Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2004 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 8, Issue 4
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Realistic Course Previews for Online Students
Thomas M. Brinthaupt, Middle Tennessee State University
T. M. Brinthaupt, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology in the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences.
The first day of class is an important time for both students and instructors. Online student expectations are likely to affect course success as well as instructor evaluations. An approach designed to foster more realistic expectations among online students is described. This approach, the “Realistic Course Preview” (RCP), provides new students with recommendations and information from veteran students. Several issues relating to the development and implementation of online RCPs as well as how instructors can vary their RCPs are also discussed in the paper.
The first day of class presents instructors with a variety of challenges. As Kirp (1997) put it with regard to the start of a traditional course, he is "as nervous as a host who wonders whether anyone will come to his party." Typically, the first day of a class is filled with strangers who are not sure what to say or how to act (Dorn, 1987). In attempting to define this situation, students can rely on other students as well as the instructor to provide clarity and direction. Much attention has been devoted to how instructors of traditional courses can facilitate student "entry" on the first day.
It is important for students to be able to navigate academia and understand their course expectations because these expectations can affect both their learning and their course and instructor evaluations (Allgood et al., 2000). Researchers have shown that students’ evaluations of traditional instructors and courses at the beginning of the term are related to their evaluations at the end of the term (Barke et al., 1983; Parish & Campbell, 1977; Remedios et al., 2000). Such findings suggest that first-day student impressions of instructor and course are likely to be enduring. This highlights the importance of giving students a realistic and accurate view of what they can expect.
Researchers have given little attention to online students’ expectations about their courses and instructors. Just as with traditional courses (Davis, 1993; Wolcowitz, 1984), online students’ ability to navigate their courses and understand course expectations are critical. Despite its importance, there is very little discussion of how instructors initially introduce their course content and teaching style to their online students. There has been much more attention devoted to this question as it applies to traditional courses. In this paper, the major issues related to the first day of class are reviewed and a simple, powerful, and effective tool is described to enhance the accuracy of online students' expectations for their courses.
The First Day of Class
Instructors have a good deal of control over the first day of a traditional class. Most of the students arrive at the appropriate time and coordinates, and they are a captive audience for a set period of time. They are likely to have some degree of anxiety and uncertainty, which can be addressed by the instructor (Cowan & Piepgrass, 1997). Contrast this with the “first day” of an asynchronous online class – students access the course remotely and they come and go as they please. Online instructors are unable to immediately answer questions and they usually have much less control over where students go in the course and how long they stay there. Student anxiety and uncertainty are also likely to be less obvious to the instructor and more difficult to reduce.
One strategy to facilitate students’ entry into an online course is to require them to meet face-to-face for the first class. This allows instructors much more control over what information they can present to their students and better ensures that students understand administrative details. If online instructors are able to meet students in person on the first day, then there are a variety of tools and approaches they can employ. In a study of psychology student opinions about what does and does not work well in traditional first-class meetings, Perlman and McCann (1999) found that students liked course overviews that specify the structure and organization of the course, as well as instructors who provide some background about themselves. Students’ “pet peeves” included first-day classes that used time poorly or were disorganized and instructors who started course content that day.
There is a large literature of recommendations for the first day of traditional classes (for good overviews, see Davis, 1993; Dorn, 1987; Wolcowitz, 1984). Recently, Perlman and McCann (2004) reviewed several first-day goals or objectives for instructors. These include establishing rapport, communicating the nature and content of the course, highlighting important aspects of the course, introducing oneself, detailing the texts, course description and requirements, and discussing grading procedures and honesty and cheating policies. Similarly, Davis (1993) described the three most important tasks as handling administrative matters, creating a positive classroom environment, and clarifying course expectations and standards. Most of these objectives apply equally (if not more so) to online courses (Bolliger, 2003). However, many online courses are asynchronous, creating special challenges for the first day of class.
It is a real possibility that an instructor’s description of the workload and evaluation procedures for a course (e.g., the amount of reading, the difficulty of the exams, and how students will be graded) does not match the descriptions provided by students who are veterans of that course and that instructor. Students must interpret their instructors’ first-day impression management behaviors and they may be incorrect in their guesses about what the course and instructor will be like. It is probably more difficult for instructors to reduce student anxiety and uncertainty in online courses than in traditional courses. If students are taking all of their classes on the computer, it may be more difficult for them to develop clear, accurate, and individualized expectations for each course. As creatures of habit, students may mistakenly assume (or wish) that all their online courses are organized and taught the same way. Even experienced online students, while having generally accurate expectations about online courses, may not necessarily have realistic or accurate expectations about a specific online course or instructor.
