The A&P Professor podcast (TAPP radio) episodes are made for listening, not reading. This transcript is provided for your convenience, but hey, it’s just not possible to capture the emphasis and dramatic delivery of the audio version. Or the cool theme music. Or laughs and snorts. And because it’s generated by a combo of machine and human transcription, it may not be exactly right. So I strongly recommend listening by clicking the LISTEN button provided.
Episode 21 Transcript
49 Tricks for Retention & Success in Online Courses
Kevin Patton: PT Barnum used to say, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.”
Aileen: Welcome to The A&P Professor. A few minutes to focus on teaching human anatomy and physiology with host Kevin Patton.
Kevin Patton: In this episode I have a bit of news and some updates. Our feature topic is 49 tricks for online course retention and student success.
Kevin Patton: I’m going to share a few various bits of news before we get to our featured topic for this episode. The first one I’m pretty excited about. As of this week, we will reach our 5000 download mark. That means over 5000 unique downloads of episodes of this podcast have happened since I first started at the end of January of 2018. At that time I was thinking, “Wow, if I could get 5000 downloads by the end of 2018, that would be great.” Here we are in July, just starting out in July, and we’ve already reached that 5000 mark. What I have to say is I am very, very grateful for your support in this project, and I’m looking forward to working with you as the months and years go by to really make this a useful podcast for all of us.
Kevin Patton: Another thing I want to mention is a feature that’s been there all along, but I think a lot of people aren’t aware of it, and that is every single episode has a transcript available at theapprofessor.org. If you go to the podcast page, you will notice a couple of different links and buttons in different places, top, middle, and bottom, where you can link to the transcript to that episode, and it will give you the entire transcript. Some of you are going to want to just kind of read through that, maybe if you’re searching for a particular thing that you heard mentioned in the podcast, or something like that. Some of you maybe want to share just one little snipped in some communication with a colleague or something like that, and you want a quote from the podcast. That would be helpful there.
Kevin Patton: I think probably the most useful thing would be in searching. That is you can just go to theapprofessor.org and scroll down to the bottom where there’s that search box, and put in a term, and it will search through all those transcripts so you know exactly where in the episode I said what and what I said, or more or less, because those transcripts are never 100% accurate, but they’re close. This is a good way to search because you know google and other search engines cannot search audio files for specific words or phrases, so this is a way that you can still do that. Just wanted to make you aware of the transcripts available.
Kevin Patton: Somewhat related to that, something I just started, is putting audiograms of each episode on youtube. In the show notes and at the episode page there is a link to the youtube channel for The A&P Professor. All the episodes are there. You click on the video, and what you’ll see is these dancing waveforms, like you might see on an equalizer or something like that as I talk and as our orchestra plays the theme music and so on. That’s not the nifty, I mean that’s kind of fun, but that’s not the best part.
Kevin Patton: The best part is they’re also close captioned. Make sure that the closed caption button is clicked, and you’ll get the captions along the bottom. That’s sort of like the transcript, but it’s happening in real time. There are a lot of people, especially folks who are hearing impaired, or maybe folks that have trouble focusing on what they’re listening to, or for a variety of reasons really enjoy listening to something where they can kind of hear the words coming along with it. Maybe some people whose first language isn’t English might benefit from that as well, so captioned audiograms now on youtube. Every episode has not only show notes and of course the audio episode itself, but you also have transcripts available, and captioned audiograms on youtube available.
Kevin Patton: And I want to remind you again that we have those apps available in your mobile device. If you just go to your app store and type in The A&P Professor, it will come up with an app. The apps will play the episodes as they come out and show you the show notes, and they’ll have live links in there. Over time, I’ll be adding some bonus material and so on. Another thing about the app is that every episode comes out about six hours ahead of all the other channels where it’s released, so you’ll be able to listen to it before everybody else, especially those of you that are early risers and you’re listening to it while you’re out for a run or you’re commuting or storing up some breakfast or something like that. Don’t forget those apps.
Kevin Patton: Or you can listen on your favorite podcast or radio app. We’re out there on Apple Podcasts, if you have an iOS device, the Apple Podcast app is already installed. All you have to do is go in there and search for The A&P Professor to load that in to make it one of your regular podcasts. Or you might use some other podcast app like Overcast or Castro, or a radio app like Spotify or iHeartRadio. Any of those, any of the mainstream apps or radio channels and so on will have our podcasts, so you can listen there. If you’ve heard in the earlier episodes, we also have an Alexa skill, so you can ask Alexa to play any or all episodes for you. Uh oh, I just said that name, A-L-E-X-A, and I can see out of the corner of my eye that my Echo device has lit up waiting for some command, so hopefully she won’t start talking back at me here while I’m recording.
