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Episode 23 Transcript
EVEN MORE Tricks for Retention & Success in Online Courses
Kevin Patton: Someone once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Aileen: Welcome to The A&P Professor, a few minutes to focus on teaching anatomy and physiology with host Kevin Patton.
Kevin Patton: In this episode, I discuss a possible medical role for mitochondria, I talk about syllabuses briefly, and I continue the conversation about retention and success in online courses.
Kevin Patton: I think mitochondria are really interesting. Now, I’ll have to admit that I think pretty much every part of the human body is interesting, but mitochondria in particular just have a set of structures and functions that are fascinating to me, and maybe that’s partly because we’re still figuring them out. We’re finding so many roles for them in cells, and therefore, in the human body that we didn’t really imagine even just a few decades ago.
Kevin Patton: Very recently, just a few weeks ago, there was an article in The New York Times that talked about a possible medical use for mitochondria, that is, using isolated mitochondria as a treatment for patients.
Kevin Patton: Now, without getting into a lot of details, I’ll give you a link on the show notes and on the episode page where you can read the story yourself. It’s a really well-told story, but just the gist of it is they’re looking at removing mitochondria from healthy tissue in a patient’s body, healthy muscle tissue in particular from a patient’s body, and isolating them and concentrating them, and then infusing them into the blood around the heart where the heart has been damaged by lack of oxygen and that there are cells that are struggling and in the throes of dying, so we have cardiac muscle fibers that have not died yet, but are getting there and are not functioning properly, and therefore, the heart’s not functioning properly.
Kevin Patton: These mitochondria apparently just on their own migrate right to the locations where they’re needed in those cells and are sort of restoring the function of at least some of those cells. That was based on some previous research that showed that as tissues die from oxygen deprivation and cardiac muscle tissue, their mitochondria start to look weird. They start to like shrivel up and become translucent when they’re being looked at under the microscope, and so the idea came that, well, that’s where the main damage is happening, and that makes sense if you’re undergoing oxygen deprivation that it’s going to be the mitochondria that are going to take the brunt of that, at least at first.
Kevin Patton: The idea was, let’s get some healthy mitochondria there, and almost as if by magic, the mitochondria knew where to go and to set up shop and get rolling, and in some animal studies, really did reverse at least some of that early damage.
Kevin Patton: Then they start using it on some people, and according to the story, about 11 people have been treated with this, and overall, generally good outcomes. Now, not perfect outcomes as we can imagine because they’re being used on people who are in really very serious shape in terms of their cardiac health and have undergone some incident in their cardiac muscle that is threatening their lives. Any success is better than nothing, but they’re going to be doing some randomized trials and look and see if we might be having some therapeutic use for mitochondria.
Kevin Patton: Here’s one more thing that we can pull out of our pocket in our class when our students start whining to us, “Why do we have to spend so much time on the mitochondria? I want to be a medical professional. I want to be a nurse. I want to be a physician. I don’t need to know about mitochondria.” Well, it might be that this is a go-to therapy for at least some types of heart problems and maybe other kinds of problems in the body.
Kevin Patton: Syllabuses, or syllabi if you’d rather have that. Remember in the last episode, episode 22, I discuss the fact that both syllabuses and syllabi are correct plural forms, even though I think most of us use the term syllabi. The reason I’m bringing it up again in this episode is to remind you of the request I made in the previous episode, and that is to please pass along any advice, hints, tricks, tweaks, whatever that you found useful in your syllabus because I’m putting together an episode coming up that’s going to get into some practical things we can do with our syllabus to make it a more effective document and tweak it here and there and make it maybe even a little more engaging. Oh, my gosh. That would be incredible and engaging syllabus.
Kevin Patton: Anyway, please call me at 1-833-LION-DEN, and leave a message on the podcast line, or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kevin Patton: Now, this episode is the third of a three-part series on practical tricks that we can use to increase the retention rates and decrease the failure rates on our online A&P courses. I mentioned that in previous episodes that if you don’t teach online now, someday you will, and even if you never do, most of these tips can still be used in a face-to-face course, so it’s not strictly about online teaching, but that certainly is our focus.
