Diversity, Persistence and Retention in an Introductory Computing Course

Peer Advice & Teaching Tips
Reading Time: 10 minutes

By: Kelly Hinson, Information Technology instructor at Gaston College in Dallas, North Carolina

 

Retention, persistence and diversity. What do these words mean in education? What do they mean for students and instructors? We toss these three words around a lot today, but in practice, how might acknowledging diversity, persistence and retention impact our courses?

Let us start with diversity. According to Oxford Languages Dictionary, the root word, diverse, is an adjective meaning “showing a great deal of variety.” Diversity is a noun meaning “the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.” Implementing diversity in the classroom calls for action.

Diversity

Step 1: Acknowledge Implicit Biases

To get started, we must acknowledge that each student brings unique experiences, strengths, and ideas to the class. These differences might exist in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic status, age, ability, previous education, work experience, learning styles and abilities, family expectations and influence, religion, political beliefs, etc. I bet you can think of more. But no matter what we come up with, diversity in the classroom incorporates all these differences to enrich learning in our courses.

So how do we do this? Start by acknowledging that everyone has implicit biases. You can discover some of yours by looking at choices you make. For example, what examples do you provide in class in regard to people in your field? Do you tend to choose more males over females? Younger people over older? Other examples might be the area you choose to live in, the schools you choose for your children, etc. You can find implicit bias tests on the internet, if you want a more in-depth look at your biases. But for now, let’s just admit that we all have them.

Step 2: The Syllabus

Now let’s look at the syllabus. I dread changing any syllabus, but I must admit, it’s one of the first impressions that students get of us. So, make sure your welcoming statement is welcoming to everyone. Here is one example:

All students are welcome in this class assuming prerequisite requirements have been met. I will expect you to respect me as your instructor, just as I will respect you. We all have different backgrounds, interests, problems, circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses. Under no circumstances will I tolerate any actions that make your fellow students feel unsafe or unwelcome. This is a learning environment which shows respect for all even when we may not agree.

Here is another example:

Students are expected to respect others’ rights to express different opinions and to learn without intimidation or disruption in this class. According to the Student Handbook, “All students have the right to a safe, peaceful and honest educational environment. Therefore, when in the judgment of college officials, a student’s conduct disrupts or threatens to disrupt the college community, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken to restore and protect the mission, safety, peace, and integrity of the College.”

I am sure you can find other examples. Some colleges may have a diversity statement that you can include. You know your students. Make them feel welcome and included starting with your syllabus.

Step 3: Orientation

After you have included a warm welcome in the syllabus, make sure you carry the same information into a video and/or in the classroom. This will set the tone for the semester. The example below could be placed in the syllabus and recorded in a video with minimal changes in wording.

  • This syllabus contains the policies and expectations that have been established for this course. These policies and expectations are intended to create a productive learning atmosphere for all students. Please bring any concerns you may have to my attention.
  • To create and preserve a course atmosphere that optimizes teaching and learning, all students share the responsibility of creating a positive learning environment. Students are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that does not disrupt teaching or learning, and they are expected to follow these standards.
  • Course discussions should be civilized and respectful to everyone and relevant to the topic we are discussing. Discussion forums are meant to allow for a variety of viewpoints. This can only happen if we respect one another and our differences.

I recommend that you put a welcoming video in the LMS even if you have a seated class. This will give extra confidence and support to seated students who are overwhelmed in a classroom.

Step 4: Communication Expectations

Make sure that you are addressing all these areas: attendance, participation, when to contact the instructor, netiquette, messages, email, phone calls, virtual meeting expectations, and class expectations. Do not leave any of these out just because you are always in the classroom or fully online. I use the same expectations for all students. Below you will find examples of how these areas are addressed in the syllabi for our department:

Class Expectations

It is important that students are respectful toward their instructor and fellow classmates, and that their behaviors do not interfere with nor disrupt class activities. Therefore, students are expected to adhere to the following rules in this class. The student is also expected to adhere to these rules in a virtual class meeting.

  • Because random arrivals and exits are disrespectful and distracting, please plan to arrive to class on time and to stay for the entire class period. If circumstances dictate that you must be late or you know that you will need to leave early, please take a seat close to the door, so you do not distract others during class time.
  • All cell phones and other electronic devices must be turned off and hidden from view during class time. If you have an emergency, then take the call outside of the classroom.
  • Talking and other disruptive behaviors are not permitted while lecture is taking place. Please pay attention, and do not hesitate to ask any questions.