Kevin Patton: Then a lot of you I know listen just on the desktop or laptop or whatever, you just go to the episode page or the blog entry or whatever and click on the little player that’s built in, and that works good too. Some of you use iTunes on your desktop or laptop, and that will work. You just search for the A&P Professor there as well. I also want to let you know that I have some really interesting interviews lined up for next season. That is once the academic year starts up again, we’ll call that a new season of the A&P Professor. I have a whole list of people who have agreed to come on this show and share some things that might be helpful to you, so I’m really looking forward to that. Those interviews will be taking place over the next few weeks, and be all ready for next season.
Kevin Patton: As always, I really, really would appreciate it if you’d let me know if you have something that you want to share. Maybe you want to come on and do an interview, maybe you just want to leave a voice message that I can play on the air, or a voice message that you can ask me, “Don’t play this on the air, but here’s something that you might want to pass along to your listeners,” at the end of the show, I’ll explain the different ways that you can get ahold of me.
Kevin Patton: The featured topic for this episode is all about some tricks that I’ve discovered in retaining students in online courses, and improving student success in online courses. Something really surprising happened. I recorded it, and it went way, way, way over our usual time limit for any one episode of The A&P Professor podcast. That in itself isn’t the surprising part. The surprising part is that this is the first time that’s happened where I talk too much. Usually that’s like always a problem for me. What I’ve done in order to kind of chunk things a little bit so we can digest them better is to offer just the very first part of what will be a series, a very brief series on practical methods that we can use for retaining students and connecting with them and so on. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The next episodes, you’ll have more parts to this story, something to look forward to, eh?
Kevin Patton: Online teaching is weird for many of us. Whether we’re new in the teaching profession, or grizzled old veterans like me, one big issue is successfully forming an effective community of learners in the online environment. This impacts student retention in a big way. When I say that, I mean a big, big, big way. This is three bigs, folks, not one or two but three, count them, three bigs. Those three bigs also apply to student success. If we can’t retain them, they’ve lost out on any chance of success, and we’ve lost out too. Online courses have a notoriously high dropout rate. It’s getting better over time, but it’s still a concern. Even if we do keep students in our course, they won’t succeed unless they stay engaged. Engagement is not something most of us know how to do well in the online environment.
Kevin Patton: I’ve been teaching online for quite a while, and I have trouble too, but I’ve picked up some tricks. In academia we’re not supposed to call them that. We’re supposed to call them strategies, but if I call them tricks, then you’re more likely to listen to what I have to say. By the way, 49 tricks? Really? I don’t know how many I have, but it got you listening, didn’t it?
Kevin Patton: When I started looking over my notes for this episode, I realized that they can be split apart or lumped together. Most of them overlapped and interconnect in ways that I don’t know how many there are here. Does it really matter exactly how many there are? Okay, there are at least eight. Eight of them, that’s enough, right? Besides that, there are way, way more tricks or strategies than what I have for you today. Why don’t you tell us what you have? Call in, write, email. I hardly ever hear from you. Okay, maybe I get a holiday card once a year, but will it kill to lift the phone once in a while and give your old friend a few minutes of your time? Let me know how you’re doing.
Kevin Patton: Okay, I got a little off track there. Let’s get back. Okay, all 8 to 49 of the tricks I’m going to talk about right now, they really are easy. You’ll see. The first thing I want to talk about, and maybe I shouldn’t use that phraseology first, because then you’re going to start counting them one, two, three and see if I have eight or if I have 49 or somewhere in between, and I don’t know how many I have. To start out, we’re going to start off with this principle, and that is, connections. It’s all about connections. I mean connections between the professor and the students, and it’s all about connections from student to student. Today I’m just going to focus on the connections between the professor and the student. What we can do as a professor to stay connected to our students and help promote retention and help promote student success.
Kevin Patton: To kind of ease us into it, I’m going to ask you to recall a conversation I had a couple episodes back in episode 19 where I talked about how important it is for us to show students that we care about them. I gave some practical tips on how we can make sure that that message gets across to them, and thereby help promote student success. It’s been widely documented that the more any individual student can feel connected to their professor, the more likely it is that they’ll succeed, and not just in that course, but they’ll be more likely to stick with their whole academic program and succeed in it. It often just takes one relationship with one professor to keep them going. I don’t necessarily mean a close or time consuming relationship, just a feeling of connection. That’s a lot easier than it sounds.
