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“Assertively” Communicating with Students to Improve Retention

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“Assertively” Communicating with Students to Improve Retention

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Achieving good rates of retention is a challenge for external online-only student cohorts. This is especially challenging with larger numbers of non-traditional students who never come onto the......

Achieving good rates of retention is a challenge for external online-only student cohorts. This is especially challenging with larger numbers of non-traditional students who never come onto the university campus. Leveraging off the available technology becomes a key element to any strategy to meet these challenges. Blackboard provides a number of potential tools for this purpose. Based on the experiences implementing an assertive student engagement approach in a core Bachelor of Nursing unit, this presentation takes a pragmatic look at an approach that has succeeded in consistently reducing withdrawal rates over a three-year period.

Charles Darwin University at Blackboard Teaching & Learning Conference 2013 Melbourne

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  • Attrition is a significant issue in terms of cost and loss of personal opportunity of individual students to succeed in higher education. Dropping out of a unit can be quite demoralising. Because I have been relatively consistent in delivering a 200-level unit from a point in time where it was being delivered to an on-campus cohort to one in which it is now exactly the opposite – fully online – I have a unique opportunity to examine the contexts and trajectory of attrition in such a way that I am now confident that a strategy I call “assertive” engagement can significantly improve retention. However, I believe the context or background of the problem is a critical key to understanding what might work in order to achieve this outcome. So I will also outline this for you before having a detailed look at what was implemented and the outcomes. I will present the retention outcomes of this strategy as I progress through the presentation.
  • So, lets begin at the beginning of my five-year chronology.
  • This presentation draws upon my involvement in a 200-level unit within the Bachelor of Nursing degree and examines what has happened over four years as a case study. As I was Unit Coordinator for almost all this period, it has provided a good opportunity to look back as i have access to nearly the entire historical data. I hope you will see however that important to success with retention lies in the clues provided by the in-depth contextual knowledge over these years that I will now present to you. The five-year chronology tracks the change from a unit that was initially designed and delivered to an on-campus cohort. The transition to its current form of a fully online delivery commenced with a supplementary video-conferencing delivery to another campus. It is now fully online with an extremely small cohort (~10%) of on-campus students. This history provides an opportunity to examine the trajectory of unit outcomes associated associated with changes in context and changes in teaching strategies to try and address the issue of attrition that subsequently arose. I want to argue that our initial engagement was not explicitly considered and in hindsight was characterised by a “passive” form of engagement with our students.
  • I don’t believe our situation was unusual. These issues will be familiar to most of you; but it is worth reviewing them here to frame the issues differently in the context of addressing student attrition.The unit in this presentation was initially transferred onto Blackboard in a highly ad hoc manner. Online delivery was seen as a useful approach to maintaining and perhaps growing student volumes. This turned out to be a correct assumption!However, the strategy to utilise Blackboard largely restricted to one in which it was merely to supplement the existing delivery by providing alternative access to materials. A take-it-or-leave-it approach to student learning. In contrast to my current approach I call this a passive approach to engagement with students. I believe this to be an important starting point because in the absence of awareness, learning materials and eventually the “tasks” of teaching were merely transferred onto Blackboard in accordance with our technological comfort. Readings were duplicated online, eventually the classroom was duplicated online, and in hindsight, I think it was assumed that if these were duplicated then satisfactory students outcomes would also get duplicated.Of course, it didn’t work out that way and there are some key lessons learnt in what went wrong.
  • The prediction of increased student volume came true – in my memory, a bit too shockingly true!Commencements were trending up by 20% per annum.In terms of staff to student ratio; my workload went through the roof! However, student attrition was increasing faster than the increase in student commencements!Trending to disaster. It wasn’t sustainable.
  • The increasing commencements suggested the shift to online delivery was clearly addressing an unmet need. At first it was unnoticed that our students had dramatically shifted from an on-campus cohort of mostly traditional school-leavers to being almost exactly the opposite. This is now accepted as reasonably typical of online cohorts. The students in this unit are now 10% on-campus, 2/3 are mature-age, mid-career, already employed, financially committed, parents. The other way of looking at this demographic change is to say that we went from a relatively homogenous – and familiar traditional student-leaver cohort - to one that is now highly diverse in their educational and personal histories.
  • Additionally, also unnoticed at first, was that this 200-level unit had suddenly became entry-level due to the majority of students now receiving advanced standing. This is pertinent to my comment of *highly diverse educational and personal histories*.Looking at the graph, it is hard to argue that there wasn’t an association to the transition to online delivery. Yet, increasing enrolments also suggested that students desired something that online delivery offered. The reality however, was that something was causing them to walk away! Looking back, my contention is that this attrition data is evidence that we were no longer meeting our student’s needs and this was because we no longer knew our students. As you can imagine the withdrawal rate got plenty of attention from Faculty Office!
  • To reframe the context….By 2011, 84% of the students in this unit experienced *everything* about their learning for this unit through some form of technology – if it wasn’t Blackboard, it was email or telephone. They never-ever saw me in person. Until we started with Wimba (now Collaborate) in 2009, many were likely to not even hear my voice or see my face (I didn’t even have my picture showing in Blackboard). I point this out because the pervasiveness of technology dictating the form of engagement with the students. However, technology-mediated engagement was also impacted on at least in part by the diverse demographics in which study and learning is fitted in around other work-life priorities. Cumulatively, the passivity of the take-it-or-leave-it utilisation of Blackboard – in which student motivation is presumed to be intrinsic to the student – was never going to work.As you will see, the thread of my argument is that re-thinking engagement – in order to drive down attrition - means grasping an understanding the twin effects of technological isolation and the diversity of the student cohort. In a quite real sense… understanding our students.Re-thinking engagement meant deliberately thinking about how to become more informed about the students and how they were or weren’t learning. This was once quite an automatic (and hence, hidden) part of engagement within the classroom and of course, the students who turned up at the office door.
  • Technology-mediated isolation is a two-way street. One problem was that as lecturer, it was hard to see what was happening with the students week-by-week. Even the tiny 10% on-campus students did not access me face-to-face; I saw perhaps two or three students in my office per semester out of 3 to 400 students! “Difficulty seeing what was happening” quickly disclosed some startling issues. Prior to online delivery I used to keep a roll for on-campus attendance and it was easy to track who wasn’t attending and act on it. However, I did an exercise with Wimba statistics in 2010 and found that the average live online attendance ranged from about 20% in the first week to 5% late semester. Students were not actively engaged; most of the students were at some point accessing the recordings. Clearly, they were working around life-work priorities. However, this meant they were passive recipients. Offers of support that were electronically sent to all students seemed to get picked up by something less that 15% of students (personal communication with ALLSP, 2010-11). And interestingly the slowly increasing rate of appeals against marks were revealing a striking mismatch between student expectations and the actual standards expected in assessments.These are not new issues; but when the technology becomes the classroom, the campus, and the university experience, I think the issues need rethinking. While it was clear the anywhere-at-anytime flexibility was wanted by students – and they were literally and bluntly telling me this in their emails – a 35% attrition rate was telling me that it wasn’t working out for them. …and not working for me too!
  • The issue seemed to me to be one of technology-mediated isolation. There was an inability for the student and the lecturer to obtain feedback on what was happening to learning and teaching.Over a number of weeks I completely redesigned the unit. I decided that I would become highly directive and very explicit about what I wanted from my students and would use multiple mechanisms to correct expectations as early as possible. Instead of “offering” or “inviting” students into there learning opportunities I would assertively inform them of both what was needed and how to get their – as much as possible working with their desire for flexibility. The challenge was to redesign so that the approach to learning and teaching using Blackboard was simultaneously capable of producing data about how well students were doing. To do this I drew upon a number of aspects within Blackboard for student management and communication.
  • Using Blackboard’s performance, progression and communication tools are inseparably a pedagogical issue. Blackboard can give lots of data on a lot of things, but it is only in the context that the numbers mean anything. This is critical as any engagement with students based on Blackboard data have to also make sense to them. To extract meaningful performance and progression data from Blackboard, you need to translate the pedagogical approach into the capabilities of Blackboard…. at the same time, recognising that there are limits to one’s technological abilities!Since I was still learning the technology I decided to not be too ambitious at first. So, I started with a simple pedagogical approach. I hoped it would also be simple for the students too!
  • The unit now has a very highly structured approach to learning, progression and expected outcomes. I took the opportunity of putting Blackboard Lesson Plans into a Learning Module. This produces a visual Table of Contents structure shown here. I used a highly prescriptive simple sequence of topics on a week-by-week basis, each week dependent on satisfactory acquisition of the concepts from the preceding week. The Lesson Plans have a repeated pattern and serve to direct both me and the student every week. I went even further with asserting a directive approach! I set up the Lesson Plans on Adaptive Release. Students must tick “Reviewed” in order to make the next week available to them and I do not let them get too far ahead or too far behind.
  • Having a sequential structure and using the “reviewed status” data provides all the Blackboard triggers needed to obtain real-time data on what students were doing. The alignment between the sequential structure and the Blackboard data points means that this data immediately reveals student progression!!! Through Performance Dashboard, student progression is now visible. The column “Review Status” indicates which week the student has “Reviewed”. As you can see in this screenshot three students have raced ahead and three students have yet to even begin to review Week 1 learning materials (Review Status 1 means they have made Week 1 visible)! I now know who to chase up! I don’t need to worry about the motivated students who are doing exactly what is expected.
