Improving Student Retention with Blackboard

Student retention has been an important topic around campus recently. There are many factors that impact student retention, such as financial needs, family issues, and personal adjustment to university life, as well as curriculum, teaching methods, and academic advising. While many of these require campus-wide cooperation, there are also small changes you can make in your teaching to help students stay engaged and be successful in your courses. The way you use technology, like Blackboard, can help, but it is important to remember that reaching students really requires a personal touch. The most important way you can impact student retention is by making sure that students feel connected and know that you care about their success.

Read more for some tips and strategies for using Blackboard to help you connect with your students or watch the recording of the webinar Tips for Improving Student Retention with Blackboard offered by the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center.


Tip #1: Get to know your students

table of photos of everyone in the course

  • Conduct a survey in Blackboard to ask about your students. Blackboard surveys are anonymous, so students can feel safe sharing about themselves, and you can gather valuable information about them, their history with the subject, their experience at NIU, their comfort with technology, their study habits and learning preferences, and their responsibilities outside of their coursework.
  • Use a “get to know each other” discussion forum. Ask students to post an introduction to a discussion forum. Use structured prompts that encourage creativity and course-related personal sharing.
  • Create a photo-wall of the students in the course. Ask students to send you a photo of themselves or take them during the first day of class, and post them as an Item in the course. Students who do not want to send a photo of themselves could send an avatar, icon, or photo of something that inspires them instead.

Tip #2: Design your course syllabus to be welcoming

screenshot of getting started area of a course in Blackboard

  • Post your syllabus as a PDF/Word and add the content directly in Blackboard as Items. This makes it easier for students to access the syllabus in the format they need or simply browse the contents in the course.
  • Create a Welcome or Start Here area as the course entry point. This helps students find important information for being successful and know how to get started with the course.

Tip #3: Prepare course content using a variety of modalities

5 mobile devices showing blackboard mobile learn

  • Design your course to be mobile-friendly. Students are using their mobile devices more than ever to access content in Blackboard. If you follow a few best practices, your course can be optimized for students to browse and quickly find information (such as the syllabus).
  • Post videos as content or as secondary resources for enrichment. Video is often more engaging than plain text. Try embedding YouTube videos using the Mashup tool instead of posting a link. Record weekly introductions with the Video Everywhere tool, or post your own video content in Blackboard to the Helix Media Library.
  • Use Open Education Resources. You don’t have to create everything yourself! Open Education Resources (OER) are teaching resources created by the international teaching community and shared for others to use freely. OER repositories, like MERLOT, help you find high quality resources quickly.

Tip #4: Use success markers to track at-risk students

screenshot of Blackboard Retention Center

  • Track attendance in the Grade Center. One of the most cited factors in student success remains attendance in class. Tracking attendance in the Grade Center can be somewhat cumbersome, but it provides a clear record for you and for the students about whether they are missing opportunities to engage with you, each other, and the content.
  • Use Item Analysis for Tests and Quizzes to find difficult questions. Dig deeper into tests delivered via Blackboard by accessing the Item Analysis report. This report provides granular results for each question to help you identify topics that students struggled with (high difficulty questions) or questions that may have been confusing or mismarked (negative differentiation).
  • Monitor the Retention Center. The Retention Center analyzes student data from Blackboard logins, usage, and the Grade Center to identify students in each course you teach who may be at risk based on 4 risk factors: Missed deadlines on Assignments, Tests, and other assessments, Overall grade, Time spent in the Blackboard course, and Time since last log in. Then, you can notify students via email to help them improve their standing before it is too late. Learn more about the Retention Center in this recorded webinar.

Tip #5: Provide students with opportunities to interact

screenshot of blackboard collaborate schedule page showing the persistent room created for each faculty member

  • Create forums for off-topic discussion. You can increase students’ sense of community by including a forum for conversations outside of the coursework, similar to the conversation students have before and after class starts in a face-to-face classroom.
  • Create Groups to facilitate group work. Collaboration can be difficult for students who have busy class schedules plus outside responsibilities, such as part- or full-time jobs and family. The Group feature in Blackboard creates a space for students to work with each other through group-members only versions of the discussion board, email, and a file exchange.
  • Use web conferencing for online office hours. Similarly, students with hectic schedules may find it difficult to attend office hours on campus. It might be possible to hold office hours online, using Blackboard Collaborate. All faculty and instructors have persistent Blackboard Collaborate rooms that can be used across any course that they teach. This could make it easier for students to participate in office hours when they need assistance.

Tip #6: Provide students with frequent feedback 

screenshot of a blackboard rubric

  • Offer practice quizzes in Blackboard. Whether a course is face-to-face or online, practice quizzes offered in Blackboard could help students self-assess their progress in the course.  The quizzes could be for practice only (not included in Grade Center calculations) and set to show students the correct answers and feedback after they take the quiz. Even though they would not affect the students’ grades, practice quizzes could help them study.
  • Use Inline Grading to provide detailed feedback on Assignments. Feedback is essential for students to understand how they are doing in the course and how well they are learning. The Assignments in Blackboard include inline grading, which automatically displays any PDF or Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or Excel file within the browser. This integration also enables inline annotating, such as adding comments in the margin, highlighting, strikethrough, and drawing, to provide detailed feedback on student submissions.
  • Use Interactive Rubrics. A rubric is an explicit set of criteria used for assessing a particular type of work or performance and provides more details than a single grade. This helps students understand what is expected of them and how they were graded. Blackboard Interactive Rubrics can be built in Blackboard and associated with Assignments, short answer Test questions, graded Blogs, Journals, Wikis, and Discussion Forums. The Rubrics can be shown to students before they submit work and can include comments for each criterion (row) to provide detailed feedback that can improve student performance.
  • Motivate students with badges and certificates. You can use the Achievements tool in Blackboard to award digital badges (compatible with the Open Badges initiative) and certificates for students who master certain concepts or demonstrate exceptional performance in your course. These recognitions can motivate students to excel and provides a map of their learning that is more personal than a grade. Plus, these certificates and badges can go with students when they leave the university, helping them to communicate their professional identity and reputation to open opportunities for career success and further education.

Tip #7: Encourage students to use support services

  • Post information about support services in your course. There are many services available to help students perform better and connect with the university, but students may not be aware of them or know how to get involved. You can post links, descriptions, and details about contacting them in the Getting Started area of your course (as in the Getting Started image in Tip #2 above), within the syllabus (particularly if it is created as a series of Items, so that it is easy for students to find information) or in a separate Getting Help area.


Naturally, it would be difficult (and likely overwhelming for students) if you tried all of these tips at once. Instead, select a few small changes you can make that will help students to feel connected and stay engaged with your course, based on your teaching style. Ultimately, these are all ways to make your Blackboard course (and your course design) more learner-centered.

Perspectives on Disability MOOC Receives Exemplary Course Award

Banner for Perspectives on Disability

In Fall 2013, NIU offered its first massive open online course (or MOOC), titled Perspectives on Disability. The course was led by College of Health and Human Sciences professor Greg Long, a Presidential Teaching Professor in the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders. The 10-week experience, based on the for-credit AHRS 200, a general education course entitled, “Disability in Society,” was designed to raise awareness and increase knowledge about disability.

Recently, the MOOC was awarded a 2014 Blackboard Exemplary Course Award with Director’s Choice for Courses with Distinction. According to Blackboard, Inc., the Exemplary Course Awards recognize those who develop “exciting and innovative courses that represent the very best in technology and learning.” Award recipients are chosen based on the Exemplary Course Rubric that evaluates four major areas (Course Design, Interaction & Collaboration, Assessment and Learner Support). Reviews are conducted by a peer group of Blackboard clients and winners are selected by the Exemplary Course Directors.

Here is a brief course tour that highlights some of the best practices used in the MOOC design.

You can also enroll in the course on the Blackboard Open Education platform.

For those interested, the course was selected for using three stand-out practices.

Stand-out Practice 1 – Universal Design for Learning

Because the course topic was perspectives on disability, and one of the course goals was to “create awareness, comfort, and sensitivity toward disability as an issue of cultural diversity and inclusion,” the course had to be entirely accessible. To accomplish this, we used principles of universal design for learning (UDL).

Screenshot of MOOC demonstrating UDL features

For example, content was delivered in plain text and multiple formats were provided for screenreader compatibility. The menus and content used high contrast colors for low vision. Videos were kept short for engagement & bandwidth. The videos were posted on YouTube and embedded using the Blackboard Mashup tool so that videos would have keyboard controls. All of the videos had captions and transcripts. Assignments had multiple options and open submission deadlines.

Stand-out Practice 2 – Developing empathy through critical thinking

Screenshot of a video with a guest speaker

Most courses on disability focus on the medical or legal facets of disability. This MOOC was designed to help students develop empathy by focusing on higher-level critical thinking skills. The goal was for students to see disability as a natural aspect of life.

The guest speakers in the videos told personal stories about disability, which began the process of engaging students in empathy. By using the same speakers throughout the videos, students were able to see the guest speakers’ stories develop through the different topics.

The activities helped students form personal connections through reflection, interviews, or teaching. Even though the activities were not graded, like a traditional course, they were designed to be educative instead of evaluative. For example, the process of interviewing someone was more important than the product of that interview. By engaging students in critical thinking, the activities guided students through new ways of thinking.

The final assignment of the course required students to reflect on the entire process and what they had learned. Many reported that their views on disability had changed and that they were more aware of issues related to disability, including stereotypes, portrayal in media, physical barriers, and etiquette.

Stand-out Practice 3 – Best practices as a MOOC

Screenshot of how to download certificate

Perspectives on Disability was challenging to design as a MOOC. It needed to be open, flexible, and student-driven so that learners could engage in the higher-level thinking needed to develop empathy and challenge their perspectives, but also linear and structured enough to support new learners without extensive technology skills.

Our approach was to provide a strong and consistent structure that still allowed students to connect with one another and maintain a sense of personal control. Weekly introductions and a consistent format helped students connect with and navigate the course. Clear instructions and links to help and accessibility support on the menu allowed students unfamiliar with the technology use the tools for the course.

Students were encouraged to form a community by posting to discussion boards and providing each other with feedback on their learning. In addition, social media was used to help students build a personal learning network outside of the course.

Objective quizzes with multiple attempts allowed students to self-assess their understanding, while multiple options for assignments let students determine their own forms of expression and the direction of their learning. In the absence of feedback or a grade as motivation, badges served as both motivation and recognition of student progress through the MOOC.

Feedback from Students

Most importantly, the students loved the MOOC! In their final reflections, students shared what they learned and how the experience impacted them. Here are a few of their comments.

“I learned that you should not judge a book by its cover because if you judge you will have that stereotype of what this person might possibly be. I learned that everyone has a story and the only way to learn their story is to ask and learn from them.”

“I loved the guest speakers. I loved how personal it was. I feel a lot of learning was through the speakers because they are in the present, living with their disability and are each very easy to relate to.”

“This course taught me to recognize my own attitudinal barriers and become more self-aware of my thoughts and behaviors towards those with disabilities.”

“As an educator, I will have opportunities to work with individuals with disabilities, and this course has provided me with the knowledge to better assist those individuals.”

“I want to express my deep feelings that I have towards this and sincerely thank each and every one who came up with this course because it was very helpful to the extent that I cannot express through writing.”

“I am going to recommend this course to many people at my place of employment. It was easy to use and very helpful.”

“I learned that the way that people view people with disabilities is completely unfair. I never really thought about my own views, and this course has definitely opened my eyes. I was completely wrong and this course has given me a glimpse into the ways others want to be treated/viewed.”

How To Write Engaging Questions for Online Forums

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Online asynchronous discussions are often incorporated by faculty into blended or online courses, providing opportunities for rich dialog among students outside of the traditional face-to-face classroom environment. A number of steps can be taken to promote an engaging and interactive online discussion, beginning with drafting the discussion questions that students are asked to respond to. This infographic highlights a variety of suggestions that can yield more meaningful and deeper online discussions.

How to Compose Engaging Questions for Online Forums Infographic
Source: BangTheTable

What additional suggestions do you have for writing engaging questions for online discussion forums?  Feel free to leave a comment with your ideas!

Teaching for Student Retention

woman teaching classFinancial needs, family issues, and personal adjustment can impact student retention at universities across the nation. Moreover, academic factors such as curriculum design, teaching methods, and academic advising can have a considerable impact on why a student will or will not stay in a particular course, major, or the university. To help increase student retention, you can implement specific classroom techniques to engage students and intrinsically motivate them to stay in class. You can also design your courses to better help students retain course concepts and perform better on assessment activities. The following are some strategies you can use to address student retention.

Course Preparation
Preparing for a course from the perspective of student retention involves identifying the learning needs of your students. Recognizing students who may be at risk or struggling academically can help you develop strategies to help students succeed.

  • Get to know your students’ needs and potential academic challenges they may have by conducting a brief survey at the beginning of the semester. This survey can be conducted in Blackboard or by using index cards in which you ask students to provide responses to some basic questions: How many credit hours are you enrolled in this semester? Are you a transfer student? Is this your first semester at NIU? Other questions that can help you get a better feel for who your students are include those asking about students’ study habits, how they prefer to learn, their test taking strategies, and commitments such as work, family responsibilities, athletics, or if they commute to campus.
  • Prepare your course content in a variety of ways. Use Blackboard to post lectures, course notes, and study guides. Create or find open education resources to augment difficult course content such as video-taped lectures, simulations, and tutorials students can use to review outside of class.

Course Design Considerations
A number of strategies and models are available to help you design your course. There are certain aspects of course design, however, that require additional consideration from the perspective of teaching for student retention.

  • Design your course syllabus to include welcoming language and statements that motivate and encourage student success rather than focusing only on penalties for absences, late work submission, and plagiarism.
  • Review course pre-requisites, vocabulary, and concepts the first week of the semester to ensure all students begin at the same level. Assign homework on necessary topics to prepare students adequately for the course.
  • Make course assessments authentic. Students are more motivated to learn and do well when presented with course activities that relate to real world experiences. “Valuable” learning experiences are those which students can relate to and use when they enter the work world. Make assessments meaningful so both you and your students know that they have done well and performed like an expert in the field.
  • Ask for formative feedback from your students. Formative feedback helps students know how well they are doing and whether or not they are meeting course goals. Formative feedback can also inform you on your teaching. For example, at the end of a lecture or class period, give students a set of questions that ask them: What was the best part of today’s lecture? What was the muddiest point of today’s class? What could you do differently to help with your own learning in this class? Acting on the feedback you collect from students will tell them that you value their input and are willing to address any suggestions they might share.
  • Use success markers to track at-risk students. Examples of course success markers are class attendance, demonstration of comprehending particular concepts, timely submission of assignments, and performance in key course activities. Using Blackboard’s tracking feature, clickers (personal response systems), or other mechanisms can help simplify the tracking process. Students who are identified as not satisfying established success markers can meet with you during office hours where they can receive necessary advice and or assistance.

Course Delivery
Effective course delivery is dependent on positive communication, clarity in instructions, and patience in responding to students’ questions. Students may decide within the first few class periods whether or not to stay in a course based on their perceptions of and/or interactions with their instructors.

