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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.