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Staying the Course
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.

In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief of eLearn magazine, Lisa Neal is a Managing Consultant at EDS and is an Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor in The Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at Tufts Medical School. She can be reached at [email protected]



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