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How to get students to show up and learn

By Lisa Neal / July 2002

TYPE: OPINION
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No one has exact numbers, but there is a general agreement that attrition is higher in online courses than in classroom-delivered courses. High drop-out rates have been attributed to the demographics of online students, the inexperience of online faculty, poorly designed e-learning technologies, flawed course design, and low bandwidth. Whatever the root cause, I believe the problem can be largely solved through accountability. But how can student accountability be achieved?

In my own online teaching, mostly blended courses for corporate training, I ask my students to let me know in advance if they will miss a synchronous session. They always tell me and always have good reasons—it's hard, under the circumstances, to use a trivial one. I greet each student at the beginning of class and often call on a student to lead a discussion or summarize a reading assignment. I occasionally call on people during class if I haven't heard from them or think they might have insights on a topic. This adds accountability—for the students to show up, be prepared, stay focused, and participate.

My goal is for my students to learn, but to accomplish that I need to get them to class, get them to do their assignments, and keep them from playing solitaire or reading their email during class. I try to create an environment that fosters personal responsibility. While I prefer that this happen because a discussion is fascinating, I'm willing to have them become more attentive because they don't want to be called on when unprepared or distracted.

When one is young, success in school is largely based on showing up and displaying appropriate behavior. As one gets older, there's more intrinsic motivation arising from the desire to learn or the need for professional achievement. But even an intrinsically motivated student has to squeeze an online class into a busy day. That's why accountability is so important.

The last time I was required to take an online course, I took it on a Saturday, the last day I could complete it without being labeled a "no-show." Since I prefer to be recognized for my accomplishments rather than for my oversights, this motivated me to finally take the class, after over two weeks of trying to fit it in every day. Is that accountability? Yes. Did it motivate me? Yes. But my focus was on passing the test, not understanding and mastering the material.

A teacher who creates an accountability-focused learning environment can show students how the content of a course is relevant and useful, and therefore worthy of attendance and attention. One should build enthusiasm and provide context for students so they understand how to apply what they are learning. This should be the goal in any teaching environment, but it's harder to achieve online—as high drop-out rates reveal. But that's the sort of challenge that makes teaching worthwhile.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. Degrees by mail
  2. The Value of Voice
  3. Predictions for 2006
  4. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  5. Five questions...
  6. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  7. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  8. Music lessons
  9. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  10. Advertising or education?
  11. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  12. Predictions for 2008
  13. Serious games for serious topics
  14. Back to the future
  15. Predictions For 2003
  16. "Spot Learning"
  17. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  18. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  19. "Deep" thoughts
  20. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  21. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  22. Learner on the Orient Express
  23. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  24. Q&A
  25. Do it yourself
  26. Predictions for 2004
  27. Storytelling at a distance
  28. Talk to me
  29. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  30. Online learning and fun
  31. Everything in moderation
  32. eLearning and fun
  33. The basics of e-learning
  34. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  35. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  36. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  37. Blended conferences
  38. Predictions for 2002
  39. Learning from e-learning
  40. Q&A with Don Norman
  41. In search of simplicity
  42. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  43. Want better courses?
  44. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  45. Just "DO IT"
  46. Senior service
  47. Formative evaluation
  48. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  49. Predictions for 2007
  50. Not all the world's a stage
  51. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  52. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  53. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  54. My life as a Wikipedian
  55. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  56. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  57. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie