Students can have a hard time seeing how general education requirements and foundational classes help them achieve their goals. Students, especially adult learners, want to make measurable progress toward their degrees right out of the gate. Actually, want might be too weak a word. As they balance jobs, families, an income gap, and student debt that grows weekly, they need to make progress as a tangible achievement to keep them going.
What I want to focus on are potential solutions, or at least actions we can take toward solutions. If we view a student’s educational journey as a continuity, as a process with incremental progress, how do we put the imprint of this journey on individual classes?
We can do this in part by creating a context for the learning in our courses and through instilling a sense of direction by infusing reflection in the classroom. I know, as subject matter experts, we’re trying to juggle learning outcomes specific to course content—those things we have to teach, those things that we know are important to our course content. And it can feel like there isn’t any time or space left over. But I believe that every teacher has a duty to go beyond content—we’re not textbooks, we’re not info dumps. It’s our job to show students the connections and lay bare the mechanism. If a student doesn’t see why a particular class is important, that’s on us: designers and instructors.
The online classroom is a dynamic space for having amazing interactions with our students. Sometimes it’s text, sometimes video or audio—there are dozens of ways to connect and dozens of potential locations for this interaction to take place: gradebook feedback, inbox, the discussion board. The key is to have meaningful conversations with our students, a dialogue, not a sermon from the mount but an interchange—a back and forth.
The challenge is to find an open channel for this communication. I’ve found the Announcements in my classroom a great way to open up dialogue, but I focus that dialogue on recognizing the journey students are on, foregrounding the process, instead of just adding one more content hit. At the midpoint of my class, I center the content of an Announcement on success strategies.
In the Announcement, I present some tips for students: Five things they need to know about online learning. Then, I open up the comments feature on the Announcement and ask students to take a few minutes to add their own thoughts. I also provide a few basic prompts to help get them thinking: Share an important lesson they have learned since they started taking classes online, or share advice they might give to a new student.
I think this is an important check in, a time for students to take a breather from the headlong content push and reorient themselves on the path. It allows them to see how far they’ve come, to realize that they are in fact learning all kinds of skills—not just the weekly learning outcomes of their various courses, but that there’s a bigger picture. And when they can see themselves in that picture, that’s powerful.
Anytime we teach, we are dealing with content, but we also have the content under the content; those skills that transcend the particular application you’re leveraging in a given class. These are the core competencies, the outcomes that fuel lifelong success, the building blocks for any class that comes next, and as the ultimate goal, a career.
We’re training students, but they might not be explicitly aware of those building blocks. I believe acknowledging these skills and bringing them to the forefront is a key to unlocking persistence, better retention, and completion. When we show students what they’re learning, and we walk them right to the applications of that learning, we can generate a deeper engagement.
We kick off a discussion of translatable skills in a Post Your Introduction forum, and we circle back to it consistently in discussion and written assignment prompts. There are always more than a few students who question why they have to take general education requirements. So, we owe it to students to make that part of the conversation from day one, and we ask students to articulate an answer.
In any online classroom with discussion boards, instructor response can be tailored to instill the element of reflection. Asking students specifically what they’ve learned in class—what skills they might add to a portfolio or their LinkedIn profile—gets them thinking.
It might seem simple, but putting this on the student and directly asking them to pull out those deeper skills they’ve learned shows them how their abilities have grown and how to articulate those skills as job-based skills. Suddenly, even though the teacher was talking about movies, math, or how to write an essay, there’s something else that has been learned along the way, something that can plug into a skillset that students will have to demonstrate in their careers. They get to imagine themselves working in their chosen field, applying lessons learned in the classroom, and that’s a very powerful moment and a powerful motivator.
Teachers pay attention to their own classes, as well they should, and they have an awareness that other classes exist—that a student’s journey goes on, but that doesn’t really impinge on the day to day. But students see a massive blitz of learning experiences that press in demanding attention and focus without the steadying perspective of context or direction.
The reality is somewhere in the middle. And it leaves us, as instructors, whether we’re designing the experience on the curricular level or carving it out day by day, with some work to do. We need to take steps to create context for our students, to embrace the relational aspects of what we do and to highlight the overarching knowledge, the durable skills, and those translatable abilities that are being imparted. We can teach our content, but we are also responsible for foregrounding habits of mind, creating a foundation, ensuring that students take ownership of the process, and becoming partners in it. And when we have that buy in, we know that will fuel retention, persistence, and success.
Dr. Nathan Pritts is a Professor in the Center for the First Year Experience at Ashford University where he serves as Lead Faculty in the Written Composition concentration. He brings expertise in business writing, advertising, and online user experience to the General Education classroom, infusing the curriculum with foundational outcomes bolstered by clear ties to a student’s academic and career path. He’s also the co-author of the textbook Film: From Watching to Seeing, currently in its third edition.