It is probably safe to say that it is more difficult for students to form first impressions of online than traditional instructors and courses. Online instructors lack live interaction with their students (or are much more constrained in that interaction). Students have fewer verbal and nonverbal instructor behaviors from which to form impressions. Online courses present more challenges and difficulties than traditional courses when it comes to building a sense of community, instructors getting to know students, and students getting to know instructors. In addition, online instruction likely faces problems that differ from traditional courses in creating a positive "classroom" environment. All of these reasons highlight how important it is for online instructors to ensure that their course previews and introductions (if they use them) are accurate.
There is likely to be wide individual variation in how online students approach their first day of class. Some students may log in solely to check for specific assignments or to answer an instructor’s welcome letter. Others may explore their courses, examining (and printing out) as much content as is available to them and trying to understand the organization and structure of those courses. To what extent should instructors take their students “by the hand” on the first day? On the one hand, it is possible to force students to access only certain content at the beginning of class (e.g., by requiring them to read the syllabus and take a test on its contents before other course content is opened to them). On the other hand, this approach may be counterproductive if it encourages students to continue wanting to have their hands held beyond the start of the course.
In summary, online instructors can utilize many of the first-day ideas and techniques that traditional instructors have developed, but only if they are able to meet with their students in person. It would be helpful if online instructors could use something that does not require meeting with their students in person. The Realistic Course Preview is one such technique that has advantages for both traditional and online courses. The unique benefits that this approach brings to teaching online will be described in the remainder of this paper.
Realistic Course Previews
For many years, organizations have used Realistic Job Previews (RJPs) to increase worker satisfaction and reduce turnover. Recruits receive a realistic introduction to the organization that usually consists of balanced and unbiased (i.e., both positive and negative) information about what it will be like to work in that organization (Breaugh & Starke, 2000; Phillips, 1998; Wanous, 1992). Brinthaupt (2004) recently demonstrated that instructors can easily adapt the RJP concept to address student course expectations. A Realistic Course Preview (RCP) can provide students with balanced and unbiased information about what the course will be like. If the RCP information comes anonymously from fellow students, new students should perceive such information as more accurate, believable, and balanced than if it came from the instructor. Veteran students should be seen as having expertise with taking the course and should be trusted more than the instructor. In essence, “rookie” students get the “inside scoop” on what the course will be like from “veteran” students (Moreland & Levine, 1989). This can be especially useful for online students, given the potential difficulties these students may have in locating course veterans and obtaining information about the instructor.
The reasons RJPs might work in organizations (Breaugh, 1983; Meglino & Denisi, 1987) apply equally well to why an RCP might work in online teaching. According to the met expectations argument, an RCP may lower students’ inflated expectations, making it more likely that they will not be surprised by the class or its instructor. For example, if new students are warned by veteran students about the difficulty of the exams, the first exam may come as less of a shock to them. The coping idea suggests that RCPs may increase students’ abilities to handle the stresses of the course, once they encounter those. An example here would be if the RCP conveys the idea that the instructor is very flexible and helpful in dealing with student problems.
RCPs may also lead students to perceive greater degrees of honesty from their instructors. The fact that an instructor is providing a preview of the course that includes both positive and negative information about him/her may suggest to students that what the instructor tells them should be believed. Finally, according to the self-selection argument, RCPs may increase the chances that students will match better their needs or goals to the course. Thus, students expecting a good grade with little work may be warned away from taking the course. Alternatively, students who are seeking specific content or learning experiences that appear in an RCP may be more likely to take and remain in the course.
An Illustration of an Online RCP
For several years, a Personality Psychology course has been offered as part of the Tennessee Board of Regents Online Degree Program (RODP; can be overviewed at http://www.syllabus.com/news_article.asp?id=9419&typeid=156). The RODP program uses the WebCT format and class size is limited to 25 students. At the end of each semester, students in this course are given the opportunity to evaluate it anonymously. The survey function in WebCT can be used to administer such an evaluation. As one part of this course evaluation, students receive the following question:
Suppose two naive students approached you and told you that they were thinking of taking this RODP course with this RODP instructor. Your task is to give these people a realistic preview of what they can expect (in order for them to be better prepared for the course). As a graduate of this course, what is one positive thing you’d tell these students and one negative thing you’d tell them? Please be sure to indicate
what was/were positive and what was/were negative.
