Sandy Keeter is a Professor in the Information Technology department at Seminole State College
9 ways we redesigned courses to support all students and improve course completion rates
Clear course description and expectations
Without a clear description, students may not fully understand what they are signing up for. A comprehensive course description can include course details and major deadlines, estimated time commitment, prerequisites, required skills or materials, and technical requirements to aid in their enrollment decision.
Sending your students a welcome message or video before class starts, along with the syllabus, will put them at ease, let them get to know you, and allow them to ask additional questions about the course.
One cause of low course completion rates is students not fully understanding the course expectations. To increase the completion rate, you need to clearly state the learning goal and make them understand its importance. Let your students know the benefits of your course and motivate them to put effort into successful completion.
Start the semester with orientation activities to get students started on the right foot, feeling comfortable, and looking forward to each class. Consider giving an orientation quiz or have students sign a contract indicating they are ready to begin after reviewing the syllabus.
A well-designed course should offer a degree of challenge and difficulty for the student. The activities should build in complexity and help students grow in knowledge. If it’s not challenging, your students will become bored, stop doing the work, or withdraw. Creating a clear learning path with intentional design, challenging content, and consistent methods will capture their attention and motivate them to continue.
Good course design is important. It takes a disciplined approach, with much thought, care, and attention. Lengthy content (ie: long videos and text) can be tiring, monotonous, and distracting. Keeping content chunked into bite-size, digestible pieces will work best for keeping students focused and engaged with the material.
Reminders and tips
You may need to remind students periodically why they signed up for your course. It’s natural to see learners lose their motivation and fall behind when “life gets in the way”. However, with well-scheduled and consistent announcements, emails, or text reminders, you can keep them on track (or get them back on track). This is especially important when you notice students are falling behind. Check in and remind them of due dates, offer help, and provide them with resources and suggestions for how to be successful in the course.
We have found that regular communication with our students is one of the most important things we can do as instructors to motivate and retain students in our classes. Not only to those who are not doing well, but also to those who are doing well.
Some of my colleagues argue that college students should be more responsible and motivated to do the work without constant reminders, but I always remind them that doctors’ offices send constant reminders even though we have the appointments on our calendars. Our students are juggling a lot and if I can make them more successful and show them I care by sending a few reminders, then it’s worth it.
Community and accountability
Communities are powerful for breaking down the isolation of learning and for encouraging students to stick with it. Creating a community in the classroom and/or online helps students feel like part of a team. They may also feel like they’ll be missed if they don’t come back, especially if part of a group project. Being part of a community helps students stay accountable to others. By building a community space for your students to dip in and out of for discussions and interaction, you will increase the likelihood that students will complete your course because they have support within a group.
Active and engaged learning
Students lose interest when an entire course is nothing but reading, PowerPoints, or videos. Consider re-structuring course content in a way that will engage your students and transform the experience from passive to active learning. This can include polling, quizzes, reflections, games, or a few group assignments. Providing quick, detailed feedback will improve student retention and allow them to move on to more challenging assignments.
Rather than waiting until mid-semester to assess your students, it’s important to keep them engaged and coming back each week so you can monitor their progress and help them before it’s too late. Offering variety in assessments and engaging students regularly can help improve the completion rate in your course. I also find students are more motivated to put in the effort if they are earning points while learning.
Accessible, equitable and digital
Mobile learning is expected by students these days, which means your course, or eTextbook at a minimum, should be available on a smartphone. Mobile devices give students another way to prepare for class while they’re on the go and allows them to study at their convenience. It offers great accessibility and flexibility in learning anywhere and anytime.
It could be that your LMS or publisher has a digital app that you can share with students. This not only helps with accessibility, but it can increase the course completion rate by making your course more inclusive and equitable in providing different learning options. Courses designed to use digital technology can make a huge difference in lowering DFW rates and provide more opportunities to minority, poverty-affected, and first-generation students.
Providing each student with individual attention may be difficult, and there are often limited campus resources to offer more help, but digital tools have extended our reach to provide more personalized learning to students. By simply using LMS and publisher materials and tools, we have seen greater student success in our courses.
As we add more LMS and publisher tools, continue restructuring, adding auto-graded assessments, and providing rubrics for instant feedback, we are finding our DFW rate dipping into the low 20% range. We are continuing to thoughtfully design, implement and extend our use of digital tools to increase equitable outcomes and personalize learning for all students.
