Student Retention – Empathy Mode

Students: photo by StartupStockPhotosThe topic of student retention (student success) often comes up in conversation or as a topic of discussion during the online advisory committee meetings or faculty meetings that I attend, with an emphasis being on online courses. Why is this? Why does the conversation also circle back to online courses? Sure, student retention is important in traditional on campus courses as well, but in a non-traditional type of classroom environment with different classroom dynamics, may bring about a different set of obstacles for students to overcome which may contribute to lower retention in online courses. The focus will be on exploring ways to improve student retention in online courses and identifying the various obstacles that may inhibit success. I have chosen the online Introduction to Web Programming online course that I teach as the focal point.

In beginning to examine the issue of student retention, I engaged in the following empathetic techniques listed below in order to better understand my target audience – the students.

  • Experience prototyping
  • Character profiling
  • Student Survey
  • Research
    • Institutional Research and Planning (*MCC)
    • Discussion with the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning (*MCC)

Experience Prototyping

I registered for the UX501x Introduction to User Experience course from the University of Michigan through edX. I wanted to experience a different online course environment where I was not familiar with its layout. I wanted to try the “experience prototyping” empathy technique since it sparked my interest during this week’s reading. My focus (no pun intended) was on how a student with a low vision disability may interact with an online course and access its materials. I removed my reading glasses, which made things very blurry and difficult to see, and proceeded to navigate through the course (listed above) and its materials.

Some Observations:

  • It took me a great deal more time to move around the course and through the materials simply because I had to keep zooming in on different areas within the online classroom within the web browser (thankfully web browsers have built in zoom in/out options).
  • When I had to interact with my keyboard (zooming in/out) it took me a little more time to complete things. I can type without looking at the keyboard but when I have to input numbers and use special characters, I tend to look at the keyboard to be sure my fingers are on the correct keys.
  • I was able to view the course videos in full screen so I could easily see them without my glasses. I did notice that when viewing the video in full screen mode it fills your browser window (which it’s intended to do) but you have to use the browser’s back button to return to the course content – not easy to see without my glasses.
  • The discussion forums in the classroom were easy to use and familiar. Using the browser zoom in feature allowed me to easily participate and read other’s responses.
  • The handouts in the course were made available for download in PDF format which you can then use the magnifying feature in Adobe Reader to more easily view the content.

Character Profiling

I was able to receive some basic demographic information from the Institutional Research and Planning department under the staff section of the *MCC website. Based on the demographics and my personal interaction with my students, I created three different character profiles using Popplet: Online Student 1, 2, and 3. I included the following focal points in the character profiling from which I built upon:

  • Basics (employment status, age, gender, race, marital status, children, credit hours, major area of study, etc.).
  • The Journey (education costs, financial aid, GPA, education background, etc.)
  • Identification Factors (external conflicts, etc.)
  • Personality Traits (student/teacher interaction, quality of work, etc.)

If interested, click on each image to review the character profile.

Student Survey

In order to get direct feedback from the students currently taking my online course, I created a 10-question survey using SurveyMonkey and emailed the survey link to my students. In a short email, I explained to the students the purpose of the survey and thanked them for their participation. I asked questions of them in order to gain some insight on their familiarity with taking online courses, their success on setting up a connection to the web server (a course requirement and integral part of the course), what they felt was the most difficult activity the first week of class, and the usefulness of the lectures I provide within the course. I also wanted feedback regarding some of the ideas that I’m considering incorporating into the course: how-to videos, an online “meet and greet”, an on campus demonstration of setting up a web server connection, and a new way of conducting online discussions.

The online survey can be found here.


I wanted to include information and demographics directly from the college so I began my research by contacting the Director of the CTL (Center for Teaching and Learning). I was directed to a list of documents from the Research and Planning department located on the *MCC website that included both college and student statistics along with basic student demographics and I also received some spreadsheet data via email as a starting point for discussion. In addition, I was provided with a contact at the college that works within the Research and Planning department that may be able to provide me with specific reports and data pertaining to the online courses that I teach – particularly the course associated with my problem of practice. I will be contacting the department to see what can be provided to me. In addition, I plan to review online case studies and articles pertaining to student retention in online courses (to be included in my final report).

Learning Outcomes (to date)

There are a few things that really stood out to me while engaging in the process of becoming empathetic and learning more about my target audience.

  • I recognized the importance of organization, navigation, and easily accessible content within an online classroom. This became very apparent to me during the experiencing prototyping session.
  • As I was reviewing the college/student demographics and creating the character profiles, I started to become one with each student character profile that I created. I began to see possible obstacles during their educational journey, their aspirations, and background information that may affect their success. I got “lost” in the experience.
  • Reviewing the survey responses to date, there were things that really surprised me and things that did not. A lot of responses alluded to the convenience of online courses and how they work well with their work/personal schedules. I had thought students were having difficulties with setting up a web server connection the first week of class but the survey responses suggest otherwise. I was also under the impression that the additional lecture material wasn’t being viewed, and again the responses indicate differently.
  • This the first time since I have been employed full-time at the college (7+ years), that I actually visited and reviewed the documents from the Institutional Research and Planning department. Actually, I never knew the documents even existed on the website.
  • I also had a very informative conversation with the CTL Director and gained valuable insight. One of the suggestions that was made was to decide on how to define “retention” as it relates to student success because it can be defined differently.

The empathy mode of the design thinking process is very powerful and an ideal place to begin my exploration into ways to improve student retention in online courses and identifying the various obstacles that may inhibit success.

*Macomb Community College –


StartupStockPhotos. (2015, January). [Computer/Communication] [Image]. Retrieved from


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