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Student engagement recommendations


Introduction

Engagement on distance learning courses can be varied and Course Teams often contact the Distance Learning Unit for advice on how to improve engagement on their courses.

The Instructional Design Support Officers in the DLU led a project, studying engagement across 11 of our courses & analysing qualitative and quantitative data to examine levels of student engagement. Our analysis was pulled together with existing research to create the recommendations listed below for successful student engagement across distance learning courses.

Recommendations

Plus Icon Communication

Online induction sessions will allow students to get to know tutors and help build relationships. Skype for Business is now available to students and it’s easy to set-up an online meeting for induction purposes. These sessions could be followed-up with additional Skype meetings at key points in the teaching calendar.  

Weekly MyBeckett announcements from the tutor will remind students what is coming up and what they need to do that week, helping keep them on track.  

Clearly set out a timeframe for responses to student emails. For example, “We will respond to emails within 2 working days”. This will reassure students that they will get a response and of how long they might have to wait. Make this consistent across the course.  

Remember to use a range of communication methods, avoid relying solely on email for communication.  

Plus Icon Setting Expectations

During induction set-out consistent expectations for the whole course including: 

  • Student behaviours e.g. the amount of expected study time per week, self-directed and independent learning, being motivated and engaged, submitting work to deadlines, collaborating and responding to peers, communicating effectively, respectfully and professionally.  

  • Contact methods e.g. Skype, email, Microsoft Teams, discussion boards etc.  

  • Response times   

Do students know which skills are important for studying your course? Or for studying online? Offering a skills and knowledge audit at induction can help students identify their strengths and weakness and allow you to provide targeted support and resources.  

Provide a weekly/topic timetable with clear, realistic estimates as to how long it will take to complete the work. Giving expected study times for activities and reading is important for DL students. This helps them plan study around other commitments. Make sure the study times you give are realistic. Students don’t want to find that an activity takes twice as long as expected, this can result in panic and students missing out subsequent parts of the teaching content. When calculating reading times, don’t forget to factor in:  

  • Slower readers 

  • In-depth or complicated material 

  • Making notes 

  • Time needed for reflection  

Plus Icon Assessment and Feedback

Assessment 

Clear detailed, assignment briefs, made available from the start of teaching will help reduce student queries and provide reassurances as to what is required and when. Remember to include:  

  • How the assessment relates to the module objectives  

  • Marking criteria so students know what to aim for 

  • When and how feedback will be given. Give a specific date within the 4-week marking turnaround time 

  • If appropriate, give students examples of a low, middle and high scored assignments   

Offer students the opportunity to submit a sample of their summative assessments ahead of the submission date so they can benefit from your direction when writing their assignments. This also enables you to check their progress and understanding of your subject. 

Create a course level assessment schedule and let students have this schedule at the beginning of Semester. Many DL students work full-time and have family commitments so need to plan their study time in advance to meet deadlines. There are a few things to consider when creating an assessment schedule:  

  • Discuss submission (and resubmission) deadlines with your course team and stagger dates where possible to avoid deadline bottle-necks  

  • Think about your student cohort. For example, if you are running an education course for teachers, setting deadlines during the middle of the school term could cause issues.  

Feedback  

Students want to know they are on the right track with a module before they reach the final assignment. Just keep in touch; offer consistent, constructive feedback at regular intervals during teaching.  

Use shared workspaces such as discussion boards, webinars or Microsoft Teams, to not only provide general feedback, but help to build a community with your students and encourage peer-to-peer feedback. 

Offer Skype 1-to-1s at regular intervals, to provide further explanation, context and guidance – this will also help you to get to know your students.  

A range of feedback methods will help to engage your students. This could include:  

  • Written feedback  

  • Verbal (audio can be pre-recorded, and voice comments can be used in Turnitin) 

  • Video feedback  

  • Group feedback  

  • Automated feedback via formative quizzes and tests, so students can assess their own abilities as they progress 

Regular feedback on formative assessments will help students understand how they are progressing and where they may need more help or further study. Give clear critiques and specific advice on how to improve.  

Timely feedback is important. For example, if feedback on an earlier assignment is necessary before beginning the next, ensure that is provided in good time to enable students to begin as soon as possible. Don’t forget students will be taking more than one module at once and delays impact on the rest of their work and lives outside of studying. 

Plus Icon Building a Learning Community

Create opportunities for students to get to know each other at the start of the course to eliminate the worry of interacting with their peers online. Remember, many maybe new to online learning so starting a DL course can be a daunting task. Using simple and fun introductory ice-breaker activities based on reciprocal interactions will help to build a learning community and allow you to get to know your students.  

At the beginning of the module give an example of how a student could interact effectively in an online discussion. This could help build confidence and encourage interaction.   

If you have a small DL cohort, think about creating opportunities for your DL and on-campus students to interact online. This can help reduce distance learner isolation and provide a useful forum for sharing experiences.  

Some DL students felt there were limited opportunities for critical discussion in their modules and wanted to see more opportunities and a greater incentive to participate. For example, a mark linked to their contributions as a means of encouraging more active participation from students.  

Don’t overload modules with discussion activities, students often find this overwhelming. Having one or two meaningful discussion activities per topic based around open ended questions and thought-provoking reflections will encourage students to interact.  

Recognise that not everyone is going to want to engage with the online learning community but highlight and promote the benefits of doing so to students. Tell students what they’ll gain from contributing.  

Use more intuitive, user-friendly and mobile online discussion tools to improve engagement such as Microsoft Teams. MS Teams is a new collaborative working and digital community platform available to LBU staff and students as part of the Microsoft 365 suite of apps. It is easy to use and has an intuitive interface similar in many ways to commonly used social media platforms, but unlike these platforms, Teams provides a secure, professional network. Initial DL module pilots have shown an increase in student engagement where MS Teams has been substituted for MyBeckett discussion boards.  