Kevin Patton: Just to bring us up to speed before we jump in on that third part, I want to mention that I really emphasize the idea that, really, this is all about connections, creating connection and maintaining them. Part of that is to intentionally have an online teaching persona that is hopefully friendly and informal and supportive, but at least intentional, that is, think about how you want to be connecting with your students, and make sure that you play that role every time you communicate with your students.
Kevin Patton: I suggested that it’d be an empathic role, but it’s important to not just have empathy, but also to express the empathy because often it just doesn’t come through unless we’re really thinking about the fact that we have to be expressing it to our students.
Kevin Patton: We can do that by using so-called customer service skills. Just like customer service agent that you might call in on a helpline, the really good ones, they listen. They let you rant for a while. They express empathy with your frustration, and then they help you solve the problem. Maybe we can use those kinds of skills when we’re dealing with our online students. We can develop true empathy with our students by using our own pain points, the frustrations that we have in our side of things to tap into how our students must feel so that we truly can empathize with them.
Kevin Patton: I also went into some practical ways that we can make an online course more of a face-to-face experience and how to use our faces and our voices and even schedule text announcements to enhance the connections needed to retain students and promote student success.
Kevin Patton: In this last part of the discussion, I’m going to talk about why reaching out to individual students who may be at risk is important, and also some tips on how to do that. I’m also going to discuss why feedback to students is important in nurturing connections, and then I’ll have a few final thoughts. Let’s jump back in right now.
Kevin Patton: Another thing that we can do is use the tools within our learning management system to keep tabs on people who aren’t keeping up. Now, there’s all kinds of statistics in there, and I still have far to go in learning how to use all of those analytical tools that are in my learning management system. If you’re using a publisher’s tool, like an adaptive learning system or something like that that is set up by a third party like a publisher, there’s lots of analytics in there that it takes a while to learn how to use them effectively, but at the very least, we can see who’s doing well and who’s not doing well. If they’re not doing well, we can keep an eye on that. We can also keep tabs on due dates being missed.
Kevin Patton: One of the learning management systems I use has just, it’s like one or two clicks, and it will automatically send emails to everyone who has not submitted a certain item in the drop box. As soon as that due date hits, then I immediately go in there and send a message out to everybody who has not turned their assignment in time to say, “Look, I haven’t started grading yet. I’m going to start grading them tomorrow. You still have time. Get it in now, and I won’t ding you for it being late.”
Kevin Patton: That sounds very empathic and supportive, doesn’t it? Like, “Oh, I really am supposed to give you a penalty, but I’m going to waive that penalty if you help me out by getting it done in time,” because that’s really one of the reasons, at least from my perspective, why we have due dates. It’s so that not everything piles up at the end and I can’t possibly do a good job of grading.
Kevin Patton: That’s an example of a way we can use the tools in our learning management system, but we can keep an eye out for trouble spots, and if we do that rather than just wait until the end, say, “Oh, my gosh. Half my class flunked,” or, “Half my class dropped out. What’s going on?” and then you look at the statistics, and you say, “Well, look, they weren’t turning in this, then they didn’t turn that, and then all of a sudden, they were gone. They withdrew from my course.” If you find out right away that they’re falling behind, you can help them before they have to drop the course. You can help them before their grades are so low they cannot possibly pull it back out of the fire again.
Kevin Patton: What I do is I send individual messages to students who seem to be in trouble. When I’m sending that individual message, I’m sure to tell them several things. One is I’m telling them that I have noticed them, I have noticed that they could possibly be running into trouble, so I’ve noticed their behavior. Second thing I make sure that is in that message is that I tell them how that might affect them if it continues, so, “If you miss more deadlines, here’s what’s going to happen. If you continue to do so poorly on your assignments, here’s what’s going to happen. If you continue to miss quizzes, this is what’s going to happen.” I can tell them that not in a nagging way, but just point out, like, “Look, this can’t continue. You have to do something about this.”