Kevin Patton: One way to do that would be to make sure that you’re projecting and living out a friendly, caring, supportive persona. That would be your online teaching persona. Way back in episode 12 I talked about looking at teaching as a kind of storytelling. That storytelling is at the heart of good teaching. I described that it’s a good idea to develop your storytelling persona. That’s the same kind of thing I’m talking about here. As a matter of fact, they would probably be the same persona, or at least overlapping persona as when you’re telling a story in front of a class as when you’re approaching your online students and communicating with them.
Kevin Patton: As a matter of fact, it’s not a bad idea to give that some actual thought. Over time, take some notes, keep a notebook, and start jotting down some ideas. What do you want your online teaching persona to be like? I would suggest the word friendly should be in there, caring, supportive. Those are all things, and probably some other adjectives and characteristics are going to occur to you throughout listening to this episode of the podcast, and then as you mull it over over time. I suspect that over a matter of semesters and years, it’s going to morph a little bit. It’s going to evolve, and you’re going to really start finding the things in that online teaching persona that work, and finding the things that don’t work so well, and honing it, and tweaking it to the point where it becomes really highly effective.
Kevin Patton: I suggest that you consider making that online persona informal, if possible. As informal as possible, without blurring the line between professor and student. As I’ve already mentioned a few times, that word supportive, make it really super supportive. That’s our role as teachers, at least the way I see it. We’re there to be facilitators and mentors. To be a good facilitator or mentor or coach, we need to really project the idea that we’re there for support, that they can rely on us for support.
Kevin Patton: Here’s a trick, and it’s a trick I mentioned back in episode 12 when I was talking about storytelling, and that is smile before you do anything online. Before you answer an email or a direct message, before you respond to something in a discussion forum, before you start grading any of the material that needs to be graded, before you post an announcement or compose an announcement or news item for that course, smile first. That kind of gets you into the mode you need to be in, even if you’re frustrated. Even if you’re angry, like, “I’ve told them a million times. Why are they doing this the wrong way?” Before you post that announcement, you want to smile first and get into that online teaching persona, that friendly, informal, supportive persona that you’ve been developing so you don’t lose it and break the stride of that. So just smile. Good technique for coming across in a positive, friendly manner.
Kevin Patton: Sort of along those lines is the idea, and I do this all the time, I think of myself, I literally think of myself as a highly skilled customer-service professional. We’ve all interacted with them, right? We know those that really make us feel good and make us feel like they’re helping us, and really feel like we’re getting something done. They’re the ones who let you vent and don’t stop you and try to correct you. They just let you vent. Then when it’s appropriate, they respond. They say, first thing off, usually, what they’ll say is, “I understand your frustration. I understand how frustrated you must feel in that situation.” Then what’s the next thing they say? “It’s okay, I can help you with that,” or, “I’m here to help.”
Kevin Patton: Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we let the student vent a little bit, online, or if they’re calling us up, or leaving us a voice message or whatever, let them vent. Let it hang there for a moment, and then respond and say, “Oh, wow. You must really be frustrated. I can understand that you’re frustrated. I hear that. I’m here to help.” What you’ve done is you’ve validated their feelings, you’ve told them that you listened, and that you understand. Even if you don’t completely understand, you can ask some followup question to really get to the detail. But that you understand the overall gist of what they’re talking about, or even just understanding the fact that they’re frustrated. Then follow up with that all important I’m here to help you.
Kevin Patton: Then that kind of implies, and you might even go a little bit further and state that you’re ready to take some responsibility for making sure that they find the help they need. Now what I typically do is help guide them to help themselves. I help guide them to their next step. I get them talking about that, responding back and forth and get them to see what their next step should be, but sometimes they really do just need to be told, “Do this next.” Then they can take it from there, so it depends on the situation. The idea is you don’t just leave them hanging there. You don’t do this, “You should know how to do that,” or, “It’s in the syllabus.”
Kevin Patton: It’s okay to say, “It’s in the syllabus,” but what I’ve found is it doesn’t really take more than a few seconds to copy and paste something from the syllabus. I keep my syllabus file on my desktop there ready to open so I can just copy that section, and say, “Well remember in the syllabus,” so it kind of little passive aggressive maybe, a little bit, there but if you do it in a friendly manner, it’s passive, but not aggressive. Then as you say, “Remember in the syllabus where I explained,” and then just paste it right in, and say, “Here it is. It’s on page two of the syllabus. Here’s what you need to do.” It kind of jiggles them a little bit to say, “You know, maybe you should have looked at the syllabus,” so hopefully they’ll do that next time and realize oops, I guess I should have done that.
