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Simple Thoughts for Simpler Times: ‘Think like a Student’

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By in Blackboard Learn, Content Development, Course Redesign, Distance Education, Getting Started, IMPACT, Morning Musings, Student Behavior on .

We all strive to create effective online learning content and experiences for students. Yet, when we are teaching content to students and designing our online course, it’s so easy to overwhelm students with lists and folders of materials, cross-links and multiple links, and giving them everything we ever wanted to them to know about our subject. I know I’ve been guilty of over-supplying the information and options in the past.  We just have so much we know about the subject and after all isn’t our role to teach and share what we know when we are doing instruction?

Interestingly, one of the consistent complaints we hear from students when we survey them in regard to the learning management systems, be it Blackboard or Canvas are: problems with navigation and knowing where to go first in the course, where to find something, or which links to use.

Actual student feedback comments from past surveys:

  • “Things are to scattered. Easy to loose track of where something was. Some things are everywhere you look and others are hidden.”
  • “It was hard to figure out how to submit assignments… so I would suggest making it easier and in one place. I just found it difficult the way either my teacher set it up as, or how the website was set up.”
  • “Collaborative group work was hard to manage. Not everyone knew where to look for our shared documents we were using.”

Now, various learning management tools take different approaches, some are better or cleaner than others; but we always have a certain amount of customization we can use to tailor the course how we see fit. How do we do that best?

One approach is to look at online courses you like or that are set up as “best practice” examples and borrow some ideas on course set-up. Taking part in workshops and sharing about online course design is certainly another approach.  Many of you have likely used both.

Let me offer another approach, slip on a different pair of shoes and think like a student.   You do it now without realizing it when you participant in our IMPACT course redesign program through the Blackboard content, complete an online MOOC or participant in any other online course for professional development.  I have had amusing comments from my IMPACT faculty, who sheepishly admitted they were short on time to complete their weekly online readings and activities.  One of them said he felt like one of his students must, by quickly scanning down the page to see just what he “had” to get done for the session today. So, if we are looking for shortcuts at times; what of course are the students doing? If we aren’t sure what to do first and poke around when we are in an online course for the first time; what are students doing?  The same, I would imagine. I don’t think we can write it off as students are being lazy when we are all challenged with time constraints and try to maximize our time on tasks.

While we like to give many options and much information, it’s best to help learners maximize their time on tasks too. So as you set up your entire course or a partial amount of your course online, think like a student.

Look at the course like you are viewing it for the first time.  Using the ‘student view’ options provided are useful for this as well.  Consider, is it glaringly clear where the student should start first? Is it without a doubt, clear what is required weekly and where items are found in the menu or content arrangement? Have you pared down content to focus on what the student ‘must know’ and moved additional ‘nice to know’ information into a reference area; so, they are not bogged down completing weekly tasks? How will they communicate with you and with other students? Ask a student to test drive your course and provide feedback.

To get started with assembling and arranging your content, here is a link from our ITaP Course Design Web page: http://www.itap.purdue.edu/learning/cdm/index.html#faculty  or email our team at tlt-cdd@purdue.edu. Happy thinking!

Feedback: “Nice job. I enjoyed reading this. A-“

By in Classroom, Course Redesign, General Education, Student Behavior on .

I took a cohort program for my master’s and had the same instructor for 4 or 5 courses. Each assignment was an essay. On every essay I got exactly the same feedback – absolutely no comments on grammar or specific ideas, but rather the generic “Nice job. I enjoyed reading this. A-.“ To this day, I have no idea on why “Nice job. I enjoyed reading this. A-“ rather than “Nice job. I enjoyed reading this. A+“ (which the student who sat next to me always got). (This feedback was especially sad when considering that this was a masters in adult learning. But that’s another story.)

Feedback to students can guide students, but in different ways. Here I would like to focus on three types of feedback: Feed back, feed forward and feed up (not to be confused with “fed up” – which is what I was in my master’s program).

Feed back, up and forward

  • Feed forward (FF) – feedback that explains how to improve future assignments

Feedforward provides suggestions for the next assignment

  • Feedback (FB) – ipsative feedback on current compared to past performance

Feedback compares past and current assignments

  • Feed up (FU) – feedback that explains why this (the assignment or assignment details) is important

Gives info on why the assignment is important


If we identify our purpose(s) when we provide feedback, we can support students in learning and applying from both the assignment and the feedback!

Essay examples:

FF – “Organizing your essay will help your readers. If you follow the sequence of what is asked in the assignment this will help you both ensure that you cover all elements and organize your thoughts more.”

FB – “On your last assignment I noted that you changed ‘voice’ often. Here you are consistent and your essay is much easier to read because of it!”

