Letters to Successors: Students Helping Students Transition to Online Learning

A student sitting cross-legged on a picnic blanket reads a letter on her smartphone
Students who transition to online learning often feel apprehensive about and frustrated with the unfamiliar format. To better support these students, I created a “letters to successors” intervention akin to the presidential tradition of an outgoing president’s leaving a letter for the incoming one. My hope was that if the information came from their peers, the new students would feel open, accepting, and comforted to know they were not alone in the transition to online learning and would learn skills for successful online learning.

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Students who transition to online learning often feel apprehensive about and frustrated with the unfamiliar format. To better support these students, I created a “letters to successors” intervention akin to the presidential tradition of an outgoing president’s leaving a letter for the incoming one. My hope was that if the information came from their peers, the new students would feel open, accepting, and comforted to know they were not alone in the transition to online learning and would acquire skills to learn online successfully.

I asked current first-semester students enrolled in the foundational course Essential Concepts for Health and Wellness to write a letter to their successors at the end of the semester, advising them on how to succeed in it. Students were to write in a conversational tone and simply state what they wished they had known at the beginning of the term. They were also asked to include any helpful hints that had supported their successes. I did not include requirements for word count or structure in this optional assignment. I offered minimal extra credit to those who wrote the letter.

My thought was that students who learned about other college students’ experiences would be likelier to adapt quickly to the rigors of college and online instruction than those who did not. Students who wrote the letters would have the opportunity to reflect on all they had learned during the semester, which could reinforce comprehension and give them a self-reflective space in which to rejoice in their successes and learn from their mistakes. Finally, reading the letters could enable faculty to better understand students’ experiences in the course and modify their teaching accordingly.

To motivate participation, I gave each student one extra credit point for submitting the letter. Students submitted their letters in an online open discussion forum within the class by the last day of the semester. After receiving the letters, I reviewed the information, reflected on the feedback and how it aligned with my teaching practices, and identified future changes I could embrace to ease the online transition.

I then created a video of me reading the letters to the future students and providing information I had gleaned from my own experience. I created the video using YouTube and made it private so that only those with the link could access it. I embedded the video link and transcripts of the letters to successors in the first week’s material for the following semester’s version of the course. To ensure that students viewed the video, I used adaptive release so the first discussion assignment would not open until the video was accessed. I also instituted tracking information so I could see how many times each student accessed the video.

The final step was to review comparative data, including late week one assignment submissions, incomplete submissions, and the attendance of my online week two “success class” via Blackboard Collaborate. The success class was an informational, Q&A synchronous opportunity for students to learn more about online practices and course expectations. I had consistently offered it in my first-semester classes, but it had not been well attended.

Results

Six students completed the letters to successors assignment in fall 2017, and five completed it in spring 2018. Adaptive release data confirmed that all the students in the latter class watched the video. In fact, as measured in clicks, the video was viewed a total of 278 times. Interestingly, it was viewed from the first week of class all the way to week 15. I was not only shocked at how many times the video was accessed but also surprised that students returned to review it before the end of the course. Perhaps students were watching it again prior to their creating the final assessment for the course.

Students in the second class were more engaged in the first two weeks than their predecessors had been, as evidenced by an increase in attendance for the success class compared to prior semesters. I also found that students were less likely than their predecessors to submit the first assignment late.

I believe this intervention was also invaluable in supporting my professional development. For students to speak honestly and in their own words about the course’s content, its design, its strengths, and their common struggles (as opposed to my receiving feedback based on a class survey) has greatly enhanced my self-reflection and helped me adapt my practices to better meet student needs.

Faculty using this intervention need not gather letters each time a course is offered. Students will cover nearly every important topic in their letters over a couple iterations of the course. Students in the second course will have seen the video and letters from the first when writing their own letters and so will only add to that information. Once put in place, the letters to successors intervention will be an ongoing benefit to students in any course.

Carrie L. Jarosinski, DNP, is a health and wellness promotion faculty member at Mid-State Technical College.