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Motivating Adult Online Learners

When Sheri Litt became dean of arts and sciences at Florida State College’s Open Campus, one of her priorities was to address the issue of online learner satisfaction and success. “We started looking at the data,” Litt says. “We looked at students’ comments on surveys to find out what they were disappointed with their online courses. And a lot of comments [said, in essence,] ‘I felt my instructor didn’t care’ or ‘I felt my instructor would just log in once every six weeks’ or ‘It would take an entire semester for the instructor to grade an assignment, and [he or she] didn’t really give me any feedback so I could develop my skills.’” Based on this qualitative approach, Litt and her colleagues developed a set of best practices that have improved student motivation, satisfaction, and success.


The majority of online learners at FSC’s Open Campus are age 25 or older—adult learners with busy schedules. One of the principles of teaching adult learners is the idea of relevance. “[They ask,] ‘What can I learn in my class that won’t just be for a grade but also can be something that I can take away, something that will be useful to me as an adult?’” Litt says. “When you have an adult population, they don’t want to do something because they have to. They want to understand why it’s important and how it relates to them as adult learners.”


Another characteristic of adult online learners is the need for flexibility. “Among our faculty, we try to shift the culture so that when working with adult learners, it’s not one size fits all. Flexibility is really the key,” says Amy Moore, program manager for instruction. “We want our instructors to be mindful of the fact that our online learners are preoccupied with other things going on in their lives, and while we want to make sure that they are learning if a student is having some personal issues, we should allow the student to submit an assignment late rather than being unyielding and rigid.”


Developing relationships with students is an important part of student motivation. To this end, the first forum is dedicated to providing an opportunity for students to introduce themselves, sharing their goals and interests. “We ask that our faculty respond to every single student in that first discussion post, and not just with ‘Nice to meet you’ but with follow-up questions that show an interest in the students, because we believe that students who know their instructor is going to take an interest in them are more likely to stay in the class,” Litt says.

Synchronous interaction is another way to help facilitate this relationship. “We encourage our faculty to have virtual office hours during which they’re available through some synchronous method such as Skype, chat, or Blackboard Collaborate so that students are able to reach them in real-time, because it’s important for students to feel, at least during office hours, that they can actually find a human being behind the computer. It also seems to help faculty get to know students as individuals and respond to their needs,” Moore says.


Students need personalized feedback from the instructor. “If we have instructors who are just grading or even using a rubric but not providing personalized feedback, students have little to take away from the course,” Moore says.

Providing feedback can be a workload issue for instructors. This is why online classes are capped at 40 participants (24 for writing-intensive courses).

Faculty are expected to respond to students’ questions within 24 hours via email or some other communication method and to grade and provide substantive individualized feedback on assignments within seven days.

In the discussion forum, instructors are asked to respond to three or four student posts each week and then to summarize the outcome of the discussion in an announcement at the end of the week. “It’s not a tremendous amount of work, but it does let the students know that the instructor is in the classroom versus just coming in and checking a couple of times over the course of the semester,” Litt says.

Early alert

To help prevent students from falling behind and perhaps dropping the course, instructors use an early alert system in which they check the grade book to determine whether each student is keeping up with the work.

“When a student misses an assignment, the instructor emails the student with a message such as, ‘I see you haven’t been participating in the past week. Is there anything going on? Is there anything I can do to help?’ We’ve found that in classes in which we piloted this approach, the success rate increased from 40-something percent to 70 percent. There was this incredible improvement in terms of student success, just based on those small differences that the instructors made in the course by communicating with students both on a large scale and individually. It has helped keep students from falling off the map and losing their motivation,” Moore says.

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