Creating Structure and Support for Student Success: Lessons Learned

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Brief Abstract

This session will highlight the structure and support that one University department has created to help support online and blended students, particularly those new to online learning. Attendees will leave with tangible resources they can use or adapt for their own use.


Dr. Elissa T. Mitchell is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Southern Indiana where she teaches both undergraduate and graduate students in online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses. She earned her Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Mitchell's research is broadly focused on at-risk youth and their families, particularly those affected by foster care and adoption, divorce, and domestic violence. She is also focused on online teaching and learning, specifically in the use of social media, online debate, and incorporating service learning in online courses.

Extended Abstract

Topic: This presentation will outline the structure and support that a social work department has created to help support online and blended students, particularly those new to online learning, and highlight the lessons learned. The presenters are the members of our Department’s Technology Committee and have taken on the responsibility of developing resources and materials for both faculty and students. We have been doing this since 2018 and have observed that although the majority of our students could be considered “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001), they often lack the skills to be successful in online learning or to use technology professionally.  Our focus as a committee has been on creating structure for our students in the online environment (accomplished through faculty support and mentoring) and providing support in the form of resources and tips for success (accomplished through direct student support). With the rapid shift of all courses to an online modality at the start of the pandemic, it became clear that our students needed this guidance and support to successfully navigate their courses and be successful in the online environment.  This presentation will be particularly useful for faculty teaching in higher education and those who support faculty (i.e., administration and instructional designers). 

Support/Mentorship of Faculty: Steinert and colleagues (2006) suggest that faculty professional development related to online learning is most effective through peer and colleague relationships, experiential learning, when faculty have the opportunity for feedback, and can apply effective teaching and learning principles. Online learning requires a different skill set that must be developed, particularly for social work education (Knowles, 2007). Brinkley-Etzkorn (2018) found that faculty training impacts the quality of online teaching and that online instructors need continued support. As the presenters understand the multiple factors that go into successful online course delivery, along with the value of relationships in seeking assistance, it was a natural response to assist our colleagues. Faculty peer mentoring is key in developing online teaching skills and maintaining them over time which is essential to student success. We have previously presented on our faculty support and mentorship model so this will not be the sole focus of this presentation but is an important component of student success. 

In terms of structure, we helped to create and pushed for mandated use of a template for our LMS (Blackboard) for all courses in the department, streamlining the online experience for students. We have also provided support to faculty in the form of a Blackboard training module for all new adjuncts, a VoiceThread presentation for all faculty reviewing the Blackboard template and other key technologies, and additional resources provided to faculty in monthly emails (called “Tech Tips”). 

Student Resources: In addition to our work with faculty, we provided support aimed directly at students. Research has demonstrated that students who are prepared for online learning perform better than those who are not (Joosten & Cusatis, 2020). This includes such skills as time management, self-motivation, and technical or computer skills (e.g., Cho & Shen, 2013; Roper, 2007; Zimmerman & Kulikowich, 2016). Our University’s online learning department has resources for online students. However, given that our program was not online before the pandemic, most of our students were not familiar with these resources; they did not choose to be online learners. To help facilitate this transition, we created resources, including Best Practices for Using Zoom, Netiquette, and the Top Ten Tips for Success in Online Social Work Courses. We also created a module for students in the department’s orientation for new students on the types of courses offered in the department (i.e., understanding section codes) and other key skills to help them be successful online. These resources will be introduced in this presentation and available for participants to use and/or adapt. 

We conducted a survey of our students and their perception of these resources. Initial findings from this survey will be presented, highlighting student feedback and ways support could be improved or enhanced moving forward. 

Interactivity: While this will be an asynchronous presentation, there will be opportunities for participation and interaction among participants and the presenters. Participants will be able to leave comments and questions for other participants and/or the presenters. To elicit discussion, the presenters will post questions throughout the presentation for attendees to consider & respond with experiences and ideas. The presenters will also respond to each comment or question, further engaging participants, and deepening the conversation. This is consistent with an in-person Discovery Session that typically allows for more interaction than a traditional presentation and encourages individual discussion and connection.

Key Takeaways: Participants will leave this presentation with tangible resources that can be tailored for their own use, as well as a potential departmental structure to support online and blended student learning, as well as faculty teaching online.


Brinkley-Etzkorn, K. E. (2018). Learning to teach online: Measuring the influence of faculty development training on teaching effectiveness through a TPACK lens. The Internet and Higher Education, 38, 28-35.

Cho, M., & Shen, D. (2013). Self-regulation in online learning. Distance Education, 34, 290–301.

Knowles, A. J. (2007). Pedagogical and policy challenges in implementing e-learning in social work education. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 25, 17–44.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants:  Part I. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.

Roper, A. R. (2007). How students develop online learning skills. Educause Quarterly, 30(1), 62–64.

Steinert, Y., Mann, K., Centeno, A., Dolmans, D., Spencer, J., Gelula, M., & Prideaux, D. (2006). A systematic review of faculty development initiatives designed to improve teaching effectiveness in medical education. Medical Teacher, 28(6), 497-526. 

Zimmerman, W. A., & Kulikowich, J. M. (2016). Online learning self-efficacy in students with and without online learning experience. American Journal of Distance Education, 30(3), 180– 191.