Nice. I think that’s going to help a lot of our listeners relax a little bit, realizing they don’t have to catch every little thing that’s wrong with someone’s writing.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Bethanie, some of the things that are wrong is what makes the writing good. So, we teach the rules all the time, but I always say to students, “When you’re really good at writing, when you learn all the rules, then you could break the rules, and that makes your writing special.”

So sometimes, when I write, I know what a fragment is, an incomplete sentence, but when I write creatively, I use a lot of fragments in my writing. And it’s not a mistake there. It’s intentional. And the reader knows that I know how to write a complete sentence. So, when I write a fragment, it’s for reason, it’s to pay attention here, I’m breaking the rules. And so, I think if we look at the idiosyncrasy that everybody brings to their own specific writing, I think, in the end that ends up being beautiful.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes, it does. Well, Dr. Fowler, I want to thank you for being with us today. It’s been a true pleasure to hear your thoughts about writing, but also your enthusiasm. You’re really inspiring to speak with because you have this energy about writing and it’s not this overwhelming thing, when you’re sharing all these points, it’s very encouraging. And I hope our listeners today will take that away and be able to apply that in their online work and their online teaching with students and just spread the wealth about how much fun this can be and how not overwhelming it can also be.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Bethanie, writing is always hard, even when you love to do it. The hardest part is starting. But once you start, you move.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Sounds so true. Thank you again for being here. And we’re going to say goodbye to our listeners and wish them all the best in their online teaching this coming week. This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for The Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#96: Student Retention Strategies in Online Education

#96: Student Retention Strategies in Online Education

This content originally appeared on APUEdge.Com.

Every year, a large number of students across the country leave college and fail to complete their degree. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about what educators can do to improve student retention numbers. Learn ways to help students address academic difficulties, resolve academic or occupational goals, and help them gain a sense of belonging and connection during their education.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m Bethanie Hansen, and I’m happy to be with you here today talking about student retention. Student retention is a phrase that you might hear a lot in online higher education. Every year a large number of students all across the country leave college and fail to complete their degree. So as professionals in online learning, we’re especially concerned about this number.

What are Student Retention Rates?

Now there’s a place called the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and in 2019, they reported that nearly 29% of students who entered college in the fall of 2017 at four-year public institutions did not return to those institutions for a second year. That was well before the pandemic ever began. So we know it’s not specifically because of the pandemic. Retention of our online students is particularly low for those who are attending part-time. So nearly half of them are retained, and that means nearly half of them leave.

There’s a lot of data on this and when we think about why students enroll in college in the first place and why they may drop or choose not to return, there are many reasons. There are of course, personal issues, financial issues, family, work-related stress, interruptions, all kinds of things that come into the mix.

But there is a lot that we can do and these things we try to do to help students stay the course or persist and keep going to college, those are called retention strategies. When we do our retention strategies, then we start watching our students to see what they do. Are they staying? Are they enrolling in another class? Are they sticking around for the next semester or the next session? And when they do, we call that student persistence. So retention is what we do as the educators and higher education professionals to try to retain those students in class. And persistence? That’s what the students do.

Retention Strategies to Improve Student Persistence

Today, I’m going to speak with you about retention strategies. Things that we can try in working with our students to really encourage them to persist, to finish the class they enrolled in and continue on to the next one.

Most educators I know, and likely you might be the same way, we get into education because we really want to make a difference with our students. We want to help them reach their potential. We want to make a difference in this world by helping people better themselves through the transformative power of education.

That can’t happen if students are quitting their educations. When they don’t finish and they don’t keep going from class to class, they have a lot less opportunity available to them. Having that degree, whether it’s an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or even a doctoral degree, those things are so encouraging, but they also qualify our students for specific career fields and jobs.

So it’s very motivating for us as the teacher or a faculty member to encourage that student, to help them along. We’re going to talk about things we can do. We’re also going to talk about some things that inadvertently might affect our students’ desire to continue.

As a faculty director for seven years, I had a lot of experiences where I got occasional complaints about this or that faculty member. It did seem like there are certain behaviors that tend to push students away. And if we were together during a face-to-face class, and we did those very same things with a smile on our face, or with a bit of conversation around them, they would not have the same impact at all.

So, we’re going to talk a little bit about things that tend to push students away, as well as those strategies for helping them continue. I hope you’ll find some value in this podcast today, and at least one strategy you can try this coming week with your students. And hopefully continue so you can help them continue as well.

Model of Institutional Departure

There’s a well-known model created by Vincent Tinto. It was created in 1993 after his first published work in 1975. And it’s been used for a lot of years by many institutions. This model is called the Model of Institutional Departure. This model is all about three main areas that impact student persistence. These areas can easily be the reason why students leave the institution and don’t continue with their degree programs.

Academic Difficulties

The first one is academic difficulties. Think about what could enable the success of a student who is having academic difficulties. One thing I’ve seen in online education is a bit of flexibility when a student initially struggles academically. Some faculty will allow a redo. They’ll direct the student to a tutoring center, someone who can help them with their studies or their essay writing. And they’ll start to strengthen that student.

