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student success

#bestpracticemonday 5 “Resolutions” for Online Instructors in the New Year

New Years ResolutionsEach new year brings new growth, new ideas and new commitments for us to do things to make ourselves better personally and professionally.  Whether we are inspired by too much turkey over the holidays or an urge to start with a clean slate, no other time of the year seems more appropriate for these determinations. Perhaps this year, we may consider some New Year’s Resolutions for our online courses!

Let’s face it, online teaching, like too much turkey, can really weigh you down. During a long semester, we can get buried in grading assignments and responding to discussion posts, and the lofty goals we started off with for engaging our students can seem dimly out of reach.

With a holiday break and a start to the new year/semester fast approaching, now is a great time to resolve to adopt a few pedagogically sound teaching and learning best practices for our online courses. While there may be several measures we can adopt to improve the overall quality of our online teaching environments, here are five easy to follow, easy to apply techniques that will make our online courses that much more engaging. Remember you don’t have to do all 5!

1.  Model How the Course will go for Students with a “Getting Started” Unit

Getting StartedA smart move for any online instructor is to implement some kind of ‘orientation unit’ for the online student.  This unit can serve the purpose of introducing the student to his or her online course environment, as well as other important course information.  Expectations, rules of the road, and an operator’s manual are usually communicated within this unit.

It is important to set this unit up just like every other unit in the course.  Model orientation content and activities in such a way as to reflect how the rest of the units will be structured.  The student will not only gain the benefit of understanding how the online course operates, they will get the added practice of going through course units as they would normally throughout the course.

2.  2-4-6-8 it’s Time to Differentiate

Differentiated Instruction GraphicWe would be hard-pressed to negate the notion that are our students are not identical. Each of our learners comes to us with varying degrees of abilities, aptitude levels, interests, learning experiences and needs. While it may not be feasible to get to know each of our students on a personal basis, we can make some general deductions about the learning diversity that is present in every course we teach.

This is where Differentiated Instruction comes in. For those of us in the field, the term refers to the theory that since no two students will learn exactly the same way, instructors have the opportunity to structure and design their teaching environments using a variety of instructional methods that may reach a broader swath of the student body. The online environment really lends itself to this approach. With the advent of various technology tools, we can now choose to diversify our approach to lectures, activities and assessments and more.

If you are wondering how to add more diversity of instruction to your course, start with the following. It’s as easy as A-B-C!

a.      Realize your students are unique, and discover ways to get to know them.

Realistically speaking, we may not get to know our students as well as we would like. But we can implement an activity or two to catch a glimpse into who they are and what their learning approach may be. For instance, at the beginning of your course, introduce an ice-breaker discussion forum and ask your learners what they do in their free time. You will be surprised by what you can learn!

b.      Look critically at your course, and identify a few areas where you can introduce diversity of instructional methodology.

Sit back and consider your students’ learning objectives. Take a look at how you are introducing and enforcing these key concepts at the moment and select an area or two where you may introduce a different approach. Perhaps an audio lecture may be a welcomed alternative to the text-based reading. Or, perhaps you may want to spice up your course with content from the Khan Academy, Ted Talks, or NBC Learn. Often regarded as “mashups” the introduction of external collective knowledge in an online course adds variety, and piques students’ interests.

c.       Consider the Context and Role of the Online Instructor.

The online environment can present us with options we may not have readily used in our face-to-face courses…so make the most it! While having lots of choices may seem daunting, starting with one or two will help keep them manageable. Online Instructors should think differently about their teaching, because in the online environment where rich, educational online resources abound, we become more of a guide on the side, than a sage on the stage.

3.  Set Due Dates to Coincide with Support Desk Hours

This resolution is an easy one to keep!  First, learn your Technology Support Desk hours (SHSU Online is 7am – Midnight, Mon-Sat).  Once familiar with Support’s hours of operation, make sure any due dates, tests or technology oriented activities fall when the Support Desk team is available.  This is important because the students will have someone to call when the technology doesn’t work or their interpretation of how the technology should work is different from actually happened.