Kevin Patton: Then I make sure that the message in there that I want to see them succeed. Why would I take the time and trouble of communicating with individually if not to help them succeed, but I don’t want that to be just implied by the fact that I reached out to them. I want to specifically and explicitly tell them I want them to succeed. “I want you to succeed.”
Kevin Patton: Then I tell them that I’ve noticed their hard work, if they’ve had hard work before, and I’ve noticed that they were successful in this or that other thing in the course, that is if that really does apply that they’ve been successful, so you can boost them up a little bit and say, “Look, I know you can do it. Look, I’ve seen you do it. Now let’s keep it up,” because I really think, at least in my experience, a lot of times, the reason why people stumble in an online class is not because they can’t do the work. It’s because they’ve forgotten about it, they’ve disengaged for whatever reason, and what we need to do is get them reengaged again and get them reengaged early, and then they’ll be okay.
Kevin Patton: As soon as they’ve realized that we’re going to pull them back in, then it’s going to make them easier to pull themselves back in in the future. Usually, it only takes one of those kinds of messages to get somebody pulled back in, unless they’re having some really serious problems, in which case, you’re going to need to maybe keep pulling and tugging a few times.
Kevin Patton: The other thing that I always mention in that message to them when I reach out, and this is really important, probably the most important thing in the message, and that is I ask them, “What can I do to help you?” Now, if there isn’t anything I can do to help them, it’s just a matter of them reengaging, then that’s okay. I’ve accomplished my goal of getting them reengaged, but I’ve also let them know that if they should ever run into trouble that I’ve already reached out to them that it’s okay because I want to help them and I’ve told them individually that I want to help them.
Kevin Patton: Now when they do run into trouble, they’re going to be a lot less hesitant to actually reach out to me and say, “Look, I don’t get this topic or this concept,” or, “Look, I’m having huge issues in my life. Give me some tips for how to get my online work done in addition to dealing with this other issue,” or maybe even getting help with that issue, and we’re going to get back to that in a couple of minutes.
Kevin Patton: When you send out those individual messages, I believe it actually helps them, it actually holds them more accountable than by just ignoring it and letting them manage themselves 100% of the time. I think what you’re doing is saying, “Look, I can see that you’re not holding yourself accountable,” now, I would never word it that way, but that’s part of the message hopefully that they’re processing in their heads like, “Oh, my gosh. He’s having to manage me. Why can’t I manage myself? I’m an adult. I’m a college student. I should be able to manage myself.” I think it kind of pushes them and calls them on that and helps them become more accountable by calling their attention to the fact that they’re not being self-accountable. At the same time, it’s demonstrating that you do care about their success, so that’s going to give them some more motivation to hold themselves accountable.
Kevin Patton: They might have some real issues that you can help them with, or at least help them find the kind of help they need. I mean, I have had students have some very, very serious kinds of issues with their family, with their health, with all kinds of things. I mean, you just never know. There’s so many things that … The statistics tell us how many students are victims of domestic violence, how many are victims of sexual assault, how many college students that have real trouble with depression, other kinds of mental illness, even to the point of considering suicide. These are really serious issues. I guarantee you that your students have had these and will continue to have these issues.
Kevin Patton: I’m not saying that we can help them with all of those, but we can help them find the help they need, and they can benefit by knowing that there’s at least one person in their corner who is concerned about them and about their success. Their issues could be very minor, but they could be very serious, maybe even a matter of life and death that we can help them find resources for.
Kevin Patton: Now, all of this individual reaching out could really feel like an overwhelming task when you’re looking at it right … When you’re listening to me talk about it, it’s like, “Oh, my. I can’t do that, and all the other things that I have to do.” I know that teachers in general, and I think A&P professors in particular are way, way, way overwhelmed with work. I think the only people that understand that are me and you, so I empathize. I empathize with your frustration with that. I know that. I know it seems overwhelming, but let me tell you, it’s, really, it’s not that bad. It sounds overwhelming, but it isn’t actually overwhelming.