  • Create a positive learning environment by taking the time to learn students’ names and interact with them before, during, and after class.
  • Provide students the opportunity to interact in the classroom. Encourage students to engage in class discussions by welcoming them to share their ideas and experiences.
  • Convey your expertise and passion for teaching. Students will respond to your excitement and interest in the subject matter.
  • Draw connections between topics and point out the relevance of content to students and the real-world. Students are more likely to come to class and engage with content they fine meaningful, useful, and timely.
  • Deliver course content using a variety of means to accommodate the different learning preferences of your students. For example, use focused lectures to relay detailed course content, class discussion to recall readings and homework assignments, group work to encourage critical thinking and leadership skills, and technology to extend class time for online discussions, promote communication skills, and reviews.

Course Activities
Careful balancing of high-stakes and low-stakes course activities and designing course activities that allow multiple forms of expression can accommodate students with diverse skills and abilities. In-class, out-of-class, and online activities help to develop a sense of community, collaboration, and support among students, all which can enhance student retention.

  • Include class activities to give students the opportunity to apply what they are learning to real-life situations such as case studies, scenarios, and problem-based projects.
  • Be clear and concise when explaining how to complete assignments. If assignment directions are not clear, students may be less successful in completing activities.
  • Offer frequent quizzes and assignments to help students receive regular feedback on their course performance and recognize what to improve before major tests or exams.
  • Be patient when students ask questions about exams and grades. Recognize that students often ask these questions due to anxiety about succeeding in the course and the need to prioritize the time spent on multiple courses as well as outside responsibilities.
  • Encourage students to use support services such as the University Libraries, NIU Writing Center, and department- and college-level tutoring services to complete particular course activities. These facilities will help students receive additional assistance and become familiar with academic support services.

Much of what has been presented in this article is essential for learner-centered teaching. Through thoughtful course preparation, design, delivery, and course activities, you can address the learning needs of all students, which in turn can help to promote student retention.

In addition to the suggestions offered here, there are some features in Blackboard that can impact student success and retention by creating a stronger community in the classroom and identifying potential problems early. Learn more in our upcoming online workshop on September 19 from 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM, CST. NIU Faculty, Instructors, Staff, and Teaching Assistants can register here

Tips for Designing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)

Banner for Perspectives on Disability

This fall (2013), Northern Illinois University launched its first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, titled Perspectives on Disability and led by Professor Greg Long (School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders). Building this course has been an absolute labor of love for everyone involved, and we thought it would be helpful to share what we have learned. This article summaries our recommendations based on our experience and on the research we conducted to prepare for our MOOC design.

    • Participate in a MOOC 
      The best way to learn about MOOCs is to take one. This will help you learn about what it is like to be a MOOC student and give you some inspiration for how to design one. There are many providers (such as Blackboard CourseSites, Canvas Network, Coursera, or EdX) and MOOCs cover a wide variety of topics. Find a course that is similar to the content you want to teach or choose a topic that is outside of your field but interests you. Since most MOOCs are free to take, the only investment is a few hours of your time each week. In fact, it would be even better to sign up for several MOOCs, to see the variety of approaches (and given that only about 10% of students complete a MOOC, there is no pressure to finish the courses).



    • Choose a topic you are passionate about and one that will be appealing to MOOC students
      Fortunately, that is the case for Perspectives on Disability. If you believe in your content, that enthusiasm will be visible to your students. A MOOC may be an opportunity for you to teach about something that is too narrow for a course or is outside of the primary focus for your field.  You should also consider whether the topic will attract MOOC students. Based on your experience, or on a more formal needs analysis, try to determine whether there is a demand for the topic, and whether other MOOCs or resources exist on the topic.