4.  Set a Schedule for Course Interactions, Be Consistent

SchedulePart of being available in a course, and establishing ever-important instructor presence, is letting your students know when you are available.  A great way to do this is to establish a routine for your course interactions.

  • For starters, you can let them know that you will get back to them on questions posted in your Virtual Office discussion forum a time period you establish at the beginning of the term (usually within 24 – 36 hours)
  • Hold regular “office hours” with the asynchronous chat tool (Skype, Bb Chat or Collaborate, Google Hangout) where you will be available in real-time to answer your students questions if need be.
  • Post an announcement and send it out via e-mail once a week summing up the previous week’s events and highlighting the important aspects of the next week.

By establishing a routine, you form a habit of being available in your course that your students can count on.

5. Have fun!

Remember the excitement of teaching? The opportunities to lead, change, inspire, and innovate? Perhaps you connect with the intrinsic motivation of knowing you are making a real and tangible difference in many impressionable minds. Whatever that original point of motivation is for you, we can all connect with what originally prompted us to teach.

Being an online instructor is the perfect chance to express your teaching philosophies in a number of diverse and effective ways. Make your course as exciting as your teaching. Personalize it. Make it your very own. Let it show your unique teaching style and at the end of the day, resolve to have fun doing what you do best…teach!

#bestpracticemonday – Getting in Sync with Your Online Students

Getting in Sync with your Online Students

Being on the same page with your online students is one of the most important things you can do as an instructor of an online course.  Having a finger on the pulse of your students’ learning experience is key to student engagement and student success.  If students know that you are “right along-side” on their learning journey their anxiety levels decrease and their satisfaction levels increase.  There are a number of ways to get in sync with your online students, here are just a few:

Communicate Expectations Throughout The Course

ExpectationsDue to accreditation requirements, your objectives will show up in your course’s syllabus so the students will be able to find them there.  However, you can really reinforce what the students will be getting out of course units and items by placing Unit and even Content Item level objectives.  Starting out each unit by letting students know what they can expect from it will remind them why they are involved in those activities and reinforce with you the desire to align your curriculum.

If a student knows why they are doing what they are doing, there will be less ambiguity for them and more satisfaction.  Expectations helps the student to “sync up” to the course goals and objectives and thereby connecting them to you and the course on a foundational level.

Ask Your Students How They Are Doing

How is my teaching graphic?A great way for you and your students to “sync up” is to ask them how they are doing. Find ways to reach out to your students and ask them how it’s going.  Part of this you can do just by gauging the types of posts you receive in your “Virtual Office or “Course Q&A” discussion forum.  You can identify trends and problems by perusing the posts that come in and respond to them during the course.   You can also interpret the results you receive in the gradebook for this information.

You can be more proactive and just ask the students.  This may be a novel concept, but it works! Asking your students could take the form of an anonymous survey, or even a weekly reflection assignment that has as one of its goals the identification of high and low points of the week in your course.  You can also poll your students during an informal chat sessions or webinar.  Getting feedback from your students and acting on it (when merited) is a great way to get “in sync” with your online students.

Get Synchronous With Live Conversations

Person talking througth cansIt is easy to get stuck in the rut of a post-reply mentality when it comes to your online course.  Whether it is reading and replying to discussion posts, giving feedback on submitted assignments or just posting an announcement and replying to the subsequent e-mails, falling into the rhythm of asynchronous communication is not hard to do.

Meeting with students in “real-time” plays an important role in any online course.  It provides a sense of community for your students, reassuring them that they are not alone on their learning journey.  The students are able to hear you as a human being and not some depersonalized text on their monitors.   Establishing “office hours” for your course is a great best practice where you can let your students know certain times that you are available to meet synchronously.  These can be conducted via an LMS chat program, Skype or other instant messaging program, a web meeting software (Blackboard Collaborate) or any number of web-based tools.

When you take the time to make yourself available, listen and respond to student concerns, issues or just to let them vent, you are reducing frustration and anxiety, getting the students more comfortable with you and your teaching style and getting “in sync” with their learning journeys.

