PURPOSE: To improve class retention in an online course by using free-choice conditions.

PROBLEM: Student retention in online computer classes is lower than on-ground classes at our college. Our college statistics show that students in online computer classes have a drop rate of 30% compared to a drop rate of 10-15% in on-ground classes. When I counsel students who have not been successful in online classes, they often attribute their difficulties to the lack of stimulation and motivational elements that do exist in the on-ground classroom. The elements in the on-ground classroom include the physical presence of a teacher and fellow class members, interaction with the class, and the added sensory element of sound.

Distance Learning literature suggests self-motivation as a main criteria for success in distance learning and online classes. Accordingly, I hypothesized that a change in the online instruction of computer classes to include motivation planning could lead to an increase in persistence levels in online classes. In an attempt to find ways to improve self-motivation, I found information here in the motivation section of the On Course website that I found helpful. For example, Paul R. Pintrich & Dale H. Schunk, authors of Motivation in Education, are quoted as saying, “Most professionals agree that we infer the presence of motivation from the behavior indicators: 1.Choice of tasks: Selection of task under free-choice conditions indicates motivation to perform the task…” I decided to provide choices for the student’s tasks (assignments) as a way to improve their self-motivation.

In addition, as I learned from readings in Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace (by Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt) and in conversations with online students, intergroup collaboration can also stimulate motivation and enhance the educational experience. Therefore, I added a class message forum to offer students the opportunity to share and discuss their choice of assignments.

1. A programming textbook with lots of exercises
2. A message forum that allows file attachments to allow for sharing of exercises

PROCESS: Design the syllabus, assignments and related documentation to create a “selection of tasks under free choice condition” environment. In the past I would assign the class to review a lecture, read a text and complete specific exercises. For example, here is a section of a past assignment: 

Lab/Homework 5 (8 points) Save and send the following projects due Nov. 5.
Complete Project #5 Traffic Sign Tutorial (pp. VB 5.4-VB 5.47)

Complete Cases and Places #5 (p. VB 5.59)

For this term, I have the class review a lecture, read a text and complete a required exercise that I grade and review with them for content retention checks. But, to the required assignments I had students choose one more challenging exercise from among 5-7 offered. Students are encouraged to enhance the example as it may better fit into their work or interest area. Here is a section of a sample new assignment offering free choice:

Lab/Homework 5 (8 points) Save and send the following projects due Nov. 5, 2001.
Complete Project #5 Traffic Sign Tutorial (pp. VB 5.4-VB 5.47)

Choose one! Complete Cases and Places #3 or 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 (p. VB 5.59-VB 5.61)

Because students in the class have an option of doing one of 5 or more exercises for their challenging exercise, one student might choose, complete and enhance exercise X but might want to see if someone else completed exercise Y. Examples are posted in a message forum so students can share (and show off) their examples and enhancements with each other. The intention is to stimulate intergroup collaboration and acknowledge student efforts.

OUTCOMES/EXPERIENCES: I have taught this particular online class for several years and noted an average 30% drop in enrollment by the end of the 4th week of class. This is common for our online classes as mentioned above. Based on the review of enrollment from the end of the 4th and 6th week for fall, 2001, the enrollment drop is holding at 23%. Perhaps more significant, an interesting side effect has developed. Posting the exercises on the student message forums has increased the level of interaction among my students. Perhaps motivated to complete and enhance their assignments, students are encouraging me to post and share their work. Herein is a sample (including typos) of one of many e-mail messages I received after offering the option to share examples in the message forum:

“Hi Jerry, I think thats a great idea. It would give all of us the inspiration to do our best and also to learn from the work of others. I personally don’t mind putting my name in the forum along with my assignment work, even if I did some blunder mistake and you would like to share it with others. This is a learning process. When we are working, noone puts so much afforts to evaluate our work and tell us our mistakes or good things about our code. I highly appriciate your afforts and your way of teaching. Thanks,”

Judging from e-mails from students, there is an obvious improvement in the excitement and motivation from those still in the class. While the change in retention from 30% to 23% is not that significant, I will continue to use the more option-loaded environment, and I will encourage other online programming instructors to try it. I will also look at other statistics (like grade distribution) to see if the apparent change in motivation translates to improved grades. In the past my grades had been bimodal A’s and F’s – you either got it or you did not. As I write this report, the midterm grades have been completed and while the average grade for the class was the same as in prior terms, my class size is larger, and I note more grades in the C range which could suggest that students who might have dropped in the past are encouraged to stay in the class.

LIFE LESSONS: Students in distance learning classes are isolated from the group dynamics of the physical classroom experience. Those classroom dynamics often allow the sharing of creative work. The old Herzberg studies on motivation (Herzberg, F. (1968) “One more time: How do you motivate employees?” Harvard Business Review, 46, 53-62) suggested that people develop pride in their work and want recognition for their good work. What better way to accomplish this for online students then to have students choose their work, enhance their work as they see fit, and show it off using the internet tools currently available!

Jerry Cellilo, Counselor/Instructor, Foothill College, Los Altos, CA

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