There are a couple of points to notice about these instructions. First, students talk about the course and instructor together rather than separately. For online courses with multiple sections, it may be less important or necessary to include the instructor in the RCP. Second, students are asked only for one "positive" and one "negative" aspect of this particular course and instructor, although students often provide more than one of either. Finally, rather than asking students to respond to specific aspects of the course or instructor, keeping this question simple, general, and direct seems to work very well. Possible alternatives to these instructions will be discussed later in this paper.
When new students first log into the online course mentioned above, they receive a standard “Welcome to the Course” letter. In this letter, they are directed to a “How this Course Works” organizer page that includes the RCP (with the title Read a Preview of what it is REALLY like to take this Course!!), a description of the structure and organization of the course, and the syllabus. On the RCP page, students read these instructions:
The following question was given to the most-recent graduates of this course. Beneath the question are the actual responses given by these students (with some minor editing of grammar and spelling). The purpose of this information is to give you a realistic picture of what you can expect in this course.
After the original question and instructions that were given to the veteran students are presented, those students’ responses follow. It is a simple process to cut and paste student comments from the WebCT course evaluation survey into a separate web page. If the instructor creates the RCP as a “content page” in WebCT, student access to this page can be tracked. Listed below are some representative student RCP responses:
o You can expect the exams to be a true challenge to what you have learned through the course outlines. Make sure you know your stuff before going into the test. A positive attribute is that the instructor is very flexible to life's emergencies and you have midnight deadlines. One of the negative things about the course is getting used to timed essay exams. It is difficult to get all of the information down within the time allotted, which is why it is important you know your stuff!!
o You will constantly be thinking about this course. You will analyze everyone and assign them to a personality type. The most positive aspect about this course is you understand more about your own personality and actions. The only negative thing that I would say about the course is as soon as you contribute to the discussion (and sometimes before) there is a new topic for you to express your opinion on.
o Positive: Get ready for a look into yourself. There is a lot of fascinating topics covered and the course is very organized. It's a great class, just not an easy A class, you have to earn it! Negative: When I say he wants detail, he wants DETAIL! Knowing the general gist of a topic will not cut it, know the details!! This class is hard and you must study and be willing to contribute some time and effort towards it.
o You will need to be prepared to read and follow all directions. There are ample opportunities to learn in this course. Use the conversation board if you get stuck. Additionally there are study guides for each chapter. A positive to this course is the amount of information you are given to help you understand what is going on. The negative side is the tests.....essays and multiple choice. You have to have them, but they can be difficult. Study hard and be prepared! If you do everything the professor states, you should be ok.
o I would tell them that the instructor is concerned with them learning and enjoying the subject matter. I would also tell them to prepare to get to know themselves like never before. To be sure that they studied all materials thoroughly to prepare for tests. I would also tell them to brush up on their writing techniques, because they are going to do plenty of it.
Brinthaupt (2004) reported data evaluating both traditional and online RCPs. These data showed that students (who received an RCP at the start of the term) in both kinds of classes rated the RCP (at the end of the term) as accurate, balanced, and helpful. In addition, they remembered the RCP during the term and strongly recommended that it should be used for future students.
Strengths of the RCP
Among the strengths of the RCP concept is that it is very flexible, easy to implement, and easy to revise. It should be equally useful regardless of whether the course is teacher-controlled or learner-managed and regardless of the kinds of learning activities that are used (Coomey & Stephenson, 2001). By changing the instructions, instructors can individualize their RCPs to fit their needs. They can also change their courses if the RCPs indicate areas where inaccurate expectations are a problem (such as regarding exam difficulty, writing assignments, or reading amount). When a course's content, structure, or organization is changed, those changes should be reflected in the previews that veteran students give to new students.
An RCP is also a simple way to begin to establish rapport between students and instructor. Students immediately get an "inside scoop" on the course and instructor at the start of the term. This accurately conveys to them how much work the course requires, what they are expected to do, what their instructor is like, and what they will get out of the course. The RCP also supplements instructors’ self-introductions because veteran students say things about their instructors (either good or bad) that those instructors might not normally include in their self-descriptions. Thus, some of the time necessary for establishing rapport and getting to know the instructor can be saved on the first day. To the extent that the RCP is accurate, students are likely to find confirmation of their expectations as they move through the course and learn about their instructor. Unpleasant surprises are less likely to occur and student commitment to taking the course should be higher compared to not having an RCP.
