Amidst all the excitement about the possibilities of online education, including the ways it can democratize higher education by expanding access to millions more students, one thing has been largely absent: long term research studies that compare online learning with traditional, face-to-face learning. But a new study may change the way we think about both forms of education.
Sociologists Dan Chambliss of Hamilton College and Christopher Takacs of the University of Chicago just completed an in-depth 10-year study of 100 Hamilton College students, including examination of their coursework in high school and college and experiences after graduation. The study was designed to determine which aspects of their experience made the most difference in their academic success. It turns out that faculty concerns about online education have been validated: less interaction with faculty means less success. Online students are more successful when faculty members play a larger role than the technology.
As reported by eCampusNews, Chambliss and Takacs summed up their findings in an interview in The Hechinger Report of Columbia University Teachers College:
“The key to motivation is face-to-face contact with another human being. That’s what really works… When you interview the students, a lot of times they’ll say that the crucial thing for them was sitting down for a one-on-one with a professor. One time in their college career! It was this thing about a single conversation that really struck us. And it’s not technical information. It’s literally just the idea of taking it seriously and saying,’Let’s look at this,’ and then the kid starts working on it with someone sitting there and they think, ‘I can do better,’ and they have this revelation.”
Nothing New Under the Sun
The results of their study will be included in their forthcoming book How College Works, and no doubt information will provide some reassurance to faculty members whose fears include the concern that they will be phased out as technology takes over or worry that they will be reduced to study hall monitors in flipped classrooms.
But this new study also reinforces what college faculty have known all along and previous research has validated many times. In Faculty Do Matter: The Role of College Faculty in Student Learning and Engagement, a study published in the journal Research in Higher Education in March 2005 (Vol. 46, No. 2), Paul D. Umbach of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and Matthew R. Wawrzynski, Assistant Professor of Higher, Adult, & Lifelong Education at Michigan State University found that,
“Students report higher levels of engagement and learning at institutions where faculty members use active and collaborative learning techniques, engage students in experiences, emphasize higher-order cognitive activities in the classroom, interact with students, challenge students academically, and value enriching educational experiences.”
This seems to be true at many different kinds of colleges and universities. For example, a 2008 study on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) published by the Faculty Resource Network (FRN) at New York University also showed that faculty engagement with students both inside and outside of the classroom was a necessary component of student success. The study was based on research conducted by the United Negro College Fund at several of its member colleges, and found that “students at HBCUs attributed their success to encouragement from faculty and staff.” However, the research results showed that such necessary faculty engagement with students was also damaged by “the current reality of enrollment management and academic affairs structures that do not systematically support a high level of multi-faceted faculty engagement with students.” This may refer to the pressure to teach more classes with larger enrollments, cutting down on time that could be used to interact more with individual students.
How Faculty Can Use This Information
Given all of the evidence that supports the crucial role of faculty engagement, especially in face-to-face formats, college instructors have perhaps been unfairly blamed for the decline in student retention and academic success. My own experience mirrors recent findings about lack of student preparedness for college by the non-profit research institute Complete College America (see Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere, Spring 2012.)
So many students lack essential academic skills, including literacy, effective study habits, and critical thinking skills that academic success seems an enormous challenge. It often feels as if the future of each student is already pre-determined by their K-12 educations, and that there is very little I can do in my 16 weeks with them.
I’ve also experienced first-hand how my own engagement with students helped them stay on track. In one of the more memorable experiences I’ve faced in my 20+ years of classroom teaching, a student in one of my recent classes started his first semester back in school after a two-year absence from college after a random drive-by shooting left him paralyzed from the waist down. He struggled to deal with that trauma while also resuming his degree program, despite facing impossible circumstances, including homelessness, food insecurity, and poor medical care. He came to me, reluctantly at first, to explain his difficulties in meeting due dates, and I helped him work out a plan to successfully complete the semester. I know for a fact that were it not for me and his other instructors, he would not have completed the semester. When I saw him recently, he was busy continuing his degree, with a marked improvement in his health and well-being, and was endlessly grateful for the help his professors gave him during that difficult first semester back.
This story shows how important faculty can be to the success of college students. I know that there are probably as many similar stories out there as there are students. What college instructors need to do is use all the tools available to extend their opportunities for student engagement. There are many ways that faculty can incorporate the best aspects of online technology and face-to-face interaction to both improve student success and illustrate how important faculty are to that success.
Here are just three possibilities:
- Blend technology with face-to-face instruction: I don’t know of a single college instructor who is so averse to online instruction that they would refuse to use it altogether (Well, I take that back. I do know one-but that’s a specific, unique, and unusual case.) Many professors combine the two methods, hoping that a wide net will catch most of the fish. Even for instructors of fully-online courses, online video conferencing can provide a more direct form of engagement that can make the difference for some students.
- Require one-on-one meetings with students early in the semester: Yes, this can take time. But it also may save time in the end, as you will not have to try to salvage their academic performance at the last minute. You will also be able to establish a trusting relationship that will aid student communication, one of the key factors in keeping students enrolled and on-track. As previously mentioned, this can be done in online courses through video conferencing and/or scheduled meetings during office hours.
- Incorporate small group activity that you can participate in: Several times a semester, in lieu of lecturing or leading a large class discussion, I break students into groups to tackle specific questions. I then travel around the classroom at 15 minute intervals to work with each group, making sure to give each student an opportunity to interact with me. In online courses, a live chat with each student about their work gives them the opportunity to ask spontaneous questions as they arise. The great benefit of this for me, and for the students, is that I can treat my students as intellectual equals who can debate and discuss topics with me, their professor.
You can find many other suggestions in the Eduviews report Blended Learning: Where Online and Face-to-Face Instruction Intersect for 21st Century Teaching and Learning. Perhaps you have a story or two about how your engagement with a student? Share your experiences here!