#bestpracticemonday – The Importance of Rubrics in Blackboard Courses

Rbrics CubeThis blog has covered the importance of communication strategies when leading an online course. Students who feel like they have effective lines of communication during an online course tend to have a higher opinion of the course’s quality. Part of effective communication lies in the explanation of  assessment and evaluation of student work. The Blackboard learning management system has a tool that can assist faculty when communicating around grading and assessment. This tool is called the Blackboard Rubric.

Rubric (Definition)
A rubric is a way to communicate expectations of quality about an assignment or activity.

The Blackboard Rubric is an assessment tool that lists evaluation criteria for an assignment, and provides a means to convey to students your expectations for the quality of completed assignments.  This tool is an effective means to enhance an online instructor’s communication strategy.  The Blackboard Rubric tool is important for three reasons.

  1. Using a Blackboard Rubric Clears up any Grading Ambiguity for Students
  2. Using a Blackboard Rubric Makes Grading Easier and Consistent
  3. Using a Blackboard Rubric Lets Students Know What they Need to Succeed

Using a Blackboard Rubric Clears up any Grading Ambiguity for Students

Students in online courses can feel like they have multiple reasons to be anxious about their experience.  Technology glitches, digital proficiencies, and communication snafus are all obstacles that can present a problem for online students.    This does not even take into account how students interpret results from assignments and activities they have turned in.  In a face-to-face environment, students have the luxury of talking to the professor during class or stopping by the office to talk about their grade. Online students who want to know why they received the grade they did have to jump through hoops at times to determine where they went wrong.  For a student, just seeing a number in their My Grades area of Blackboard doesn’t give them the full picture.

Rubric Criterion with Feedback BoxThe Blackboard Rubric tool provides an easy method for communicating about student performance. How a student performed is not only detailed by the indicated criterion and level of achievement, but the instructor has the ability to provide further individual feedback at the individual criterion level.    If one specific criterion has three levels of possible achievement, then Blackboard instructor will have the ability to leave feedback right where the student landed for their assignment/activity.

Giving students the tools to understand how they performed, will equip them with the ability to not only understand why they performed the way they did, it can also enable them to improve upon their performance.

Using a Blackboard Rubric Makes Grading Easier and Consistent

Grading assignments/activities in Blackboard can take a fair amount of an online instructor’s time.  One way to simplify the process and give both the instructor and the students a detailed explanation of the evaluation is to grade with the Rubric Tool.  Blackboard Rubrics can be associated with:

  • Assignments
  • Essay, Short Answer and File Response test questions
  • Blogs and Journals
  • Wikis
  • Discussion board forums and threads

This means that each of these activities can be graded using the Rubric tool.   Once a rubric is associated with a Blackboard activity, the instructor can access the gradable item via the Grade Center, on the Needs Grading page, or directly from the tool.  Once in the in-line grading or grading view the View Rubric (button or link) is clicked and the instructor can select the level of achievement for each criterion and the points are automatically tabulated!

Using a Blackboard Rubric Lets Students Know What they Needs to Succeed

SuccessIf a student knows what it takes to succeed at a particular assignment, they are far more likely to be successful themselves.  The Blackboard Rubric tool has the ability to allow the students to see the Rubric BEFORE they complete the assignment.

When viewing a Blackboard activity a link is provided to your students to View the Rubric.  They then see the activity levels of achievement and criterion.  The rubric gives them visibility into what it takes to not meet requirements, meet the requirements, and exceed the requirements for the activity. The rubric then becomes the book-ends for the assignment:  a guide for what they need to be successful and a tool for letting them know how they performed.

At the very least, the use of Blackboard Rubrics can help students organize their efforts to meet the requirements of an assignment, and you can use them to explain evaluations to students. Rubrics can help ensure consistent and impartial grading.  They are important because they clear up grading ambiguity, make grading easier, and provide a pathway to success.

For more on the Blackboard Rubric tool, check out the Blackboard Help pages.