Virtual Meeting Expectations

In today’s online learning environment, this course will sometimes offer virtual meetings or office hours. Use the following guidelines:

  • Sit at a desk or table.
  • Be on time and ready to participate.
  • Dress appropriately—casual business attire is expected.
  • Remove distracting backgrounds so that others can focus on you.
  • To help you stay focused on the meeting, make sure you are in a room with a door that can be closed to outsiders.
  • Mute yourself when you are not talking so that outside sounds will not interfere with the conversation.

 

Netiquette Expectations

Netiquette, or the combination of Internet and etiquette, describes things you should and shouldn’t do while communicating online. This is especially important in an online class environment. Here are some examples:

  • Don’t capitalize all letters while posting a thought or emailing someone. THIS IS CONSIDERED SHOUTING, AND IT IMPLIES THAT YOU ARE ANGRY. Capitalize words only to highlight an important point or to distinguish a title or heading.
  • Never use profanity or make hurtful comments toward someone or when referring to someone’s work. This is considered flaming.
  • Be careful when using humor or sarcasm; you never know how someone else will interpret it.
  • Be respectful of diverse opinions.
  • Don’t post inappropriate pictures, links or comments. Use your good judgment.
  • Always write in complete sentences using proper grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.
  • Do NOT use text messaging lingo.

A simple rule to follow is to communicate with people in the same manner you want them to communicate with you; that is, in a friendly, respectful way.

 

Messages and Email

Blackboard messages and email have some of the same rules you would use in the discussion board:

  • Don’t capitalize all letters while posting a thought or emailing someone. THIS IS CONSIDERED SHOUTING, AND IT IMPLIES THAT YOU ARE ANGRY. Capitalize words only to highlight an important point or to distinguish a title or heading.
  • Never use profanity or make hurtful comments toward someone or when referring to someone’s work. This is considered flaming.
  • Be careful when using humor or sarcasm; you never know how someone else will interpret it.
  • Use good grammar, spelling and capitalization at the beginning of sentences. This makes your comments and sentences easier to read and not open to misinterpretation.

 

In addition:

  • Don’t expect your instructor to be sitting waiting for your message/email. Keep a realistic time frame for response in mind.
  • Always include your course number and SECTION number so that the instructor knows which class you are in, if you are emailing. Blackboard messages take care of this for you, but it is helpful for me if you include this information in any standard email.
  • Avoid using text message format in emails. If you do not use proper business grammar, please don’t expect a response.

 

Class Attendance and Participation

College Policy: The instructional work of the college is designed for class participation and attendance. The responsibility for class participation and attendance is placed specifically on the individual student. Official college requirements are based on a 90% participation rate. Therefore, if a student fails to participate in 10% or more of the scheduled class hours or learning activities, a student may be withdrawn by the instructor or assigned a grade of “F” up until the published withdrawal date for violation of the 90% participation rule. For students violating participation requirements after the published withdrawal date, a grade of “F” may be assigned by the instructor. Once an instructor has posted a grade, the student no longer has an option to withdraw from that class. Please see the Student Handbook for information regarding absences for religious observances.

This policy does not remove the right of faculty to reward or penalize students for participation and attendance issues at any point during the semester. Please review course-specific instructions related to attendance to ensure compliance with stated requirements for this class. Faculty may enforce an alternate policy where required by divisional or departmental practices, accreditation requirements and other similar issues. Under no circumstances will children or other non-enrolled individuals be allowed to attend class.

Class Policy: This class policy overrides the school policy. Always go by the class policy for attendance. Participation in this class is considered active participation and is determined based on if you are turning in your assignments. Failure to turn in assignments for two weeks may result in you being blocked in Blackboard from the course. Failure to turn in assignments for three weeks (21 days) will result in you being withdrawn from the class. Even if you are attending a seated class or opening the Blackboard course, if you are not turning in assignments, then you are not actively participating in the class.

Online courses will, at a minimum have weekly mechanisms for student participation, which can be documented by any or all of the following methods: student tracking records in Blackboard, submission/completion of assignments, and communication with the instructor.

Attendance will be evaluated through the Blackboard course statistics and the submission of work through email. Please be aware that if you fail to complete tests and submit work by the due dates it will be reflected in your final grade.