  • Feedback on performance is a different issue. Isolated students were not getting feedback on what was expected of them and I lacked an ability to set up expectations on a week-by-week basis and communicate this to students. Again, I went with a somewhat simple approach that remained within my level of technological competence - and also the available time to set it all up. I introduced short quizzes (only 10 MCQs) for every week. Quizzes – or any “assignment” or “test” in Blackboard are of course, track-able. So setting up weekly self-assessments gave me a way of monitoring student performance. At the same time the quizzes operate as instantaneous formative feedback. Students get a brief compliment for every correct answer and get advisory feedback on how to correct the mistake whenever they get a question wrong. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of students are in this unit as once it is set up it operates in a completely automated fashion. The bonus is that I can see those underperforming students and communicate with them.I was wary of quizzes thinking that this would mean students simply learn the material to the extent that the quiz feedback indicates they have sufficiently learnt the material. Given my awareness of how time-poor students were, this seemed the most likely outcome. The response from students to short weekly multi-choice quizzes has been quite surprising. Almost all students do them. I usually get a small percentage of students emailing me to do the quiz more than once. This gives me an opportunity to give some carefully worded advice on good study techniques versus reliance on a memory-effect. Since I now have a means of “seeing” student performance moment-by-moment for several hundred students I can contact students who are not doing so well. I send out a very gently worded EWS notification to students based on either of two EWS rules: an “overdue attempt” or “below expected mark”. GO TO NEXT SLIDE
  • EWS rules permit a reasonable level of filtering so that a high degree of tailoring can occur with the notifications sent to students.Students who are already great independent learners don’t need to receive dozens of emails offering support or advice; they are already motivated and already know how to learn what they need to do to learn. So these rules let me selectively tailor messages to those who I know will be less motivated and loss independent. In other words, those students more likely to withdraw or fail.This screen shows a variety of EWS “Rules” set up for Semester 1 this year…. overdue attempts, below expected performance, absence from the unit. It also shows how I can tailor messages to escalate the concern I have (e.g. access 7, 21, and 28 days). I don’t do that for the self-assessments as I regard that as an opportunity to encourage a study routine. The response to early warning messages has been quite striking. But I have learnt to very carefully craft the emails I send on the basis of these “rules”. Implementing warnings without plenty of encouragement and information about *how* to be successful can lead to students feel put down and become distressed or feeling quite betrayed and angry. At the same time, these notifications appear to be very effective as a mechanism to set up expectations. This process of engagement seeks to gradually escalate messages about expectations and provide greater levels of my concern along with advice and support they can access in order to achieve success. So, I start very early in semester and begin from a very gentle tone. When the words are “just right” in the emails the student response has been “thank you, I’ve been a bit lost”, “it’s great to hear that lecturer’s are not just leaving us alone”, “…sorry Brian I have had family problems and should have contacted you”, and “it is good to know the lecturer keeps an eye on us”.
  • The initial contact is very gentle. Up until Week 4 the escalation of notifications to students falling behind is all about providing increasing the levels of information about support, and in particular, about expectations about how best to use the Blackboard site (for instance, how to effectively use the weekly self-assessments) and developing study routines in order to succeed. I also slowly introduce the expectation of catching up if they are falling behind.From Week 4, the notifications are more pointed about missing the expected level of progression and performance (e.g. below expected marks). I use Week 4 as a significant marker because the assignment is designed to be a very early signal of threshold performance but of sufficiently low weighting so as not to be demoralising if it is failed.
  • A combined view of performance and progression data shows up crystal clear the High Risk students at very high (risk of withdrawal and risk of failure). The graded escalation has shown to be effective. There are a few levels of escalation before getting to the point of sending this very sternly worded notification. The escalation process also means that despite several hundred students, usually only 10 or so students at the most would be sent this message. This notification is followed up with personal telephone calls. It has been very rare that the telephone follow-up exceeds a dozen students! This is now a very manageable number for highly personalised follow-up. The personal telephone calls frequently reveal some extraordinary extenuating circumstances that the student hadn’t alerted us to such as lost online access due to natural disasters such as bushfires or floods. Sometimes the result of the telephone call is a decision to withdraw. Sometimes the issues are complex and the telephone calls become quite lengthy; but now that I have a 0.5 EFT lecturer this number of students is a breeze!Of course, this isn’t my complete workload, there is still the exhausting management of Discussion Board and all the daily student emails on top of maintaining the site itself.But the next slide will show you that it is definitely worth implementing this kind of structure!
  • The outcomes of these strategies has been quite dramatic in my view. A reduction from 35% attrition to 16% in two years I think demonstrates the efficacy of considering approaches where communication is “assertive”.The 2013 withdrawal rate is only for the first semester. But traditionally the second semester rate is better that first semester so I view the withdrawal rate for 2013 as pretty conservative.