Perhaps most importantly, the RCP helps to create an immediate connection between student and instructor that is difficult to create with online courses and that usually develops informally and over a longer period of time. In essence, the RCP directs students to attend to the critical features of the course and instructor. The positives and negatives that appear in RCPs are things that new students would not be aware of or be able to discern based on either a traditional or online first-class meeting. Indeed, many of the things present in RCPs would take much of the term to determine. It is difficult and time-consuming for an online instructor to convey to students that he/she is competent and cares about the students. However, an RCP can reduce that difficulty by providing the views of students who are veterans of the course and the instructor. Of course, an instructor still must demonstrate and confirm that the RCP is accurate for a positive class environment to emerge. If students' experiences contradict the RCP content, their reactions will probably be more extreme than if they had not received the RCP.
Most administrative course details are concrete, specific, and explicit, and most instructors in either traditional or online courses have little trouble in explaining these to their students. However, there are also implicit aspects to both the course and instructor that are more difficult to control or convey (Wolcowitz, 1984). This is where RCPs can be particularly useful. As the earlier examples show, students rarely focus on administrative details in their RCP responses. Rather, they provide information on the implicit, less tangible, “atmospheric” aspects of both the course and the instructor, such as the nature of student-instructor interactions, the instructor’s attitudes and behaviors, and how course content affects students. An instructor’s desired class atmosphere may not be the atmosphere that veteran students experienced. RCPs increase the chances that new students will understand the implicit aspects of the course.
In summary, RCPs are likely to increase the chances that students' expectations will be met and reduce the chances of unpleasant surprises. By alerting students to the demands and stresses of the course at the start, RCPs can also increase the likelihood that students can prepare for and cope with them. RCPs also help create an impression of honesty and straightforwardness on the part of the instructor, something that might make students more comfortable about approaching their instructor online. Finally, RCPs increase the chances that the students who end up in our courses are better fits with our course content, learning goals, and teaching style.
Limits, Variations, and Extensions of the Online RCP
Despite the many good reasons for instructors to use an RCP, there are also several questions about its structure and delivery. For example, when is the best time to give an RCP? Although RCPs can be given as part of instructors’ first-day course introductions, there are other possibilities. Instructors might post their RCPs outside of their courses. For instance, the homepage of the RODP program lists public syllabi for all courses. Instructors could include their RCPs on this public page in conjunction with the syllabus. Or, instructors might include their RCPs on their personal homepages and direct prospective students there. There are some self-selection advantages to giving students a preview before they register for the course. Whereas basing one's decision to take or not take a course solely on the syllabus and an RCP may be reasonable for some students, instructors may not be comfortable with possibly losing students before they have gotten a complete picture of the course (such as the actual course content, organization, calendar, etc.) by registering for it. Thus, it is probably better to place RCPs within the courses.
How do the instructors ensure that students actually read the RCP? In traditional courses, the instructor can deliver and discuss an RCP on the first day of class. In contrast, online students can be led to the RCP, but they cannot be made to read it. Although it is certainly an option to require students to access the file before accessing other content or to complete a test on its contents, it is probably better to not force them to read it. Instead, it can be displayed prominently in the course and students can be told of it in the welcome letter. In addition, students might be asked to complete practice “tests” during the first week of class. On these (not-for-credit) tests, students can answer questions about WebCT and indicate that they have read the syllabus, show that they understand specific course requirements and the course honor system, and note if they have read the RCP. Using such practice tests and the student tracking option in WebCT, individualized notes can be sent out to any student who still has not read the RCP after the first week. In these notes, the importance and usefulness of the RCP is reiterated. Usually (but not always) this will get the holdouts to at least access the RCP file. This approach to reading the RCP is consistent with a proactive, independent learning atmosphere (if instructors wish to create such an atmosphere in their courses).
Another possibility is to email the RCP to students, either as part of the welcome letter or as a separate note. This might increase the chances that students will read it. Again, this approach might not be advisable if instructors want to encourage and ensure that their students know how to navigate WebCT and understand the particular organization and structure of a course. Thus, they have to seek out the RCP in order to read it. One might also use the discussion board to present an RCP and have students comment on and ask questions about it.
In some ways, the major choices faced by online instructors when considering the use of RCPs are similar to those faced by companies initiating realistic job previews (Wanous, 1989). Instructors might initiate an RCP either reactively or proactively. If students are unhappy with the course or are dropping out in large numbers, an RCP could be used to create accurate expectations for potential or incoming students. Of course, the success of an RCP in this case depends on why students are unhappy. If they have been unpleasantly surprised by certain aspects of the course (that the instructor wants to keep the same), an RCP can be used to clarify future students’ expectations. If the course is poorly designed or the instructor is unfair or unreasonable, an RCP probably would not be very useful. Instructors of such courses would likely be resistant to using an RCP that has too much negative information. After all, too many students would drop out of the course after reading the RCP. As Wanous (1989) noted with realistic job previews, a moderate amount of negative information should encourage a moderate degree of self-selection.