Kevin Patton: I mean I do that when I call in customer service lines, and they say, “You know, that little label on the front that says turn it on first? You know, maybe …” Like, oh duh, why didn’t I even look at that? How did I look past that? I think a lot of our students do the same thing, and they don’t like being made to be felt stupid, they don’t like us to have a condescending attitude. That does not foster the kind of connections they need for their student success. I don’t want to be that kind of person, anyway, much less that kind of teacher. Do you? No, I don’t think so.
Kevin Patton: Let’s kind of take some responsibility for making sure that they get the next little bit of information, the kind of help they need. If it’s help that I’m not capable of offering them, at least I want to take some responsibility for helping them find the kind of help that they need. Maybe, I don’t know, maybe they have some kind of challenge that they’re trying to overcome that I’m not equipped to help them with, and I can help them find the resources they need to overcome that challenge and deal with it in some way.
Kevin Patton: Now I want to take a moment to emphasize that what I’m saying here, to be friendly and supportive and all that, is not to say that we shouldn’t have some tough love here going on. Tough love is important. For many reasons, which all boil down to supporting student success, we do need to hold students accountable. It doesn’t do them any good to not hold them accountable. That’s not love at all. That’s not caring for them, that’s coddling them in an unhealthy way. We also, I think, should help them develop that professional work style they need. What I mean by professional work style is that is adhering to deadlines, being honest, and having integrity. All of those things that they’re going to in later courses and later in their careers. We can’t let them off the hook on those things, so don’t misinterpret me. But tough love doesn’t need to include anger, or condescension, or just blowing off students instead of taking some time to listen to them and help them. Tough love that works is still kind, and it’s still compassionate, at least that’s my belief.
Kevin Patton: I think it’s important to express empathy, not just have empathy, but to express empathy with the typically frustrating parts of your course. All of our courses, I think A&P is probably at the higher end of the spectrum in this regard, in terms of frustration level among students, at least in my teaching career, and I’ve taught a number of other courses besides A&P, even though that’s been my main focus. I think A&P is really, really tough for students. I found it to be tough, I think other students find it to be tough. I don’t think any of us will argue with that. We know where the pain points are, don’t we?
Kevin Patton: For example, in one of my online courses, especially, I have them go into some resources outside the learning management system. That’s going to involve them creating new login credentials, registering with their email and making up a password. You would think that in the 21st century that everybody is used to doing that sort of thing. Maybe a lot of my students are used to doing that sort of thing, but it still can cause frustrations. Not all those systems work exactly the way you think. They’re not all as intuitive as we’d like them to be in terms of their user interface, so I find that that’s a pain point in one of the courses I teach, so I know that ahead of time.
Kevin Patton: Learning Management System, or LMS, they drive me nuts. I don’t know about you guys, well I know, because I’ve heard from a lot of my colleagues. The Learning Management Systems, they have all these little features or lack of features that are just very, very frustrating. They don’t seem to be intuitive, they don’t do what we’d like them to do, they don’t work like the real world works, they sometimes stop working or get buggy and so on, especially when a new version rolls out. These days, most Learning Management Systems, they’re rolling out new stuff like every week, or every month, or it’s a new version, and all of a sudden, something is different than it was before. It might not really be fully functional and still have some bugs to work out that they didn’t anticipate until they released it.
Kevin Patton: There’s a lot of these machine based or software based or platform based frustrations that we have ourselves, so that helps us empathize with our students. We can connect that way and say, “Yeah, yeah, I know that that’s hard to do. I know what that feels like to have to go through that. Just think of all your learning, and just think how well you’re going to be able to empathize with your patients, and clients, and fellow students and so on later down the road.”
Kevin Patton: There are some other things that I think are particular to the A&P course like if you do an online lab or online demos or online simulations, and so on, in a course. Then they might have some frustrations in figuring out how to do that, and what you want from then in terms of work product if there is any, what it is they need to be doing. Let them know that yeah this is new, that’s frustrating for it to be new, so I’m there with you. I’m there to support you, and to feel your pain alongside you. If they have an online project they have to do, empathize with their frustration. If they have any kind of unusual assignment that they might not have had in a previous course before, even if it’s something that you’re used to doing, they’re not going to be used to it. Try to recall that frustration you had when you first introduced it in your course, and then think, “Well this is new for them each time I offer this course,” so they’re going to run into some of that same frustration.
Kevin Patton: There’s also all those learning bottlenecks in our course content. For me, a lot of my students when we get to the introduction to histology that I usually do pretty early in A&P one, it drives them crazy. It’s like I’m showing them a bunch of Jackson Pollock paintings and telling them that there are things that they should be seeing, that to them just looks like paint splatter. Realize that that frustration that they’re experiencing is a good kind of frustration. They’re not going to believe you when you tell them that, but learning scientists tell us that that kind of frustration is when the learning happens. When they see the paint splatters, and that’s all they see is pink and purple splashed all over the place, you can empathize with them. Say, “Oh yeah, I felt the same way, but look at this, and look at this, and look at that,” start to show them a few little tricks that they can start to use. If they get stuck, give them another trick or two that they can use. Let them work that out, but be supportive of them as you do so.
