On-line Welcome Sessions to Promote Student Perseverance: A Pilot Project at Cégep à distance
As part of a REFAD professional development workshop in early 2018, a small team from Cégep à distance came to present a pilot project within the organization’s Tutoring Services sector. Cégep à distance offers more than 150 self-contained asynchronous courses. Even if the majority of students adapt well to this mode of training, others seem to run into difficulties and do not complete their course. Among the factors that contribute to students dropping out are the feelings of isolation, having an unusual schedule or the students perception of self-efficacy which seem to be the greatest challenges.
The Tutoring Services sector at Cégep à distance decided to try a pilot project to address these different issues. With its project “Start on the right foot” (Partir du bon pied), where new students are invited to an on-line welcome session with their tutor, Cégep à distance hopes to reinforce the pedagogical relationship and support student perseverance and success.
The on-line professional development workshop entitled « Des séances d’accueil synchrones en visioconférence pour soutenir la persévérance des étudiants en formation asynchrone autoportante » (On-line Welcome Sessions to Support Student Perseverance in Self-Contained Asynchronous Training), was moderated by:
- Marie-Michèle Rhéaume, Pedagogical Counselor and Project Manager - Tutoring Services Sector
- Sabrina Boisvert, Tutor-aide
- Philippe Mangerel, Tutor-aide
- Stéphanie Facchin, Researcher
The pilot project is part of different support and supervision measures put in place by Cégep à distance as part of its new strategic development plan. The first initiative was to hire 3 professional tutors who, unlike Cégep à distance’s traditional tutors, are committed full-time. The objectives of the project are:
- To promote student perseverance
- To offer students personalized support
- To help students stay motivated during their distance studies
Already, during the Devoir+ project, which dealt with the impact of technology-assisted feedback on student perseverance and success (in French), many students expressed the need for sporadic support to maintain their motivation and bolster their confidence at different moments during the course. The “Start on the right foot” project responds to this need by offering 4 spheres of activity:
- Welcome session (on-line meeting with the tutor at the start of the course)
- Reminder (invite students to submit their first assignment, to contact the tutor if they have questions or to register for the exam)
- Support and supervision (additional availability provided by the professional tutor and use of an electronic agenda to schedule appointments)
- Audio and video feedback (in addition to written comments, in accordance with the guidelines established by the Devoir+ project)
“Start on the right foot” with personalized welcome sessions
Cégep à distance courses are asynchronous and self-contained. Students receive their study material and complete it independently, often without the tutor intervening. It can be isolating for some. The on-line welcome sessions, which are about 30 minutes long, were designed to:
- Present the course’s subject matter and explain the relevance of the course tasks
- Make first contact with students and encourage their participation
- Reinforce the students feeling of competency and self-efficacy with regards to the course and their capacity to succeed
During the initial trials of the pilot project (Summer and Fall 2017), few students took advantage of the welcome sessions. Many factors explain this phenomenon:
- Cégep à distance students often have a different reality than students at traditional colleges. Many of them are balancing different responsibilities and they are not always available at the scheduled time for the welcome sessions.
- Some students are not interested in the session. They want to study at their own pace and adapt well to this mode of training.
- The welcome e-mail sent to students at the start of the course was too complicated. It had several attached files, long explanatory texts and a video. The information was dense and students didn’t respond to the invitation to participate in the welcome sessions, which were largely empty.
Despite this, the pilot project team was convinced that the welcome sessions were relevant. They multiplied their efforts in order to revise the approach and ensure the success of the sessions.
- The welcome e-mail was significantly simplified so that the information was easy to find and understand.
- The welcome session is presented as a mandatory step for the course.
- The availability periods for the tutors are easily accessible through a hyperlink that leads to their electronic agenda. Students can simply choose the time that is most convenient for them. The tool that was chosen is SuperSaas, since students are not required to create an account to use the service.
- To iron out any technical difficulties, multiple on-line conferencing platforms were tested. The team finally decided to use Zoom.
The pedagogical relationship at the heart of the welcome session
For students who are taking a course in a completely autonomous way, the tutor can seem to be a bit abstract. The objective of welcome sessions is also to lay the foundation for a more tangible pedagogical relationship. The tutors created an outline for the welcome sessions, but each tutor can personalize it for their needs. Sabrina Boisvert leaves a lot of space to improvise on the spot so that students may feel free to express themselves. She also explains to the students who are taking their first course at Cégep à distance what they should expect.
The tutors have frank discussions with students about the feelings of isolation and discouragement that can affect some students. An important part of the welcome session is to remind the students that the tutor is also there for emotional support.
An image representing the personal interests of Cégep à distance literature tutor Sabrina Boisvert along with one of her favourite quotes: “Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action.” The students see this collage at the start of the welcome session with Sabrina. (Source)
Once this connection has been created, the welcome session often leads to other real-time meetings. The tutors have noticed that the students arrive well-prepared and that the meetings are efficient.
The effects of the welcome sessions on student perseverance
Stéphanie Facchin is leading a study to measure the impact of the welcome sessions on student perseverance. Each of the tutor’s interventions for every student is recorded in a database.
One of the indicators that is tracked is the course drop rate. During the Summer and Fall 2017 semester, Stéphanie noticed that the students who attended the welcome session had a drop rate that was higher than with those students that did not attend. Fortunately, the trend has been completely reversed ever since the welcome session was simplified and increasingly personalized.
A student survey sent to students after the welcome session also allowed the team to collect additional data on student perception of the utility of this session, their degree of satisfaction and their intentions for the course.
A slide showing some preliminary results obtained from the survey. The vast majority of students surveyed found the welcome session very useful and say that they are already engaged in their course. Almost all of the surveyed students intend to continue and pass their course. (Source)
For the moment, only a small number of students have responded to the survey. The data collection continued to the end of the Winter 2018 semester.