7 Ways to Support Developmental Online Learners

Teaching developmental courses poses special challenges in the online environment. In addition to helping students learn the content, the instructor also has to help developmental learners navigate the online classroom. Karen Woodring, an associate professor of English HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, teaches developmental English and takes special measures to support these learners. (These techniques can also be useful in college-level courses because, as Woodring says, “We are all developmental in some way.”)

Woodring bases her approach to developmental learning on Restorative Practices (www.iirp.edu/what-is-restorative-practices.php), setting high expectations and providing high levels of support to motivate her students and help them succeed. Below are some of these techniques.

Support technology competence

To help get students up to speed on the learning management system, Woodring offers them extra credit for completing the Desire2Learn (D2L) student orientation, which shows students things such as how to take quizzes, how to participate in threaded discussions, and how to submit assignments.

During the first week of her developmental courses, she has students complete exercises that introduce them to the course and provide hands-on learning about the technology and navigation:

  1. View the course orientation. This video explains how the course is structured and spells out the expectations for the course. For example, Woodring expects students to participate in the course at least three times a week.
  2. Access the “news” section of the course and send an email about what is in that section. “They’re using a tool that they’ll use throughout the course, and when they send that email, it shows that they are capable of using their [institutional] email or sending an email through the learning management system.”
  3. Participate in a threaded discussion.

  4. Take a quiz on the syllabus.

  5. Submit a statement in Dropbox regarding the academic honesty policy.

“Basically, the first week they’re touching every component of the course that they’re going to need,” Woodring says. “I used to get hundreds of emails that first week—‘Where can I find …?’—even though it was all covered in the orientation video and D2L orientation. Now, because I guide them through the course and they’re practicing it, in week two when I say ‘Don’t forget to do your discussions,’ they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know how to do that.’ They’re building confidence and skills they’ll need for the rest of the course.”

Clearly articulate activities for each module

Woodring provides a week at a glance for each module, which provides a list of activities for that module. In addition, the last page of each module is a checklist, which provides a useful reminder of what needs to be completed before moving on to the next module. Items such as quizzes get checked off automatically by D2L. Students check off that they completed other activities such as readings, videos, and assignments.

Use interactive design features

Woodring recommends providing learning opportunities that go beyond viewing or reading. For example, rather than simply offering a narrated PowerPoint presentation, she also includes quiz questions (using Adobe Captivate—www.adobe.com/products/captivate.html). If a student is having trouble with run-on sentences, for example, you could incorporate a three-question quiz that he or she must answer correctly before being able to move on to the next section. If the student gets the questions wrong, he or she could be directed to a section of the course to review before retaking the quiz and moving on to the next section.

Track progress

When students do not participate in an online course, it’s not immediately obvious. This is why Woodring tracks students’ progress. Within D2L, she can see where students have been within the course and intervene when she finds that a student has not clicked on a certain part of the course.

She explains that not going through the entire course is the face-to-face equivalent of buying the textbook, reading the syllabus, and trying to do everything by yourself rather than attending class.

Provide opportunities for instructor-student interaction

Woodring has her developmental students submit the first draft of the first essay assignment to her for review. She provides initial individual feedback on these essays synchronously using Adobe Connect (www.adobe.com/products/adobeconnect.html), a Web conferencing platform. “I found that doing it synchronously where we’re talking it through makes it a hands-on learning experience,” Woodring says. “These Web conferences also create a personal connection. They know that I’m here to help.”

These individual Web conferences are optional for subsequent assignments, and approximately half of her developmental learners take advantage of this opportunity. At the 100 level, two or three students per course do.

Provide opportunities for peer review

Woodring does the initial review of the first draft of the first assignment to improve subsequent peer review. She initially had peers review that first draft, but it didn’t go very well. “Students weren’t getting what they needed on the receiving end, and they didn’t feel confident giving constructive criticism,” Woodring says.

By providing that initial feedback, Woodring gives students the confidence that makes the peer review process more productive for students, both as reviewers and as receivers of feedback.

Provide timely feedback

Feedback needs to reach students while it is still relevant to what they are doing in the course. “If I wait two or three weeks to grade an essay, they may not find it meaningful if they’re already working on something else,” Woodring says.

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