FU – “You do not seem to have a firm grasp on the differences between the behaviorist and constructivist theories. Understanding this is important because workplaces will want you to develop training based on these.”

Multiple choice exam examples:

FF – “In order to improve your performance on the upcoming [assignment/exam/group project], please review the [notes and materials/resources] posted in Blackboard.” (Purdue ITaP, 2013)

FB – “You are doing a better job studying. Your improvement is great!”

FU – “Understanding the basics of Excel which we cover here will be critical to your success in your accounting class.”

Here’s the whole model:

full model

(Somewhat based on Hughes, 2012)

Is feedback important?

I remember the feedback I got 15 years ago in my master’s program because it was so bad. It did not inspire me or help me improve.

Good feedback may not be as memorable long term, but research has shown that it can help students improve not only what they know, but how to study and how to apply their learnings.

Passing note on Passnote:

By the way, writing appropriate feedback can be hard. At Purdue, we created Passnote to help. This is a very easy-to-use tool which has a selection of feedback notes which you can select and edit to make your feedback to each student individualized! And you don’t have to download or sign-in to use it. Take a look: http://www.purdue.edu/passnote/


Hughes, G. (2012). Ipsative assessment: comparison with past performance. Higher Education Academy Workshop and Seminar Series 2012. Retrieved June 15, 2014, from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~ucgbarg/OU_workshop_files/TWO37-GH.pdf

Purdue ITaP. (2013). PassNote. Retrieved June 15, 2014, from http://www.purdue.edu/passnote/

Never Overlook the Value of Communication When Teaching Online

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By in Distance Education, Musings on Technology, Student Behavior on .

I’ve been teaching online at an institution other than Purdue for about 7 years now.  During the Fall 2013 semester, a student commented to me that they really appreciated the amount of communication I had with them during the semester.  Another student mentioned that I was much more engaged compared to his previous online course instructors.

For some reason these comments really haunted me after that term.  Yes, it felt great to get that kind of feedback from students because it was positive.  However, I have since been curious about why these students praised my involvement.  Why is it odd to students that online instructors are engaged in their courses?  If so, shouldn’t that be somewhat alarming?

Engagement is a two-way street.  We can’t expect students to be highly engaged in their classes while as faculty, we appear to either simply observing the class…or at worst, completely unengaged and uncaring about what is going on.

One aspect where student performance can be impacted positively by communication from faculty is through feedback.  Chickering and Gamson (1991), in their Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, list two principles that work hand-in-hand when it comes to communication:  Giving prompt feedback, and communicating high expectations.

If I simply state in my syllabus that I expect strong performance from my students on an assignment, but I provide little to no feedback to students, I am not being effective in providing guidance to high-performing students who may simply need reinforcement that they’re on the right track.  I am also not being effective with lower-performing students by not providing them with the feedback and information they need to improve their work and rise to the expectations I have for the class.  If I don’t tell a student what I expect and clearly communicate to them what they need to do to improve, how can I expect them to do better?

So what’s so important about prompt feedback?   Prompt feedback plus communication about what the student needs to continue doing (or improve upon) can make a difference in the student’s performance.  Not providing prompt feedback can put a student in a position where they don’t know what to improve upon until after the submission of additional assignments or assessments.

There are other components of communication that can be accomplished to keep you engaged with the course.  Consider using Announcements within Blackboard to provide updates and information that can help them, such as tips on how to complete assigned tasks, or emphasizing due dates.  If you do use Announcements, change your course entry page from Course Content to Announcements so those are the first thing a student sees when they log in.  In addition, critical announcements can also be emailed to students.

Furthermore, if you’re teaching online or a blended course where synchronous activity with your students is limited, you may wish to add online office hours using web conference tools provided by Purdue.  This can allow you to host real-time discussions with students wherever you are.

Communicating feedback and expectations is important for student success.  However, simply communicating with your students to let them know that you’re engaged and available can also demonstrate that you care about your students and their involvement in your class.

To discuss ways to increase communication with your students, please contact us at tlt-consulting@purdue.edu.

Brett Creech
Educational Technologist

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1991).  Appendix A: Seven principles for
good practice in undergraduate education.  New Directions for Teaching
and Learning, 47
, 63-69.

What is Blackboard Learn’s Retention Center?

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By in Blackboard Learn, Student Behavior, Tools on .

Envision this. You are an instructor who wants real-time tracking in the course management system you’re already established in. You enjoy simplicity in picking your criteria for monitoring student performance and fancy something that provides an easy mechanism for informing students who are falling short of the course’s expectations.

Retention Center can be that tool for you. It is a replacement for its predecessor, the Early Warning System and has been available since the start of the Fall 2013 semester.