Kevin Patton: You can do that with learning skeletal features. I usually give them a big long list of skeletal features. They have to be able to pick out on a lab practical, or even if it’s an online lab practical where they’re identifying things in an online format, there’s a big long list of stuff they have to remember, and that’s very frustrating because they’re not used to have to remember that much stuff, and it’s all pretty abstract to them. We’re talking about histology is sort of like an abstract painting, well I think the skeleton is sometimes like abstract sculpture to them, that to them is just bumps and holes, and we’re trying to distinguish kinds of bumps and functions of bumps and now, oh man these gobbledygook names of bumps?
Kevin Patton: What’s another bottleneck? Membrane potentials, oh my gosh, that’s kind of an abstract notion, right? It involves a little bit of math, so oh man that’s scary to a lot of people. Renal function. I know for a fact that almost everybody listening here kind of dreads teaching the function of the nephron, at least if you go into detail at all of how urine is formed, how blood is filtered and so on in the kidneys. I know that because way back when when we were starting HAPS Institute, we did a survey of A&P teachers, and we asked, “What is the most difficult thing you find to teach? What’s the thing that you feel least confident about teaching?” Way up on the top of that list was renal function. Yeah, that’s another bottleneck, and it’s not only troublesome for us to figure out how to teach well, but it’s trouble for the students to figure out how to understand it.
Kevin Patton: It wasn’t until my third course when renal function came up where things finally started to click in my brain. I’m like, “Oh, that’s how it works. Okay. Now I’m starting to get it.” Imagine that kind of frustration in your students who are just trying to stay above water, and they’re not really, truly understanding it. They’re being frustrated. Think about those learning bottlenecks. Where are there learning bottlenecks in your course, and anticipate them, and say, “Look, I know this is frustrating. I’m right there with you. I was frustrated too.” Then try to find some ways to make it easier and reduce their frustration without eliminating that good kind of frustration that they need to climb that mountain and really do the learning work that they need to be doing inside their heads.
Kevin Patton: That tapping into your own frustrations I think is a good technique. It’s a good way to let the students know that you’re connected to them, that you understand them, you empathize with them, and you’re there to support them. Tap into your own frustrations with your Learning Management System, with those hard to teach topics, well they’re hard to learn for the students if they’re hard to teach for you.
Kevin Patton: What about the student apathy? Don’t we have days when we’re just like, “I just don’t know if I can push all the way through this day. I have to teach that topic for the umpteenth time, or grade that big stack of papers. Oh my gosh, grading all those papers.” We have those apathetic moments too, and say, “Look, I understand. Sometimes you just don’t want to do the work. Sometimes there are other things you want to be doing, but you got to get it done.”
Kevin Patton: Another kind of empathy that I draw on is sometimes I work with some administrators who just don’t seem to be listening to what I’m telling them. The only administrators I’m working with now are really very good, but haven’t you had that experience sometime in your life? Even very talented leaders in administration sometimes just aren’t hearing you. Maybe it’s not their fault, maybe it’s your fault because you’re not really communicating with them very well. In any case it forms some frustration. Think about that when your students are frustrated with you communicating with them. Think, “Wait a minute, haven’t I experienced miscommunications before in a professional setting myself? What can I do to make this better so that it’s not like those bad experiences I’ve had as a faculty member working with my administration?” Those are all ways to tap into that and form those empathetic connections with our students.
Kevin Patton: As I said earlier in the podcast, there’s a lot more that I have to say about this topic, but just not enough time to say it in this episode. Stay tuned for our next episode when I pick up where I left off.
Kevin Patton: Earlier in this episode I mentioned that I would really like you to contact me if you would like to be interviewed for this podcast, or know someone who might be a good interview subject int his podcast, or maybe you have something that you want me to share for you in one or more of the episodes. There are a lot of different ways to get ahold of me. Probably the easiest is to just give me a call and leave me a message. You can call 1-833-lionden, that’s L-I-O-N-D-E-N, or numerically it would be 1-833-546-6336. Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can go just straight to theapprofessor.org website and click the contact button, or you can contact me through social media at Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, all the rest of them. I’m on there too as The A&P Professor. See you next time.
Aileen: The A&P Professor is hosted by Kevin Patton, professor, blogger, and textbook author in human anatomy and physiology.
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