student studying on laptop March 9

Captivating Your Online Learner with Engaging Course Visuals: 7 Easy Principles

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In an online environment, keeping your audience’s attention and focus on the critical concepts can be a challenge. Visuals are one of the most powerful ways to engage online learners, especially those from the upcoming generations. We will discuss how the visual design quality of course materials impacts student learning and describe seven simple design techniques that educators can use to create clean, clear, and uncluttered visuals.

Why does good design matter?

Design affects our emotions and perceptions. Attractive visual design can evoke positive emotions in learners and facilitate learning (Plass et al., 2014). Designing attractive, simple, and uncluttered course materials contributes to emotional design, thereby enhancing positive feelings of learners and increasing motivation. Positive emotions have been shown to contribute to more flexible and adaptive thinking and encourage creativity, problem solving, recall, and innovation (Isen, 2002). People also perceive well-designed objects as easier to use (Norman, 2005). Utilizing a few simple design techniques to create clean, clear, and uncluttered course materials can help enhance learning.

Good design also impacts cognitive processing, increasing both comprehension and information retention. Research suggests that visual design affects cognitive processing in four main ways: selection, organization, integration, and processing efficiency (McCrudden & Rapp, 2015). Good design allows students to identify and focus on the most relevant information and efficiently organize that key information in memory, increasing comprehension and information retention.

Finally, well-designed course visuals communicate the credibility of, and care taken by, the presenter. Research has found that judgments of credibility are largely influenced by design elements like layout, font, and color (Robins & Holmes, 2007). Given that materials that look good tend to be judged as both better and more credible, design improvements can increase presenter credibility and communicate that the presenter cares about both the audience and the topic.

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instructor presence when teaching online February 12

From Barely There to Fully Present: Three Ways to Improve Your Instructor Presence

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I recently received a frantic phone call from a distraught colleague who had just received her student evaluations after teaching her first online course. Tearfully, she shared with me sample student comments such as, “I didn’t get any feedback on my assignments until it was too late to help me with the next assignment,” and “I never heard from my instructor. It was like she was barely there.”

Frustrated because she felt that she had been doing a good job of communicating with her students, and also fearful because her adjunct position depended in part on receiving positive student evaluations, she asked for help in setting up an improvement plan for the next course.

Unfortunately, my colleague’s frustrating experience is not uncommon for instructors new to the online environment. Managing instructor presence—students’ perceptions of how instructors interact with them and guide their learning during a course—is the key to overcoming that frustration. It’s not unusual for instructors and students to have widely different perceptions of instructor presence during the same course.

For instructors who may be teaching multiple courses and spending large blocks of time answering student email, the time spent on their courses makes them feel fully present and fully engaged. To students, however, who may be looking for interaction from the instructor on the course discussion boards, it may seem the instructor is “barely there” because there is little trace of him or her in the course.

How would your students rate your instructor presence on a continuum from “barely there” to “fully present”? If there’s a difference between your students’ perception and your perception of your instructor presence, you can improve your presence with some simple strategies.

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top teaching and learning articles of 2017 December 15, 2017

Top 17 of 2017: Our Most Popular Teaching and Learning Articles

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As another year draws to a close, the editorial team at Faculty Focus looks back on some of the most popular articles of the year. Throughout 2017, we published more than 200 articles, covering a wide range of teaching and learning topics, including assignment strategies, cell phone policies, course design, flipped classrooms, online discussions, study strategies, and grading policies.

In this, our last post of the year, we reveal the top 17 articles for 2017. Each article’s ranking is based on a combination of factors, including e-newsletter open and click rates, social shares, reader comments, web traffic, reprint requests, and other reader engagement metrics.


ngage Students Outside of the Online Classroom December 5, 2017

Five Ways to Engage Students Outside of the Online Classroom

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Ubiquitous learning—the idea that everywhere you go, you’re learning all the time—lets us take advantage of the concept that in every interaction, there may be opportunities for students to engage with our subject matter, if we can just get them into that holistic thinking mode.

I am an avid knitter and like to knit all the time. When I need to learn something new about knitting, I’ll often go to YouTube or to some other online videos that I’ve seen. I might read a book or take an online course to learn some new ideas. I might talk with others who I see knitting or people who approach me. I like to knit out in public so that people might come up to me and talk about what I’m knitting.

Searching the web, talking with others, trial and error—these are good ways to learn things through experimentation and trying things out. But how does one get into this holistic thinking mindset in the classroom?

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engaging online students December 1, 2017

Designing Online Learning to Spark Intrinsic Motivation

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The word “motivation” comes from a root that means “to move,” and really, motivation is about what moves us to begin something or to persist in a situation—in this case, a learning situation. Motivation is a driving force. It can be considered an external driving force, something that motivates us from the outside, or a psychological force that compels us toward an action or a goal from the inside.