And now, here is a Frequently Asked Questions roundup:

Give me a quick definition: The Retention Center is defined by Blackboard as a tool that can determine if students are at risk compared to the criteria you choose to setup and monitor. Once the criteria settings are in place, the instructor is notified which students are currently at risk.

Doesn’t Course Signals already do something similar?: First, it is based on the same basic philosophy as Course Signals, meaning it is a tool that enables you to take action to improve student performance in your course(s). Second, while Course Signals requires reports to be generated, Retention Center provides automatic monitoring. It is important to note that Course Signals works to predict where a student will finish performance wise in a course, given their current grades and interactions with content in Blackboard Learn. Retention Center is designed to give the instructor an up-to-the-minute picture of how students are performing, but does NOT predict performance. Lastly, there are benefits to using either or both tools, and an article in the near future will provide a comparison.

So, what allows the Retention Center to work?: Retention Center is built on the idea of using different types of monitoring guidelines, called Rules. Currently, it employs four types of rules, and here is a breakdown of each type:

  • Course Activity: This monitors the overall activity of students using your course, such as viewing pages, clicking links to items, taking online assessments, and writing in the collaborative tools (blogs, discussion board, journals, wikis).
    • Criteria for measuring: student’s activity in the last # of days/weeks/months compared to a above/below the # percentage of the course’s average.

  • Course Access: Tracks the number of days since a student was last recorded accessing the course.
    • Criteria for measuring: # of days since last course access.

  • Grade: Determines if a student is above/below a specific or average point/percentage value in what they have earned as a final grade or from other grade items (assignments, tests, etc.).
    • Criteria for measuring: Choosing to monitor final grade or specific item. Set Grade Value above/below # of point/percentage value. Or, grade is above/below the average grade by a percentage of #.

  • Missed Deadline: Tracks if a student has many or a specific deadline for an assignment, test or survey.
    • Criteria for measuring: Choosing to monitor all or a specific deadline(s) if # of deadlines have been missed by missed by more than/less than # of days.

Fair enough, so do I need to set them up by scratch or are there already some in place?: Each course is given four default risk rules, one for each rule type. They are…

  • For Course Activity: Activity in the last 1 week(s) is 20% below average
  • For Course Access: Last access more than 5 days ago
  • For Grade: External Grade is 25% below class average
  • For Missed Deadline: 1 deadline(s) have been missed by more than 0 days

^As an added note, you can edit these default rules to change their criteria.

Can I make as many rules as I want?: Yes you can. While you will not see more than four columns in the Retention Center risk table, each new rule is a part of each rule type. Thus, if you use the rule for 1 deadline that was missed in 0 days, and create a new rule for alerting if a student missed 2 deadlines in the last 30 days, both will show when you click on the red dot indicating an active risk. Here is an example below:

*In another blog article in this series, we will cover the advanced features in the matching risk factors dropdown.

On another note, do I always have to monitor students at risk? Can I monitor students who are doing well?: Students will appreciate your constructive criticism when it comes to issues in their performance, but they may enjoy your insight even more if decide to let them know they are doing well and to keep up their on-time, excellent work.

Can I pick out certain students to monitor for risks?: Definitely. Click on any of the red dots that appear to the right of the student’s name, and then click the Monitor button on the Matching Risk Factors dropdown box. The students you are monitoring will appear on the right side of the Retention Center page. Here is an example of the data on a student being monitored:


Can I track my own activity?: Certainly and its encouraged. Just as you expect your students to be involved and turning in high-quality work, you too should be involved in how you contribute to your course. The types of course activity tracked for instructors are assessment grading, interaction & collaboration with the collaborative tools (discussion board, blogs, journals, and groups), announcement creation, and content created/uploaded. Here is an example of the activity interface:

I am already a month and half into teach my course, is it too late to get started?: The beauty of Retention Center is that you can get started at any point in the semester and the data generated is instantaneous and relevant. The midterm period of the semester is an important time to inform your students of their performance in your course. Think of it this way, while they may have made mistakes and earned average scores so far, there is always a chance that your intervention will influence them to make more of an effort in the second half of the semester.

How do I email multiple students who have the same risk?: By clicking on the red bar with the current number of at risk students, you can view which types register a student being at risk (first image below shows an example). Once you click one of the risks, a dropdown option box will appear and by hovering over the Notify button, you can then send out a message.


Is there any documentation available for me to use to get started?: Purdue does not currently have documentation for Retention Center, however Blackboard Inc. has materials that can walk you through the features. However, like other features of Learn we will plan to release how-to documentation and best practices resources in the near future.

Please check back at the IDC blog for an upcoming blog article in November on Retention Center. In the meantime, feel free to contact us at tlt-consulting@purdue.edu should you have any questions and/or issues.