By Doug Ward

James Burns of Boston College uses a term I hadn’t heard before: “swirling students.”

Writing in The Evolllution, Burns says swirling students are those who move in and out of college, collecting a few hours here, a few hours there as they move toward a degree. They often have full-time or part-time jobs, families, health problems or financial challenges, he says.

class scene in lecture room with oil painting filter
Photo by Doug Ward

The best way to attract – and keep – those students is through personal attention, Burns says. Reach out to them as they apply and then follow up with personal meetings with advisors and faculty members. Providing flexibility through hybrid or online courses helps, as well, although online courses can seem impersonal to some students, he says.

It’s also important to identify these students early in the admissions process and recognize that they may need more attention than some other students. Burns recommends “high-touch advising” to help these students get settled.

His recommendations make sense, not just for the so-called swirling students but for all students. One of the keys to retention is helping students find connections to people and organizations at a college or university. They have to feel they belong. That means having faculty members and advisors who are approachable and available, and willing to listen and to help students.

That’s one characteristic of a great teacher, and it’s one more reason to value great teaching.

The benefits of online communication

One of the biggest challenges of teaching online is the lack of face-to-face communication.

Online discussions often lack the spark and spontaneity of in-person discussions, instructors lack the ability to read visual cues, and many students treat online discussion boards not as discussions but as obligatory places to dump notes from their reading.

Alexandra Samuel, vice president for social media at the technology company Vision Critical, gives a nod to those drawbacks but makes a solid argument for the benefits of communicating online. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Samuel applies that argument to internal corporate communication, but most of her observations transfer easily to education. She says online communication helps solve several problems:

  • Distance. Participants in a discussion don’t have to be in the same place.
  • Time. Participants don’t have to be on the same schedule or fill their calendars with meetings. Rather, they contribute to online discussions when they can, 24 hours a day.
  • Diversity of opinion. Online communication allows workers to get answers to questions sooner than they would if they had to wait for a specific person to arrive at a specific place. This also allows for a more diverse group of people to weigh in.
  • Styles of communication. In-person meetings work well for loquacious people but not so well for those who are more reserved. By relying on only in-person meetings, Samuel writes, “you’re missing out on the perspective and talents of people who like to mull on a problem before contributing, or that of people who communicate better visually or in writing than they do out loud.” She recommends using several different forms, including PowerPoint, Google Docs, mindmapping tools, and project management tools to make discussions engaging for a wider variety of people.

Samuel doesn’t address one crucial issue in online communication: relationship-building.

Building relationships can prove challenging in an online class, especially one with an abbreviated schedule. Instructors must  build rapport with online students through video, audio, email, discussion boards, announcements, and other means of communication. They must then maintain a presence throughout the course, and make themselves available to students.

Communication of any type succeeds, though, only when everyone – whether workers or students – participates willingly and meaningfully. That’s often easier in the workplace than in education, but not always.

Briefly …

As K-12 schools develop Common Core curricula, many are forgoing textbooks in favor of free online materials, The Hechinger Report says. … A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco gives a big thumbs-up to college degrees, saying that college graduates earn starting salaries that are $5,000 to $6,000 higher than high school graduates, with the gap growing to $25,000 after 15 years, Bloomberg Business reports. … The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that professors at some colleges have begun producing video trailers to promote their courses to students.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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