Where to Start – Example Rubrics

The Secret to Student Success in Your Online Course

Hidden TreasureSo, you want to know how to help facilitate student success in your online courses huh?  The good news is that it isn’t like the search for the holy grail or an Indiana Jones-like adventure to find a hidden treasure. It is simply a matter of systemically and uniformly taking certain steps when deploying course activities/assignments throughout your course.

So take comfort in the knowledge that their are no rooms full of snakes or other dangers involved.  The secret to student success in your online course revolves around these three things being given with each graded activity:

  1. Provide Assignment Instructions (Context)
  2. Provide Technical Instructions (How to use assignment/activity/submission tool)
  3. Demonstrate what success will look like for the particular assignment/activity (Rubric)


InstructionsThis one seems like a no-brainer, right?  We all provide assignment instructions don’t we?  At first glance you might think that you have this taken care of because you put all of your assignment instructions in your syllabus.  However, we know that a student who is in the middle of a unit in your online course looks for the instructions to be chunked along with the course activities.   So to give context to your students; to let them know why they where they are and what they need to be doing there, place instructions at the unit and individual assignment/activity level.

Whether you are deploying a discussion board, a electronic submission assignment or a collaborate wiki, providing contextual instruction for what the activity is the first step in steering your students toward success.


how-to-logoAs has been stated before in this blog, your students may be living in a digital age, but that does not mean that they are all digital natives.  Keeping that in mind, it is never wise to assume that they already know how to use every tool you will employ in your online course.  This is the case when dealing with clicking on a link so a folder will open, replying to a post in a discussion forum, or creating a blog post for a reflection assignment.

To ease student anxiety and cut down on late night e-mails or phone call to the helpdesk, place technical instructions for how to use the activity tool directly inside the assignment or activity.  This would be for example, letting students know how to create discussion board posts and how to reply to them as part of the instructions for the activity.


Success If a student knows what it takes to succeed at a particular assignment, they are far more likely to be successful themselves. You can give your students this path to success with a few easy keystrokes.  This could be something as simple as you demonstrating a successful discussion post in an introductory discussion forum, or you providing a good example of APA formatting for citations in a paper.  One of the best ways for you to demonstrate what success looks like is to use a rubric.

Merriam-Webster describe a rubric as:

a guide listing specific criteria for grading or scoring academic papers, projects, or tests

Using a Rubric tool or providing a Rubric document along with assignments and activities lets the student know what kinds of steps they need to take to be successful in completion of that particular activity.  It also provides the added benefit of communicating to students how they did or did not measure up to the expectations of the assignment after it is graded.

These three steps when applied systematically and uniformly throughout an online course can be the difference between success and failure for an online student.  These concepts are not really that new or paradigm shifting in that teachers have been doing these things for years, but leveraging them together will be putting another tool in your teaching tool belt that helps you equip your students to succeed in their online courses.

Three Ways to Ensure Student Success when Teaching Online

Student SuccessInstructors who teach online must cover a number of bases when working with students in an online environment.   You must be mentors, knowledge sharers, tech support, facilitators of learning, and technology gurus in your own right.    It is easy to see that trying to wear all of these hats can make an online instructor’s life difficult and that student success becomes an afterthought to just surviving an online course.

The good news is that there are ways to ensure your students have a successful learning journey.  There are methods, best practices, tips & tricks that can make your life and the lives of your students easier when participating in an online course.  For this blog, we will focus on three:

  1. Start Here
  2. Model the Behavior You Want to See
  3. Contextualize Your Instruction

Start HEreStart Here

We often assume that students that come into our online courses are digital natives and will somehow intrinsically know how to find their way around when they first enter an online course.  Aside from the fact that not every student born after 1990 has a computer implanted in their brain, more and more students pursing an online education are non-traditional students and may not feel as comfortable in the online environment.

This is why it is a good idea to use a Start Here unit or content area in your course.  You can leverage the unit as a kind of “this is how my course works” walk-through for your students.  It should contain things like course expectations, a welcome message or video from you, introductory discussion and any other information that can help your students be successful in your course.  Tips like “assignments, discussions and quizzes are located in each course unit (Weeks)” can answer questions before they are even asked.

