As a learning scientist and former instructor, I’ve been watching the topic of digital content develop for a while now. In the past, it’s been regarded as a poor substitute for the printed text when it comes to student comprehension. However, new research shows we’ve reached a turning point in digital reading. My colleagues Dr. Clint Johns, Julia Ridley, and I reviewed 40 peer-reviewed research studies from the last five years, focused mostly in higher education learners in the US1. Based on our review, most research shows that well-designed digital content can be understood as effectively as print and includes added benefits for readers.
Understanding that your students are more than just a grade is one thing; going the extra step to show them you care about them as people is another entirely.
Dr. Terry Austin has been an instructor at Temple College in Temple, Texas for more than 15 years, during which time he’s championed the use of digital learning platforms in his biology and A&P classes.
Terry found out just how important these resources can be for him and students — and for a reason you might not expect.
During his Anatomy & Physiology class, Terry noticed something odd about one of his student’s Early Alerts reports within the Mastering® A&P platform.
Crista had been doing well. Really well. Her first exam score was in the mid-90s and all her work in the course was great. His dashboard showed her solidly in the green or “low-risk” category. But that unexpectedly changed.
“All of a sudden, kind of out of nowhere, she seemed to fall off a cliff,” said Terry. “She fell pretty quickly into the yellow (medium-risk) and even red (high-risk) category, and it felt like there must be something else going on.”
Normally, you’d expect a noticeable drop in grade to trigger an alert, but this was something different.
“Her Mastering grade didn’t really drop at all, but Early Alerts noticed something going on. That’s what really triggered me to want to reach out. It felt like talking to her was probably the best idea.”
The human connection
Crista was a little shocked to receive Terry’s call.
“Her reaction when I first reached out was a little bit of a startle. I don’t think she was expecting to get a phone call from her professor,” said Terry. “She was almost in tears when I answered — she was really concerned.”
After reassuring her that her grade was just fine, he explained that there was an alert in Mastering telling him that something might be amiss.
He soon found out what that was.
Crista and her husband had been in the hospital the previous weekend with their son, who had broken his arm. A surgery and complications had kept her there for several days. Her husband had brought her laptop to the hospital, and she tried to keep up with her coursework while sitting anxiously beside her son’s bed.
It also became clear why the system had created an alert for Crista.
"She was distracted,” said Terry. "Her correct on first try score dropped, the attempts it took her to get the correct answers rose, but her grade stayed solid.”
That’s what triggered an “aha” moment for Terry.
“If I was looking at nothing but her grade, I never would’ve known anything was going on. The ability to see the need to make an outreach really was empowering.”
Crista’s reaction to his reaching out to make a connection with her as a person — not just a student — drove that feeling home, and also made her see Terry as something more than just a teacher. It went beyond just gratitude.
"It really did seem like a gushing appreciation that somebody seemed to care enough to make sure she was OK.”
With great power...
Terry now likens his experience to a popular comic book trope.
“For me, it did feel like that super power moment. I got that ability to see into a troubled moment in her life, I got the chance to reach out, and I guess — maybe more importantly — I took that chance.”
Not only was he able to reassure Crista that her grade was all right, but he was able to reassure himself that she was all right.
“Her grades were fine — I knew she was OK as a student — but I also knew looking at that shift from green to yellow — something had caused that to happen. It felt really nice being able to reach out and know that she was OK.”
Terry says that this experience did truly change the way he looks at his students.
“It’s a reminder for me that my students are far more than just their grades. It was an insight and really an awakening that there’s more going on with my students than just that grade in the moment. It’s a reminder that there’s a person behind that grade, it’s not just a number.”
He finds that this technology is like having a window to peek through; to have an idea whether everything is all right, or whether he might need to reach out again.
As for that feeling of having a super power?
“It's one of those moments that kind of comes with great responsibility. And it would be nice to think instructors don’t ignore the opportunity being handed to them.”