When we see that happen, sometimes the student will gain confidence, persevere through those academic difficulties, and start learning the hard stuff—they’ll really persist. Some will not. But academic difficulties are one of the major sources of student departure.

Challenges in Resolving Educational and Occupational Goals

A second area of students departing an institution is challenges in resolving educational and occupational goals. Now I experienced that myself at one time when I was completing a certificate at an institution. I was trying to change my major from this one area to this graduate certificate. And somehow just in the system itself, my records got stuck. My GPA went to 0 from all the credits that I did have, and I couldn’t figure out who to talk to or get help from. It was so discouraging, I didn’t feel like there was any way to resolve those goals that I had.

Challenges in resolving educational and occupational goals for our students can literally appear like a brick wall. So, the student does not feel like there’s any way forward to get where they really want to go. And, of course, that could be discouraging enough that they stop altogether.

Failure to Connect with the Institution

And third, failure to become academically and socially connected with the institution. When we think about this one, it’s really interesting because we have a variety of college age young people between the teen years and around 25 years old, which we would call traditional learners. And we also have adult learners who are over 25, all the way up to 80, 90 or so years old. We have a wide range of people going to college, especially online.

If you think about this wide range of age groups and demographics, failure to become academically and socially connected with the institution is an interesting obstacle to overcome. What does the student really want through academic connection? And what does the student want through social connection? Not every student is going to want the same thing. So, there are a variety of things that might attract the student to really get engaged and stay.

The bottom line in that academic and social connection is that the student feels a sense of belonging. They feel like they’re part of that college community and they want to be part of it. Some of us love it so much we become professional educators and we just want to stay forever because that sense of belonging was so rich and so inviting.

Think about your online class. If we just look from the lens of the single educator teaching one course with students in it, how can you help the student become connected to the academic life of that institution? What can you do to really build cognitive presence throughout the experience so the student feels richly involved? And what can you do to help them feel socially connected with the institution?

We had an example in the fall of 2021. We had an event that was about two hours long called World Philosophy Day. This event was recorded. So any student who could not attend could watch it after the fact. Simply knowing that it’s there, makes a lot of students feel socially connected and academically connected too. Attending the event really boosts that level. We had many students attend live and they stayed through the question and answers section at the end and asked a lot of questions. That did a lot for social connection in that group of students. Anything we do to help them feel like they’re part of a community is going to really go a long way.

Academic and Social Connection Support Students’ Goals

Now there are a lot of people who have done research on retention strategies. These three areas that I’ve mentioned from Tinto’s Model of Institutional Departure are really good, broad areas to be thinking about as faculty members, as teachers of our courses, and as members of this academic community. We can also think about how students need significant interactions with other members of the college.

That could be other departments. It could be faculty members. It could be the Dean, the President, the Provost. There are a lot of ways that students can have significant interactions, but they must be significant. Simply seeing someone’s name on a website is not going to check that box. So, as you’re thinking about different things you might do in your teaching throughout the session or term that you’re teaching your students, consider what might constitute a significant interaction with other members of the college.

What can you do to get students working with each other and connecting with different departments as they need to for your subject matter? How can you get your students to really get involved in the institutional library? Some online institutions have live librarians they can connect with and students can go there and talk to a real person. They can go to the advising department and connect with real people there.

We have student accommodations and a whole department associated with that. There are many different departments filled with live people that can speak with them and with whom they can really gain relationships. These are going to be significant interactions that help them feel part of the community and like they belong. Really integrating our students into this community is what’s going to help them want to stay.

The Role of Mentoring

Think about this point: Mentoring has been mentioned a lot in recent years in higher education, but particularly in online higher education. Mentoring has a lot of potential to help students feel like they’re connected to the institution and that they’re having significant interactions. Mentoring can go a lot of different ways. For example, mentoring might have to do with helping the student prepare for their career field. It might have to do with help guiding them in the subject matter, helping them to balance their life, get their study skills down.

There’s a wide range of areas that could fit into mentoring. But particularly for students who are isolated and don’t have a really clear way to connect to the institution, mentoring can go a long ways towards helping that student feel like they really do have a space there and a person that’s their go-to person.

Now, another variation of mentoring could be group work throughout a class. If you can get your students combined into groups of some kind and work together for projects and things, and yet grade them on their own contributions, not dependent on those other people. If they can work together, but still be individually accountable, that’s going to be a form of peer support that can be especially rich and supportive during a course.

Anything we can do to share what’s happening in the institution with our students, especially if there are events happening, webinars, if there’s a commencement ceremony, even if the student isn’t graduating that year, for them to know about it, to hear about it, to see it coming up, they’re going to be able to imagine themselves participating sometime in the future.

So there are those three big areas that tend to push students toward departure. And there are a lot of things we can do that helps students to really feel anchored and like they belong in the community to prevent those things from happening.

