Since it is almost Thanksgiving, many students will be leaving UA for home, where they will inevitably be asked, “So, how are things going?”

Here is a short story about a student who dropped by my office this term:

Last week, a distraught student stopped by my office to ask about withdrawing from my class because their grade seemed irreparable. When asked who suggested withdrawal, the student answered, “I looked at how I was doing in the course.” I then asked whether the student contacted Student Services or the Registrar, and the answer was negative. Student waiting during office hoursIn sum, the student had used only the “mygrades” function to arrive at the heart-wrenching conclusion of failure. And this is just before going home for Thanksgiving.

The problem: Blackboard does have a weighted columns feature on mygrades that should, in principle, show students their current standing in the course. To my knowledge it cannot quickly and easily integrate functions such as a) dropping the worst mark from a series of assignments, or b) adding unannounced pop quizzes and in-class, group-based workshops. As a result, students are left to calculate their current standing in the course.

At first I was relieved the student’s proposed outcome could be averted. But then I began to worry. How many other students are going through similar gut-wrenching experiences?

Our reliance on online tools might be getting in the way.  Both this experience and the anecdotal information below suggest students make poor decisions about their academic well-being when interaction is limited to electronic means. The large-enrollment structure may be the most significant factor, since a course like mine has the potential to be more anonymous than online courses. We meet face-to-face twice a week, but there are 149 faces.

The student from the story above comes from a 149-student course (down from 153 in the beginning). Each week I ask the group how they are doing, and everything is “fine.”

One message I hope my students get is that I’m available. During the first few weeks of class and throughout the term, I intentionally

  • Show students how to navigate our course’s Blackboard page, highlighting the FAQ discussion forum, syllabus, and up-to-date course schedule. I often begin class by navigating to the course schedule to demonstrate how to find important items such as assignments and tests.
  • Make special notes about office hours for myself and my GTA (the amazing Paul Eubanks!).
  • Open the campus map, and show students how to walk from our classroom in ten Hoor to Paul’s office in Manly Hall and my office in Houser Hall.
  • Ask students to email Paul and me. To keep each other informed as a teaching team, Paul and I CC each other on all our responses to students.
  • Discuss the existence of the Office of Disability Services and Counseling Center and the Center for Academic Success.
  • Tweet about our course with the hashtag #REL100.

My objective is to create an atmosphere of open communication such that students contact me about the class. In particular, I hope students who are struggling in such a large course will find a way to discuss any problems or difficulties they might be having.

Perhaps there are other means for accomplishing this goal. Currently, there are no posts in my course’s FAQ forum, and half the class has never accessed the course schedule (I track the usage statistics.). Four students have emailed me about how to improve their grades, and only two have stopped by my office to discuss their grades.

Let’s be clear. The median grade on the midterm was 64%, with a deviation of 15.4. I thought this would prompt a large number of students to contact me.

I am not asking to be inundated, of course, but I am curious about whether I am correct in thinking the website is the thing preventing students from contacting their professors. Or is this normal for large courses like mine? What do you think?


Nathan Loewen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts & Sciences