Kevin Patton: If I can do it, you can do it. I’m a really busy guy. You should see my to-do list. It is out of this world, but if I can do that kind of thing reaching out individually … It’s just every once in a while with a handful of students. It can really have a huge benefit to your courses and your students’ success.
Kevin Patton: You want to check up regularly. You want to check in on your course regularly to see who’s falling behind, but it’s only every once in a while you have to do that. You can take 10 minutes every Monday morning to check on things, can’t you? I mean, that’s not that much. If I can do it, as I said, you can do it.
Kevin Patton: The issues that are most likely to show up are most likely to show up in the first few weeks, so sticking to it the first few weeks, maybe even checking in more than once a week, maybe once a day for the first few weeks, it’s not that hard. Just take a few minutes. Make a regular habit of it so that it feels like it’s something that is part of your day, and paying attention to that can head off a lot of really big problems later on. You can save those students you otherwise would’ve lost. You save them from withdrawing. You’ve retained them. Everybody’s happy. They’re happy. You’re happy. Your administration is happy. Just nipping in in the butt early, and then taking a few minutes to regularly do it every week, I think that really makes it a much, much more manageable thing.
Kevin Patton: Speaking of my management of it, I don’t have this kind of load anymore, but for many years in my teaching career, I had over 500 students every semester that I taught all by myself, that is, I didn’t have any teaching assistants. I had five classes of 48 students, and they were always full, so I had the full 48 students. Five classes of 48 at the community college teaching two semester A&P, and then every fall, I was the only teacher in the undergraduate physiology course for the nurses and allied health professionals and so on at a local university, and I had one class but had 300 in that class, so at least in the fall semester, I had over 500 students. In a spring semester was a light load. I only had 240 students, but in either case, that’s a lot of students. You think, “Oh, my gosh. That could get overwhelming if I’m doing all this individual reaching out.”
Kevin Patton: Well, it’s not that bad. It really isn’t because it’s only going to be one or two at a time. If you keep up with it, it’s not a big chore. It’s like anything. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to do, the more skills you gain at it, and the more effective you can be at it. Do it, and you’ll learn how to do it.
Kevin Patton: Another thing is, I mentioned I never had any teaching assistants to help me with that stuff. If you do have teaching assistants available or some other kind of help, then maybe some of those tasks can be delegated to them, but I would caution you to do it in a way that preserves your connection to the students, not necessarily the connections between your assistants and the students because I think it’s much more powerful if it’s a connection with you, even though those other connections are important and helpful. I’m not saying don’t let your TAs connect with students, but I’m saying make sure you maintain your connection.
Kevin Patton: You could have an assistant monitor how things are going, and then alert you the problem so then you can make that connection with the student, or maybe you could have the teaching assistant maybe identify the students that are in trouble, maybe compose a draft of a communication, then you look it over, or maybe they can send out a communication, say, “Look, I talked with the professor, and he and I, or she and I discussed your situation, and we think this would be a good plan for you, or we would like you to come in and make an appointment and talk to us,” or whatever, but make sure that your name is involved there so that they’re feeling that connection with you.
Kevin Patton: I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t third grade. They’re adults. It’s not my job to keep tabs on them.”
Kevin Patton: Well, I would kind of argue with that a little bit. I think it is our job to keep tabs on them, and I do think it’s our job to reach out to them when we think they’re getting in trouble, but that thought occurs to me all the time. Especially when I’m pulled away from something else I want to focus on, when I realize a student is trouble and I need to reach out to them, I think, “Oh, my gosh. It’s not third grade. What do I do?” but I ask myself, “But Kevin,” yes, and I address myself as Kevin when I’m asking myself questions. “Kevin, do you want to retain them in your course or not? Do you want them to succeed in your course or not?”
