Faculty Validations in Influencing Online Students' Persistence: Faculty Efforts and Institutional Support
Concurrent Session 2
Faculty validation includes faculty-initiated interactions that reflect the faculty's interest in students' learning and success, interactions that lead to students feeling encouraged, and interactions that appertain to mentoring. These interactions play a positive role in ensuring students' persistence in online programs.
The issue of student retention has affected both traditional and distance education. Interestingly, distance education, which was intended to make college education more accessible for nontraditional students, has, ironically, experienced a relatively poor retention rate compared to that of traditional face-to-face programs (Diaz & Cartnal, 2006; Patterson & McFadden, 2009; Rovai, 2003). While factors that affect retention and attrition in face-to-face programs may also affect those of online programs, some factors may be especially unique to online programs. For instance, students in online programs typically do not have a chance to meet each other in person and thereby personally connect, their opportunity to subsequently interact in any consistent way is typically limited and constrained to a superficial or impersonal level. Moreover, according to Cole, Shelley, and Swartz (2014), the lack of interaction was one of the main reasons why online students were dissatisfied with their online learning experience, which may contribute to a premature departure from their online programs.
In higher education, students who withdraw from college before graduating face and trigger a number of undesirable consequences, such as difficulty finding professional employment (Symonds, Swartz, & Ferguson, 2011; U.S. Department of Education, 2016), risking default on student loans (Dwyer, McCloud, Hodson, 2012), causing loss of potential revenue to academic institutions (Johnson, 2012), and yielding a negative return on society’s expenditures for college tuition programs (Schneider, 2010). It is imperative for faculty to remain attentive to factors that could negatively affect student persistence. The threats to student persistence should be consistently and effectively dealt with through effective faculty-student interaction, which is vital in fostering positive learning environment needed for academic success (Komarraju, Musulin, & Bhattaeharay, 2010; Mayne & Wu, 2011; O’Keeffe, 2013; Rendon, 1994).
A research study was completed at a college in the midwest to investigate the role that faculty validation might have on students’ persistence in their online academic programs. The study found a strong correlation between faculty validation - which consists of faculty-initiated positive interactions between faculty and student—and students’ intent to persist. Specifically, the findings demonstrated that faculty-initiated interactions - particularly those that reflect faculty’s interest in students’ learning and success, interactions that lead to students feeling encouraged, and interactions that appertain mentoring - can predict academic integration and persistence.
The concept of faculty validation emphasizes the need for faculty to initiate student interactions. When faculty reach out to students, it conveys a caring attitude on the part of faculty. In other words, it shows that they are genuinely interested in their students’ work and success. This genuine interest and involvement in student success contribute to students’ validation experience. Ideally, faculty should reach out to all students, regardless of their academic or course performance. Although many studies of online student retention - such as those done by Gajewski and Mather (2015), Haeney and Fisher (2011), Russo-Gleicher (2014), and Zhang, Fei, Quddus, and Davis (2014) - focused on academically at-risk students, the concept of faculty validation calls for interactions with all students regardless of their academic performance so as to provide an overall positive validating experience. Reaching at-risk students only could possibly result in missed opportunities with those students who might be earning good grades but are dealing with academic or personal issues that could eventually affect their future academic performance, and thus provide the proactive positive support they may need. Dennen, Darabi, and Smith (2007) advocated practices that include contacting students more frequently while Muljana and Luo (2019) proposed early interventions. The implementation of such practices would involve faculty providing positive validating experience proactively, which could have favorable implications in overall student retention.
In order to provide students with an effective and compelling validation experience, faculty should demonstrate that they are interested in the learning and success of students, provide encouragement to students, and offer mentoring support to students. The aforementioned study found a strong positive correlation between faculty validation and sense of academic integration, between faculty validation and students’ intent to persist, and between students’ sense of academic integration and intent to persist. Furthermore, faculty validation was found to be a moderate predictor of students’ sense of academic integration and a modest predictor of students’ intent to persist, while students’ sense of academic integration was found to be a moderate predictor of students’ intent to persist. Faculty interactions that show faculty interest in students’ learning and success have the biggest potential in influencing students’ intent to persist, followed by interactions that lead to students feeling encouraged, and interactions that appertain to mentoring. Those types of interactions were predicted to increase students’ self-confidence in their ability to complete their courses and to be more successful academically. In other words, online students’ learning effectiveness can be positively influenced by faculty validations. Subsequently, academic success may positively influence a student’s decision to stay enrolled in college or to persist. Further, if students continue to receive support, encouragement, and mentoring from faculty, they are more likely to graduate from their chosen degree programs.
Although faculty validations might not directly influence greater access to post-secondary educational opportunities, online education itself makes education more accessible; faculty validations, to some degree, help those who enroll in online education successfully complete their academic endeavor. Sneyers and De Witte (2017) suggested that student satisfaction is greater when the likelihood of completing their academic program can be realistically expected. Likewise, faculty derive a sense of job satisfaction from their students’ success.
It should be noted however, that the integration of faculty validation will undoubtedly add to the time demand of online faculty. Simply put, it takes time to connect with students, whether by email, telephone, or other communication technologies. According to Wright (2014), online faculty reported that online teaching requires more of their time commitment. Although Houston, Meyer, and Paewai (2006) found that intrinsically-motivated faculty are generally satisfied with their work regardless of the additional time required to carry out their roles and workload as online instructors, the increased tasks and complexity that such a role imposes can nonetheless create stress in their personal life. Morris and Madsen (2007) theorize that resources are limited and when a bigger portion of a particular resource is spent on something, less of that resource would be available for other things. Therefore, with respect to time, if the number of courses taught and the extent of other duties remain the same while expectations for more interactions are imposed, the quality of life outside of the faculty professional commitments was more likely to be compromised as a result of the new expectations and required time investment. Thus, the time demand associated with fulfilling student validation efforts would be a concern and is an issue that needs to be addressed by leaders at the institution. Leaders in higher education must provide a supportive environment with respect to time allocation and necessary resources so that faculty can effectively engage in student validation and thus potentially improve student persistence.
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