 

Step 5: Course Content

Professional Examples

Looking for diversity issues in course content can be tricky. An easy way to show students that you value diversity is to include diverse professional examples. In Intro to Computers, you could use any and all of the following people to exemplify diversity in the computer science field:

  1. Mark Dean
  2. Evelyn Granville
  3. Barbara Liskvo
  4. Linus Torvalds
  5. Ada Lovelace
  6. Grace Hopper

And I am sure you can find more, but I will leave you to look up what each individual in the list above has contributed to the world of computers.

Learning Styles

Remember that we have both traditional and non-traditional students in our courses. This might mean that some prefer a hardcopy book and some are fine with digital. Show students how to use digital eTextbook features and where to find additional content like videos and practice exams.

Persistence

From the student view, persistence is trying to do something even though it is difficult, and others might want you to stop, or you feel unsupported. A student who is persisting sounds like a student who has courage!

For instructors, persistence means keeping students in the class until the end of the semester with a passing grade. To me, this means a lot of pulling my hair out trying to figure out why a student will not complete an assignment.

Sometimes keeping a student in the class means making a personal connection with that student. I hate to admit this, but I sometimes feel apprehensive about letting students know too much about my personal life. So, I was relieved to discover that I do not need to share my personal life with my students to make a personal connection. For example, if a student misses an assignment (or more than one), I email them personally to encourage them to keep up with the assignments, ask if they understand the assignment chart, etc. Sometimes I pick an assignment that I correct/evaluate through a personal video and post in the gradebook of the LMS. At other times I do a short video of myself talking about questions students are asking or demonstrating a solution.

So as an instructor, we need to make personal connections and we have lots of options through videos, emails, and discussion boards. Sometimes sharing our own struggles with education and learning will keep students striving to complete. Providing virtual “help sessions” where you can answer assignment questions will encourage both online and seated students to seek help without having to travel to campus.

We can also help students persist by directing them to sources that can provide tutors, giving links to technical support and community/college/life support. We can do this by providing links in the LMS and using an LMS for seated courses too. At my college, this is a tab in our LMS and it is included in all LMS courses. It is in a consistent location so that students can find the information quickly no matter which course they are in.

One of the best things about Cengage is that their digital platform, MindTap, provides student support through the following items:

  • Read aloud content
  • Flashcards
  • Concept videos
  • eTextbooks and printed rentals
  • Practice exercises
  • Review exercises
  • Student choice for course views
  • SAM: trainings, exams, projects
  • Capstone projects
  • Critical Thinking projects (Excel and Access only in some series)
  • SAM Path

 

MOS certifications are also great motivators. Maybe you can tie the Intro to Computing class to the IC3 certification, or the first level of an Excel class to an Excel MOS certification? You can assign the MOS content provided through SAM or MindTap for review or practice which will only build student confidence in mastering the course content.

Retention

And last, but certainly not least, is retention. Retention in education means keeping a student from course to course, or from one semester to the next until they complete their goal. This requires us as instructors to give a higher purpose to learning than just what is in this course. We need to give them higher goals by tying the current course to employment or personal goals. But we need to start with consistency which will create confidence.

Confidence is the way to keep students from course to course. One of the best ways to boost confidence is to be as consistent as possible with course layouts. Using an LMS for all courses removes the learning curve for the LMS between courses. The layout of the courses in the LMS should be quite consistent too. That will help students find information easily no matter which course they enrolled in.

Another way to boost student confidence is by using a consistent online homework platform like MindTap. Once students master MindTap in one class, they will have confidence using it in other classes. MindTap supports instructors in retention purposes by providing workplace-focused projects, offering portfolio building for students, and providing RSS feeds for up-to-date news. And don’t forget those MOS certifications. While they help encourage students to complete a course, MOS certifications also promote retention by focusing students on employability. Students can list MOS certifications on a resume as further proof of skills to an employer.

As instructors we should also promote student involvement outside of the classroom. Encourage students to participate in clubs, sports, community outreach, volunteer work, etc.

Retaining students requires a longer-reaching goal than just passing the class. I believe we can use diversity in the classroom to strengthen our connections with students—that will help them persist and retain them until they achieve their goals.

 

Want to learn more about the latest trends and teaching strategies in Computing courses? Browse recorded webinar sessions from the Cengage Computing Experience series.