Resources and support
Pay close attention and be ready to reach out to your students if they’re struggling or falling behind. Possible triggers could include failing an assessment or not logging in for a certain number of days. Based on the student issue, you can offer suggestions for improvement, provide resources, or additional support.
As you focus on reaching more students, point them to campus resources, and offer more varied office hours, you will increase course completions while at the same time improve course equity and accessibility. Offering individualized instruction as needed, improving engagement in and out of the classroom, and catching struggling students early to get them “just-in-time” support will bring positive results.
Making sure students know how to get support when needed is critical. Anticipating issues and providing links to tech support or resources will allow them to troubleshoot and resolve problems more easily. Designing a good course with effective supports is a critical part of the solution for improving course completion rates.
Seminole State has focused on integrating student success management systems (Starfish and Navigate) in the last few years, to provide support for students both in and out of the classroom. The pilot sections had more contact with advisors, more visits to our Academic Success Center and less DFWs when compared to other sections.
Team Teaching is another strategy we use in our high enrollment classes to reach more students, offer different perspectives, and create a more equitable experience for our learners. We’ve embedded a retention specialist into our LMS to help pinpoint areas that need improvement, while also embedding an eLibrarian and eTutor to help with more support around the clock. All these methods and strategies help to extend our support and build strong connections with our students.
Feedback and encouragement
Gamification, a leaderboard, or badges, can give your learners extra reasons to keep coming back. As juvenile as it may sound, most of us like to have a small, token or reward for our progress. Our LMS and Publisher products both provide analytics to our students that show where they stand in class. This could potentially motivate or de-motivate students, so I don’t stop at giving extensive feedback on assignments. I also follow up four times a semester to tell them where they stand grade-wise and encourage them to keep up the good work or give tips for how to improve. Showing them a sense of accomplishment will go a long way in ensuring their success.
Besides sending them a message you can reward them with certificates or badges showing progress levels which they can share on social media platforms. By sharing their accomplishments, other learners may get motivated and try to finish the course. Who doesn’t like kudos or a pat on the back? I’m always amazed at how a simple message is so well received by my students.
Design your course to help students achieve the results they want. By encouraging them, you will help your students succeed. As they progress through your course, you can point out how far they have come and how their work is getting them closer to the success they want.
Grades and analytics
On top of all these strategies and methods, you should still be looking at your gradebook regularly. This will give you information about what parts of your course are failing, and which parts are running smoothly. Setting your course and walking away while it runs on autopilot will NOT work. It must be monitored and fine-tuned regularly. Each semester you will face new students with new challenges.
If you notice learners are consistently dropping out when they reach a certain lesson, it could be that the learning curve there is too steep. You may need to split a module in half or add extra resources to help students get through. Or there may be a concept all students are missing that you need to spend a bit more time on.
User data can show how your students are engaging with the platform and whether they are finding and accessing the correct materials and information. Technical difficulties can be tricky to sort out, but it’s typically much easier to work out a kink in the course material than to fix user motivation.
End of semester surveys
Faculty and colleges should use feedback to understand their students’ experiences. This is for when a student completes a course as well as when they don’t. Using an online survey allows the results to be aggregated and analyzed across many different filters. It may have nothing do to with your course, but it may also reveal some great insight into what you can do to improve your course completion rates.
Anonymous surveys are a great way to get “real” feedback from students. It helps to give them a sense of involvement by giving their thoughts about the course, without repercussions for being honest if they were not satisfied with the course or instructor. The results help instructors identify areas in their course that need improvement and ultimately improve completion rates.
Conclusion: improving course completion rates
We all want to see 100% course completion rates, but the reality is that there will always be some Ds, Fs and Ws.
As college instructors, it is our duty to advise students, so they don’t sign up on a whim without thinking through the decision, and dropout when they decide they’ve had enough. We try to attract learners with strong internal and external motivations to complete our courses, make sure they know what they’re signing up for, and provide the community and support they need to see it through. I try not to take it too personally if they leave, although I often wonder what more I could have done.
As an instructor, you want students to take your course to grow their knowledge, and ultimately enter the workforce with confidence. In this article, Professor Keeter provides ways to improve course completions. You can also get strategies to reduce the DFW rate by reading Professor Keeter’s previous article, “How I Reduced the DFW Rate.”