Giving your students a “standard operating procedure” for how your course will work will go a long way toward reducing their anxieties about your course and put them on a path for success.

Model the Behavior You Want to See

One way that parents impart knowledge to their young is to demonstrate whatever it is they would like their progeny to do.  When you teach, adopt the same practice in order to ensure that your students know what is expected of them.  Giving the students a guide or working rubric for what is acceptable can go a long way toward ensuring student success.  If you are having them turn in papers, give them a non-topic specific example of how you’d like their papers formatted.  It doesn’t have to be an entire paper, but an example of what you are looking for from them.  When using the Learning Management System’s discussion board for the first time in your class, be the first person take make the post.  This works best in an “Introductions” discussion. Provide the instruction and then provide the example that follows that instruction.  The same thing goes for blogs, wikis and journals.

Giving your students an example of the online course behaviors will reduce the amount of uncertainty that naturally comes when taking an online course.  Remember that some of them may never have submitted an assignment online or participated in an online discussion.  Taking the extra time early in your course to provide guidance will help your students feel at ease and let them know that you are engaged in the course along with them.

Contextualize Your Instruction

Contextual InstructionThink of your online course as a new destination for your students on their learning journey.  How would they describe their navigation experience?  Would they say that once they travel into your course that it is difficult to find their way back?  Would they say that the course links were easy to find and use?  Would they be frustrated trying to make it to their “destination”?  These questions can be easily put to rest by providing contextual instruction wherever your students are within the course. If you put every bit of instruction your students would need for the course within the syllabus you would end up with the document that rivals to War and Peace in its width and breadth.   Compare how hard it would be to locate instruction in a 20 page document versus instruction in the same area where your students are currently working.  College students are used to living in a connected world where they can find instructions for how to do something right where they are via their mobile device or computer. Taking the extra time to provide instruction in the context of where the students are in your course is easy.  Here are a few examples:

  • Place unit level or assignment specific ojbectives throughout your course. Traditionally we have left Learning Objectives in the syllabus and forgotten about them.  By placing objectives in the unit where the student is working or on the assignment the student is focusing on, you remind the students why they are doing what they are doing, and connect the students to course content in a way that keeps them focused on the topic at hand.
  • Create a locked INSTRUCTIONS thread in each discussion. Not all LMSs have the facility to keep the forum instructions/description where posts and replies are made.  Make the first post of the discussion be a locked INSTRUCTIONS thread that students cannot reply to but is available for them to ensure they remember what they need to do in the forum.
  • When placing content in folders, units, learning modules & containers, be descriptive.  When creating a folder to place a unit’s worth of course materials, be sure to provide a description to students of what is in the folder. Remember that old adage “Tell them what you are going to tell them“.  Placing descriptions on each content folder, unit or module leaves the students with no question as to what those items contain and reduces the stress of not knowing where to click.
  • Provide “signs” that tell the students where to go and what to do.  This last point on contextualizing your instruction may seem like it comes straight out of the Department of Double Redundancy Department, but it is well worth it to ensure that there is no confusion on the part of your online students.  Online students don’t always know where to go or what to click on to advance in your course.  A great best practice is to provide the contextual instruction for students so that they will successfully navigate your course.  When you do use a folder, or unit for organization be sure to tell them to click the title when you type up your folder/unit description.  Also, with some LMSs you can change the title of this particular container/item to blue.  Blue is the universal color of links and will help draw the student’s eye. Lastly, place an item at the end of your unit telling the students where to go next.  Don’t assume that they always know what comes next in your online course. Provide them with a signpost that points the way!

As with all strategies for success, don’t feel you need to implement all of these at once.  You can use them all, but don’t feel like you have to.  Pick one of them to use this time and become comfortable with it.  Next time add another and so on.  We all want to be in the business of student success.  We want to see our students succeed.  With a little extra effort you can help ensure that students fewer obstacles in their path when it comes to being successful in your online course.  Implementing a Start Here unit in your course, modeling the behavior  you want your students to exhibit and contextualizing your instructions will help set you and your students on a path to success.

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