  • While I do not wish to discount the importance of getting the online teaching right and having good design and quality of teacher presence in online classes and discussion boards. The results I have shown here tell me that our overall unit design has to also consider how we might provide a highly diverse, isolated, and large volume of students a less impersonal experience outside of what might be termed the teaching tasks or teaching contact time.However, this is certainly not disconnected from the overall pedagogical thinking about how to deliver a unit or topic, but perhaps involves more explicitly attending to how to “see” students falling behind and then responding to them in ways to re-engage them or motivate them. Because the students are only visible through a technology filter, “seeing” our students only makes sense if there is a sound logic linking Blackboard data in a way that makes pedagogical sense.There is a bonus here. The task isn’t to engage with several hundred students, but instead to engage with quite small numbers of very specific subsets of students. The numbers become very manageable. For instance, there are extremely few students that fall into the “Very High Risk” category that need personal telephone calls. On the other hand, a lot of energy and time needs to go into the careful crafting of words in EWS notifications! The ability to increasingly focus from low to highest levels of risk means engagement gets increasingly individualised; again, this can be crafted to communicate quite personal levels of genuine concern and care as well as offering genuine means of helping the student achieve what they want to achieve.


  • 1. “Assertively” Communicating with Students to Improve Retention Dr Brian Phillips Charles Darwin University
  • 2. PRESENTATION o The issue and context o A case example: five-year chronology o An approach that appears to work: “assertive” engagement, and o Outcomes to date
  • 3. CONTEXTUALISING THE ISSUE OF ATTRITION A case example over three years
  • 4. A CASE EXAMPLE o Second-year core unit in a nursing degree o Examined a five-year chronology from when the unit transitioned to online delivery o A journey from “passive” student engagement toward “assertive” student engagement
  • 5. “PASSIVE” ENGAGEMENT WITH NUR219 Transitioning to online teaching had an immediate impact on demographics, but also on attrition rates
  • 6. STUDENT ATTRITION 2009-2013 (NUR219) 0.0% 5.0% 10.0% 15.0% 20.0% 25.0% 30.0% 35.0% 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 Total W Rate
  • 7. I NO LONGER KNOW WHO MY STUDENTS ARE Two areas of dramatic change: o Unit commencements increased 20% p.a.; a dramatic increased staff-student ratio o Student demographics changed from mostly traditional school- leavers to majority of non-traditional (mature-age, mid- career, employed, etc). o A rapid shift from relatively homogenous traditional cohort to a highly diverse student cohort!
  • 8. INITIAL CONSEQUENCES o Withdrawal rates rapidly increased from 11% to 32% o Fail rates also began to climb. o (Anecdotally) Rates of appeals and complaints also seemed to be climbing.
  • 9. RE-THINKING “ENGAGEMENT” 84% students now experience every aspect of their learning in this unit through Blackboard.
  • 10. COMPLETELY TECHNOLOGY- MEDIATED ENGAGEMENT o The pervasive impact of total technology-mediated student engagement was not immediately appreciated o Electronic invitations and offers of support (online) were not being taken up o Collaborate (virtual classrooms), email, telephone, did not adequately replace complex classroom interaction
  • 11. TARGETING THE ENGAGEMENT LOOP Redesigning to o Continuously inform students of progress against expectations, providing structure and direction, using multiple communication techniques o Obtain continuous “student feedback” about progression
  • 12. SETTING OUT THE ROAD AHEAD Showing students the road ahead and how to travel it.
  • 13. PUTTING IN A ROAD MAP… o Structure o Expectations
  • 14. …AND SPEED LIMITS! o Surveillance (“seeing” the students) o Performance dashboard
  • 15. …AND WARNINGS FOR INFRINGEMENTS! o Early Warning System used to send email notifications to specific sets of students o To set up expectations o To provide encouragement and assistance o Management of large numbers of students
  • 16. RELEVANT ENGAGEMENT Personalised and individually responsive
  • 17. GRADED EWS RESPONSES Initial early semester EWS notification
  • 18. ESCALATION OF COMMUNICATION High risk notification followed up with a telephone call.
  • 19. IMPACT Early results 0.0% 5.0% 10.0% 15.0% 20.0% 25.0% 30.0% 35.0% 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 Students W Rate
  • 20. FOCUS ON (“SEEING”) THE STUDENT o Address student isolation (presence) outside of the learning and teaching tasks (assertively engage) o Provide structure and expectations using as many modes of communication as possible. o Link the pedagogical structure to Blackboard in such a way as to “see” students who are becoming “at risk” o Take great care with language when using EWS notifications !
  • 21. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE JOURNEY Retention is about the experience along the way rather than the result at the end.