Instructors might prefer a more proactive approach with their RCPs, if they are mainly interested in assuring accurate expectations for incoming students (i.e., letting them know what it will really be like taking this course). Other tools can be used (such as detailed end-of-term course evaluations) to identify and correct design or instructor problems. Thus, RCPs take more of a "this is what it's like to take this course" orientation than a "this is what's wrong with this course" or "this is why no one should take this course" orientations.
What about using audio or video clips for student RCP statements as opposed to static files embedded in the "How this Course Works" section of the course? RCPs would be more personal and probably more believable and effective if “real people” are describing the positives and negatives of the course (Wanous, 1989). The downside to using such clips is that they are more difficult to obtain, edit, and change. In addition, students would probably be less honest and open if they provided information in the more-identifiable audio or video context. On the other hand, it may be easier to communicate strong positive or negative feelings in an audio or visual clip than in writing.
Should the content of the RCP be descriptive or judgmental? On the one hand, an RCP could include syllabus materials, course content overviews, testing and grading information, and so on. On the other hand, identifying the positive and negatives of the course will probably do more to increase retention, prevent unpleasant surprises, create rapport, and help students to cope with the course demands (although there is little research bearing on these possibilities). In most cases, the descriptive material is available elsewhere, whereas the RCP provides students with what previous students liked and did not like about the structure and organization of the course and instructor.
Is an equal number of positive and negative comments representative of students’ true feelings? An argument could be made that by soliciting only one positive and one negative comment about taking the course, the instructors are being unnecessarily restrictive or directive. However, there is not any evidence that this is the case. It is usually very clear which students had mainly positive or negative experiences with the course. As the earlier representative RCP responses show, students tend to provide a narrative of their experiences and often their responses have more than one positive or negative. With 30-40 different student responses, the RCP provides certain themes (by virtue of their frequency of mention) that are repeatedly stressed to the reader. Inevitably, these recurring themes are exactly what the instructors want their incoming students to know about and understand.
What if an instructor is teaching a very large online course and receives RCP responses from, for example, 100 students? Including all those responses would make the RCP unwieldy. In such cases, instructors should randomly sample responses to generate a more-optimal set of 20-30 responses. By including students who did very well as well as those who did very poorly in the course, random selection of the responses will minimize bias in the RCP and ensure that it is as accurate as possible.
An alternative approach one might take for online RCP content is to solicit specific information from the best students in the course. For example, Quddus and Bussing-Burks (1998) describe contacting successful veteran students in a traditional economics course and having them complete a survey on the most important study advice they would give to future students. Veteran students describe their general strategies and specific methods for class and exam preparation, and the authors provide new students with a summary of these study tips. Although this approach represents the experiences of a minority of veteran students who may have certain biases that do not apply to the majority of the students, this is an option if one is teaching large sections of a course and wants to use RCPs. Providing study tips information is not technically an RCP by the definition in this paper, and it would not be necessary to give this kind of information at the start of a course. However, it is certainly recommended that online instructors combine an RCP with study, exam preparation, reading guidelines, or other kinds of veteran tips.
A final issue to note is that RCPs may not be entirely accurate when changes are made to the course in response to veterans' comments (or course evaluations). This is usually not a major problem because the overall themes are still accurate, even if some of the details are not. For example, in response to frequent complaints about difficult exams, one’s testing procedure can be revised. The exams may still be difficult, and students' comments on that difficulty in their RCPs still accurate; however, the incoming students should find their exams somewhat less difficult and more manageable than the veterans. Of course, the RCPs generated by the students who experienced the revised exams reflected the new testing parameters. At worst, major changes in course structure or instructor style will take one additional semester to make it into the RCP.
In summary, the RCP concept can be a valuable addition to online (and traditional) pedagogy. It is simple in design and easy to implement. It provides instructors with a powerful tool for helping ensure that student expectations for a course are accurate. It gives online instructors the ability to improve their first day of class introductions. It increases the chances of a good match between what students want from the course and what they will likely get from it. And it gives veteran students an opportunity for course closure by allowing them to pass on their accumulated wisdom about the course and instructor to new students.
 I wish to thank Elaine Adams, Linda Galbato, and Skip Kendrick for their comments on an earlier version of this paper.
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