Now, on the flip side, I mentioned that I occasionally get student complaints and although I’m no longer a Faculty Director, I am a Department Chair, so I still have my finger on the pulse of what students are experiencing in my department. And when they have an experience with a faculty member that is not friendly, not inviting, not supportive, I hear about it.

A good example of this would be just a slow and abrupt response. If a student has a reason to ask for support with an assignment or clarity about a topic, and maybe the instructor is feeling like “this is a question I get all the time and I’m tired of this question,” the comment may come back slow and it might be a little terse or abrupt. And that can be incredibly rejecting to the student who’s asking for help.

Many students do not want to ask for help. And when they finally do, they’ve thought about it a really long time. So it could do us a lot of good to think about what that student is experiencing when they’re coming to us for help? What their experience with us in the class might be? What our impact is before we think about what their question is?

Educators Can Improve Engagement and Interactions

So, we can see things through the eyes of our students a lot better when we ask questions, when we pause and notice the tone, the question, the words that the student is using. And what we choose to focus on in our engagement with another, whether it’s virtual or a face-to-face engagement, that’s going to grow. So if we focus on the unkind part or the abrupt part of it, we’re going to continue to have that kind of an interchange with that person.

Likewise, if we focus on curiosity and patience and understanding, we’re going to grow that side of our teaching as well. Once we slow down and we pause and we notice where the student’s coming from, ask a lot of questions, and really try to understand, then we can be really present with what they need. And we can focus on that one thing and just give them that presence and that support that’s going to help them keep going in their studies and be really capable of exercising the grit that they need and the resilience that they need to continue.

Send a Welcome Note to Invite Students into the Class

Now you might be thinking that you’ve heard a lot about retention programs at your institution. Maybe there’s been an initiative rolled out that everyone needs to do a certain thing a certain way, and that’s going to help students persist in their classes. There are a lot of things that work incredibly well for retention purposes.

And if you’re doing them and you’re watching the results and you’re approaching them with a true desire to help your students keep going, they’re going to be more effective. One of those things is communicating to your students before the session begins. And that could be a few days before the class begins. It could be a week before the class begins.

When you do that primary outreach before the course has started, you introduce yourself, you start building a connection with your student and you build a bridge before the first day of class, your student is more invited and they’re feeling less nervous, less anxious about showing up in your classroom. They have a little bit of a sense of safety already before the first day of class.

Set Expectations Early to Help Students Plan Ahead

Another thing that we can do that helps students to persist is to share with them what our expectations are and what the assignments are early in the session. Maybe they even get a copy of the syllabus before the first day of class. Whatever it is, they need to know what they’re going to have to do that whole time so they can plan their time accordingly.

If students don’t know that they’re going to have a large number of pages to read every night and several essays, they will likely drop the class when they get too busy to do those things. But if they know it going into the class, they can plan ahead and set the time aside and manage it.

Some students even decide when to take certain courses, whether to take only one course at a time, or to take two or three courses at a time, based on the perceived workload they think that course will have. Mine’s a really common one that students like to pair with at least one other class, because they think it’s going to be super easy. It’s music appreciation and they think they’re going to just listen to music all day long.

They are very surprised when they learn they have to write an essay, they have to read a lot, listen to a lot, discuss a lot in the discussions. But it’s a lot more helpful when they know on the very first day of class or even a couple days early in that welcome message that I’m going to send out. That gives them the chance to decide, should I move my courses around? Am I going to be able to take two or three classes at a time? And they can judge for themselves.

Communicate with Kindness to Build Relationships

So, even if there’s no big strategy at your institution, you can do some of those things to give students advanced information. Be very patient and kind in your communications even if you have to say no to something. And, help students feel like they belong, that they have some connection in your course and connection to the bigger university setting.

So be thinking about academic difficulties your students could have in your subject area and in your particular class. Think about what could present a challenge to them in resolving their goals while they’re trying to get through your class. And think about how they can become academically and socially connected to the institution. With those three things in mind, you’re more likely to help your students finish the class and persist to enroll in the next one and eventually graduate with that degree.

I hope you’ll think more about that this week and try one of those strategies. Maybe you’ll come up with one that I haven’t mentioned here. If you’d like to share it back, please visit my site, bethaniehansen.com/request, even though that form is set up for you to request specific topics. I’ve also gotten communications of all kinds and even feedback about our podcast at that address. And I would love to hear from you.

So let us know what’s working for you in retention strategies that really helps your students to persist and what keeps it from happening. And, just so you know, we’re almost to episode number 100 in this podcast. We have some special guests coming up in just a few weeks and I hope you will enjoy all of the student affairs topics we’ll be talking about. We even have a special appearance from our university president at American Public University, Dr. Kate Zatz coming up. So definitely tune in each week. Don’t miss an episode and share it with a colleague or a friend. Here’s to you and wishing you all the best this coming week in your online teaching.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.