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Teaching for Student Retention

woman teaching classFinancial needs, family issues, and personal adjustment can impact student retention at universities across the nation. Moreover, academic factors such as curriculum design, teaching methods, and academic advising can have a considerable impact on why a student will or will not stay in a particular course, major, or the university. To help increase student retention, you can implement specific classroom techniques to engage students and intrinsically motivate them to stay in class. You can also design your courses to better help students retain course concepts and perform better on assessment activities. The following are some strategies you can use to address student retention.

Course Preparation
Preparing for a course from the perspective of student retention involves identifying the learning needs of your students. Recognizing students who may be at risk or struggling academically can help you develop strategies to help students succeed.

  • Get to know your students’ needs and potential academic challenges they may have by conducting a brief survey at the beginning of the semester. This survey can be conducted in Blackboard or by using index cards in which you ask students to provide responses to some basic questions: How many credit hours are you enrolled in this semester? Are you a transfer student? Is this your first semester at NIU? Other questions that can help you get a better feel for who your students are include those asking about students’ study habits, how they prefer to learn, their test taking strategies, and commitments such as work, family responsibilities, athletics, or if they commute to campus.
  • Prepare your course content in a variety of ways. Use Blackboard to post lectures, course notes, and study guides. Create or find open education resources to augment difficult course content such as video-taped lectures, simulations, and tutorials students can use to review outside of class.

Course Design Considerations
A number of strategies and models are available to help you design your course. There are certain aspects of course design, however, that require additional consideration from the perspective of teaching for student retention.

  • Design your course syllabus to include welcoming language and statements that motivate and encourage student success rather than focusing only on penalties for absences, late work submission, and plagiarism.
  • Review course pre-requisites, vocabulary, and concepts the first week of the semester to ensure all students begin at the same level. Assign homework on necessary topics to prepare students adequately for the course.
  • Make course assessments authentic. Students are more motivated to learn and do well when presented with course activities that relate to real world experiences. “Valuable” learning experiences are those which students can relate to and use when they enter the work world. Make assessments meaningful so both you and your students know that they have done well and performed like an expert in the field.
  • Ask for formative feedback from your students. Formative feedback helps students know how well they are doing and whether or not they are meeting course goals. Formative feedback can also inform you on your teaching. For example, at the end of a lecture or class period, give students a set of questions that ask them: What was the best part of today’s lecture? What was the muddiest point of today’s class? What could you do differently to help with your own learning in this class? Acting on the feedback you collect from students will tell them that you value their input and are willing to address any suggestions they might share.
  • Use success markers to track at-risk students. Examples of course success markers are class attendance, demonstration of comprehending particular concepts, timely submission of assignments, and performance in key course activities. Using Blackboard’s tracking feature, clickers (personal response systems), or other mechanisms can help simplify the tracking process. Students who are identified as not satisfying established success markers can meet with you during office hours where they can receive necessary advice and or assistance.

Course Delivery
Effective course delivery is dependent on positive communication, clarity in instructions, and patience in responding to students’ questions. Students may decide within the first few class periods whether or not to stay in a course based on their perceptions of and/or interactions with their instructors.

  • Create a positive learning environment by taking the time to learn students’ names and interact with them before, during, and after class.
  • Provide students the opportunity to interact in the classroom. Encourage students to engage in class discussions by welcoming them to share their ideas and experiences.
  • Convey your expertise and passion for teaching. Students will respond to your excitement and interest in the subject matter.
  • Draw connections between topics and point out the relevance of content to students and the real-world. Students are more likely to come to class and engage with content they fine meaningful, useful, and timely.
  • Deliver course content using a variety of means to accommodate the different learning preferences of your students. For example, use focused lectures to relay detailed course content, class discussion to recall readings and homework assignments, group work to encourage critical thinking and leadership skills, and technology to extend class time for online discussions, promote communication skills, and reviews.

Course Activities
Careful balancing of high-stakes and low-stakes course activities and designing course activities that allow multiple forms of expression can accommodate students with diverse skills and abilities. In-class, out-of-class, and online activities help to develop a sense of community, collaboration, and support among students, all which can enhance student retention.

  • Include class activities to give students the opportunity to apply what they are learning to real-life situations such as case studies, scenarios, and problem-based projects.
  • Be clear and concise when explaining how to complete assignments. If assignment directions are not clear, students may be less successful in completing activities.
  • Offer frequent quizzes and assignments to help students receive regular feedback on their course performance and recognize what to improve before major tests or exams.
  • Be patient when students ask questions about exams and grades. Recognize that students often ask these questions due to anxiety about succeeding in the course and the need to prioritize the time spent on multiple courses as well as outside responsibilities.
  • Encourage students to use support services such as the University Libraries, NIU Writing Center, and department- and college-level tutoring services to complete particular course activities. These facilities will help students receive additional assistance and become familiar with academic support services.

Much of what has been presented in this article is essential for learner-centered teaching. Through thoughtful course preparation, design, delivery, and course activities, you can address the learning needs of all students, which in turn can help to promote student retention.

In addition to the suggestions offered here, there are some features in Blackboard that can impact student success and retention by creating a stronger community in the classroom and identifying potential problems early. Learn more in our upcoming online workshop on September 19 from 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM, CST. NIU Faculty, Instructors, Staff, and Teaching Assistants can register here

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