    • Determine your targeted audience, and design the course to meet the needs of that audience
      The entire design of the course, from content to language, teaching strategies to assessment, should be designed according to the needs and prior knowledge of your primary audience. For Perspectives on Disability, we designed the course for individuals with little or no prior knowledge of the content, and for participants from middle school through adulthood. This meant we kept the language simple, included introductory-level content, and provided a variety of assessment methods that would appeal to a wide audience.It is important to remember that in many MOOCs a substantial percentage of participants are from outside of the United States, and so English may not be their native language. Age, educational background, and prior knowledge may also vary among MOOC participants, therefore it is a good idea to clearly articulate prerequisites or provide supplementary resources.


    • Build a team
      Many faculty who have taught MOOCs recommend using a team approach for the design, development, and delivery. Rather than working alone, consider co-teaching with a colleague. Find students or colleagues who can provide feedback on the design. Identify at least one person who can test the course before thousands of students are trying to use it.


    • Plan the development process
      Unlike planning a course on your own, a MOOC has more complexities. Begin the project by creating a timeline for design and development tasks, like writing objectives, creating lectures, recording videos, designing assessments, and building the course. It is important to leave time for testing the course before potentially thousands of students access it.


    • Establish learning outcomes for the course before you begin selecting or creating materials
      This is, in fact, no different from our recommended practice for any course design. First, establish what students will learn in the course. Then it is possible to design learning activities to support those outcomes and create assessments that measure whether students achieved the desired outcomes. It is also important that the number of outcomes is appropriate for the length of the course (See Other MOOC Considerations, below).


    • Design communication plan and community development strategies
      Given the potential size of a MOOC, it is time consuming to manage communication with everyone. It can be helpful to encourage discussion and community development among students, so that you are not the central figure in the course. Discourage contacting you via email by creating discussion forums or using social media. Also, plan how and when the MOOC team will monitor the community and who is responsible for responding to the group or individuals, should it become necessary.


    • Create assessments for a massive audience
      Assessment is not a required element for a MOOC – many focus on forming networks and discussing content rather than formal assessment through tests or written work. If assessments are used, the scale of MOOCs makes many assessment techniques impractical. Consider using automated grading, like multiple choice exams or programmed response activities, or “grading” on effort and contribution rather than performance. In many cases, MOOCs offer certificates of completion to participants who submit assessments or contribute to the MOOC community.


Other MOOC Considerations

    • Technology
      It is not possible to use institutional technology, like NIU’s official Blackboard site, to deliver a MOOC because of the size of the potential audience. There are, however, many free tools that offer similar features.


    • Length and timing of the course
      Traditionally, courses follow the academic calendar, but that is not necessary for a MOOC. Courses can begin and end at any time. Currently, there is not any research into the ideal length of a MOOC, but most seem to be between 4 and 8 weeks long, with a few as long as 10 to 12 weeks.


    • Funding
      It is possible to offer a MOOC without significant financial investment. If, however, the MOOC requires special technology, paid staff to monitor it, or additional services, it may be necessary to seek out funding for development or delivery. Several agencies and educational technology associations offer grants for MOOC development, delivery, and research.


    • Promotion
      Promotion and marketing are necessary to attract students to a MOOC. This will likely utilize social media and professional networks to advertise the course and gain attention. Consider emailing professional associations, colleagues at other institutions, and other groups that may be interested in the content. It may also help to share information via Twitter or other social networks.


  • Legal
    MOOCs require caution regarding legal concerns, particularly copyright of any materials created for the MOOC or used from other sources and the privacy of student data and contributions. These concerns are just the beginning, however. It is important to be aware of the many legal issues that impact MOOCs and to consult with the Office of General Counsel.

Designing and delivering a MOOC is time-consuming, but it can forever alter your views on teaching and learning. NIU faculty who are interested in creating a MOOC are encouraged to consult with the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center for further guidance.


Many of the tips are adapted from these sources.

Joosten, T. (April 2013). Ten questions for MOOC design. Available at

Siemens, G. (September 2012). Designing and running a MOOC (in 9 easy steps). Available at

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