Kevin Patton: Well, of course the answer to those questions is, “Yes, I want them to succeed. Yes, I want to keep them in my class, so no, it’s not third grade, but eh, this is online teaching, and it’s a little different than it is in face-to-face teaching. If that’s what I gotta do to get them to be successful, then by golly, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Kevin Patton: It usually does just take one time to reach out and wake them up and get them to manage themselves because now they’re going to realize that you’re paying attention, you care about them, you’re willing to help them, and therefore, if they ever want to reach out and get help, they know they can get help from you.
Kevin Patton: Another important principle of online teaching that I found is feedback. Feedback. Let me say it a third time, emphasize it, feedback. That is something that students really value, really, really, really value. Did you hear that? Three reallys.
Kevin Patton: Part of me is really amazed at how grateful students are when you give them a lot of good feedback on their work. Even if you’re telling them that they totally messed up an assignment, if you point out the things that you did like and give them actual concrete ways to fix what they did wrong for the next time, then they love that. They love, love, love, love that. How many loves is that? That was like four loves. Wow. They really do benefit from that sort of thing.
Kevin Patton: Giving feedback takes extra time, I know, to not just give them a score, but actually … Sometimes, I put a sticker on their papers especially the first couple of exams. Even if it’s multiple choice quiz or something like that, everybody who gets an A gets a sticker, a little skeleton sticker or something like that, and I’ll just write a little “good job.” Yeah, it’s going to take me an extra half hour if I have a big stack of papers. Maybe … Oh, usually doesn’t take me an extra half hour. What am I saying? It’s only going to take an extra few minutes to just write a little note on there, but you can give other kinds of feedback too, like, “Maybe if you showed you at … ”
Kevin Patton: No, don’t say it that way, but I had professor do that one time, and boy, it really woke me up. It was in a big, giant physics class, and it was in a big lecture hall with hundreds of students. I didn’t do so well on the first exam, and the teacher wrote on there, “Maybe if you showed up more often,” or something to that effect, that’s how I heard it in my mind [inaudible 00:25:51], “then maybe you’d do better.” He probably wrote that on everybody who didn’t do so well on the first exam, and boy, it turned me around.
Kevin Patton: Anyway, those little personal notes, but the more concrete they are, the more where you’re pointing specific things and giving them a solution to that, the better the students are going to do. It’s going to give you an opportunity to use all those solid coaching skills that you have and that you’re still honing and tweaking, and you’re going to get better at them the more you use them.
Kevin Patton: I have a lot of tricks to make feedback effective and things that are particular to the online course, including how to give a lot of feedback to each individual student without spending a lot of time. That’s going to be a topic for a later episode. I mean, we’re already like way over one episode’s worth of material just in this one topic here, so we’ll come back to feedback as its own topic some other time. I got some great feedback tricks up my sleeve, so you’ll want to hear that.
Kevin Patton: You might want to download the podcast app right now or subscribe in your favorite podcast app or subscribe to my blog where every episode gets posted once it’s released because you don’t want to miss that future episode, do you, so make sure you’re connected if you aren’t already.
Kevin Patton: That’s enough for now as we need to finally wrap up this topic so we can move on to some other topics. I know that you have other tricks that have worked for you, so let me know about them so I can share them here. What we have so far all sounds like a lot, I realize that. It must be very frustrating for you to think of all that I’m asking you to do. I understand that. I understand that frustration, but really, once you start committing to some of these strategies, I mean tricks, it’ll grow on you. They’ll become second nature. They won’t seem to burdensome anymore. At least on most days, they won’t seem very burdensome.
Kevin Patton: I’ve been doing all these tricks for a long time, and yeah, it does take time and energy and some emotional fortitude sometimes, but it’s really not that bad. It’s all worth it when your students stick with it and succeed in your course and succeed beyond your course, and really, that’s why we do this, right?
Aileen: The A&P Professor is hosted by Kevin Patton, professor, blogger, and textbook author in human anatomy and physiology.
Kevin Patton: Natural preservatives have been added to this episode to reduce spoilage.
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