Your presence in building and guiding the online learning community is essential, particularly at the beginning of the course. Set some time aside each week to check, encourage and participate in discussion activities. Don’t forget to let students know when they can expect a response from you. Knowing you’re engage and interested will help encourage students to feel the same.  

A course-based DL peer support or mentoring network could be helpful in providing support to students, creating a sense of community and allowing student to share their experiences.  

Would your DL course community benefit from a face-to-face event? Would this be practical? Some of our DL courses offer opportunities for distance learners to attend face-to-face events. These events include the annual Responsible Tourism Management Spotlight Conference which is well attended by both DL and on-campus students and often features students or alumni as guest speakers, the DL Psychology MSc. week long summer school and field trips for DL and on-campus students in the School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management. Don’t forget audio and video can be captured from events and made available to DL students who are unable to attend.  

Plus Icon Module Structure and Design

Allow students some flexibility to study at their own pace. Releasing multiple teaching weeks or topics at one time will give students the opportunity to plan their study time in advance, work ahead when they are able and then not fall behind when time is in short supply. Week-to-week content release offers little flexibility.  

Think about the terminology you are using. Using the term ‘Week’ to describe a block of teaching content can encourage both students and staff to remain fixed on the idea that a topic has to be completed in a week. This model suggests a level of inflexibility that can be unhelpful in the online environment.  

Introduce breaks in the module for students to have a breather, complete extra work or catch-up.  

Make use of clear well-designed curricula and course structures so that students can see how they are getting an overview of broad concepts before delving into specific areas.  

Recognize that distance learners have specific commitments as part of the course design; structure modules in a clear logical progression and clearly outline learning objectives and show how these objectives can be achieved.  

Plus Icon Teaching Content

Authentic activities are important for engagement. Create activities that students can relate to and that are relevant to their professional roles. Use real life case studies that they can link to their own experiences and include opportunities for students to do their own research and follow up their interests. Consider building-in opportunities for students to speak to people in their professional communities as well as their course communities. For example, invite guest speakers to join webinars and discussions or create short videos and podcasts.  

Combine authentic activities with new theories and perspectives/concepts that students may not have encountered. This will help improve and challenge their understanding. 

Include a wide variety of learning delivery methods and materials within your module such as presentations and lectures, podcasts, videos, online discussions, learning journals, further reading, formative quizzes etc.    

Adding a personal touch to your teaching material will help build engagement with your students. This could include; a short video introduction welcoming them to your module and telling them a bit about yourself, photos, podcasts, audio feedback or talking head videos explaining key learning concepts etc. 

Build on students’ understanding with formative activities that help scaffold their learning and ensure that they are engaged throughout the module:  

  • Keep activities short and simple to avoid cognitive burnout in your students and help them to manage their workload 

  • Construct activities so they that build up in difficulty, either per topic or throughout the module, depending on the structure. This helps students to assemble a comprehensive understanding of your subject 

  • Provide them with regular feedback, which in turn keeps them focussed, motivated and on track 

Review teaching materials regularly to check that articles and videos continue to be stimulating, relevant, current and related to students’ situations and experiences. 

Only recommend reading that is available electronically. In fully online distance learning modules student should not be expected to track down printed copies of material.  

Purposeful reading is important for distance learners. Don’t just give them a long list of books and articles to read. Explain briefly why each reading is important and how it will help them achieve the module learning outcomes.  

Ensure your module has a Library reading list and that it’s kept up-to-date. While DLU will embed readings in your module teaching content, it’s important that you also add these items to your reading list as the Library uses your list to generate orders for out-of-stock items.  

Think about giving students details of core textbooks before your module starts. Students often say they would like to read around the subject before they start. This will help busy DL students get a head start.  

Try to avoid overwhelming students with long lists of extra reading. Break lists down into topics or give them advice about what is useful. For example, “If you’re looking to study more of X try reading the items here or use these search terms to find additional resources” or  “If you’re interested in researching more of Y, then read…” etc, etc 

Plus Icon Technology

Where are your students located? Will this impact on their ability to access module content? While there is a requirement that all students have internet access to study a distance learning course at LBU, some of our overseas students do struggle with reliable connections. DLU can work with you to create workarounds for these students.  

Be aware that overseas distance learners may face restrictions in accessing some content. This can be due to local regulations or licensing restrictions. DLU can provide advice and help you find sources that are accessible to all or offer alternatives. 

Plus Icon Help Support and Guidance

A number of our DL courses have Online Learning Tutors (OLTs), who provide tailored support to students throughout the duration of their course. OLTs act as a first point of contact for students, ensure they are engaging with module teaching content, provide study skills support and help to solve any non-academic issues students may experience. Some of our OLTs also work outside of office hours to ensure DL students have the support they need during the times they are more likely to be studying.  

Highlight or signpost support services available to distance learners and don’t “try to take it all on”. There are lots of sources of support available for both you and your DL students. Providing timely and targeted support can help improve student engagement. These services include Off Site Library, The Student Experience Team, Disability Advice and Student and Graduate Futures. A full list of these services is available here.  

Don’t forget Skills for Learning and your Academic Librarian can also provide support, and in some cases, module material for distance learners in a number of areas including academic writing, referencing and plagiarism, dissertation support and finding subject specific resources.  

Plus Icon Marketing and Admissions

Be clear about what ‘flexibility’ means when studying on a distance learning course at LBU. DL students often believe they can choose how many modules they study and that they can complete work entirely at their own pace. What is actually required for each course needs to be communicated more clearly before enrolment.  

Create videos of DL alumni students talking about their experiences of studying at LBU to share with prospective students and new starters.

Page last updated: 20/03/2020

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