Extrinsic motivation—such as money or job security as motivators—is reward-based. We’re moved to do something or persist because we want a reward of some kind that will come from completing the task. Intrinsic motivation is different. Curiosity, love of learning, the ability to use new knowledge and apply it to one’s own goals: all of these are things that are intrinsically motivating to people. They’re motivating because they’re enjoyable, or because they satisfy an internal psychological desire.

Studies by Deci and Ryan have shown that intrinsic motivation tends to produce much deeper and more sustained engagement and learning than extrinsic motivation. And these studies have been followed up by many other studies that tend to have similar results.

Deci’s 1996 book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, includes a theory called self-determination theory, based on three categories of intrinsic motivation that the author claims are universal to all human beings. He argues that these three categories (competence, connection, and autonomy) are actually needs that all of us have to meet in our lives in order to experience our optimal potential as humans.

When all three of these needs are met, according to self-determination theory, we sustain our desire to keep learning. We sustain our desire to produce, to keep producing, be creative, give our time and energy to others, and, in general, increase and sustain our desire to live all the roles that we play in our lives to the best of our ability. But when one of these three needs is not met in some area, our motivation may suffer.

So in any learning situation, the student would, ideally, have all three needs met in order to want to sustain that learning over time without the need for the reward of money or grades or some other extrinsic motivator.

Looking at practical applications of the theory, one of the ways to think about this is that each student has a unique motivational profile of underlying desire and drives; as an instructor, getting to know students well can often make obvious what the main motivators are for particular students. Most students want to get a good grade, but it is the intrinsic motivators, such as the need to gain competence in a course or the need to have a sense of choice or a sense of directing their own learning to some degree or another, that motivates students to succeed.

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online learning June 26, 2017

Synchronous Online Classes: 10 Tips for Engaging Students

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There’s a widely circulated YouTube video you may have seen called “A Conference Call in Real Life.” To spoof the strange, stilted dynamics of conference calls, it replicates them in a face-to-face setting. Participants stiffly announce their names at the door of a meeting room, are suddenly interrupted by bizarre background noises, and find themselves inexplicably locked out of a room they were just in.

If you haven’t watched it, do. You’ll recognize the familiar awkwardness of virtual meetings, where the rhythm of conversational interaction is thrown wildly askew by technological hiccups and the absence of visual cues.

Virtual space is not always easy.

Yet, virtual meetings are increasingly common, not only for geographically distributed work teams, but also for online courses.


keyboard June 16, 2017

Creating Rich Learning Experiences Even When Class is Canceled

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In my corner of the country, we experienced an unusually harsh winter which resulted in many class sessions being canceled due to school closures. Our faculty, and likely other groups of faculty in our region, received an email message that stated:

If you cancel your face-to-face session, I expect a comparable experience will be online for your students.

This is easier said than done. For faculty who don’t regularly deliver coursework online, the expectation to “just move your teaching session online” can be an overwhelming task. It’s not as simple as putting that day’s lesson online. Teaching effectively online requires a skill set that can only be acquired with knowledge and experience. It doesn’t happen automatically.


laptop with book. March 10, 2017

Reduce Online Course Anxiety with a Check-in Quiz

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“Online classes are often intimidating for first-time students,” writes David St Clair. “They wrestle with the gnawing fear that their class has no anchor in the physical world and that there will be no one there to address their fears and concerns.” (p. 129) His solution? A simple, online check-in quiz.

Here’s how the activity unfolds. The first assignment in the online course, to be completed on the first day, is this required check-in quiz. In St Clair’s case, it meets the university’s first-day attendance requirement. Students can be dropped from the course if they don’t meet that university requirement. They read the syllabus and take the quiz, which comes to them as an attachment in the course welcome email. The quiz is also posted on the course Blackboard site. Beyond fulfilling the check-in requirement, this quiz is actually a tour of course features. “To find the quiz, learn about the quiz, take the quiz, and to receive their grade on the quiz, students need to navigate through virtually every part of the online class site.” (p. 130) As St Clair points out, you could “tell” students how to navigate the features of the online course, but the more powerful way is having them discover those features for themselves.


Online discussions: typing on keyboard February 8, 2017

Three Simple Ways to Energize Online Discussions

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Online course discussions are routine in online and blended classes, and they are gaining popularity in face-to-face courses as well. Proponents of online discussions tout that their use can help with community- and relationship-building, can push students to go deeper with course content and demonstrate critical thinking, and can allow students to share their knowledge and previous experience with course-related concepts and ideas.

Although the use of online discussions is becoming more common, I frequently hear faculty express concerns and challenges they have with them: the time it takes to read and grade each post, keeping students interested and engaged with the forums, and wrestling with how much they as instructors should be participating.

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