An Evidenced-Based Orientation Course for an Online MSN Program

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Preloading student satisfaction and success factors into an online program orientation course can strengthen the potential for student retention and success. The nursing literature is lacking in this area. Much of the information found on retention is focused on the undergraduate student in a face-to-face classroom setting. Less literature can be found on graduate level education retention and the body of knowledge regarding graduate online education retention is even more limited (Perry, Boman, Care, Edwards, & Park, 2008). Retention rates in online graduate education, not specific to nursing, vary widely, but are typically poorer than in face-to-face programs (Barry & Mathies, 2011; Patterson & McFadden, 2009). Increasing student retention and graduation is crucial for maintaining and increasing performance-based funding in educational institutions. Meeting common student needs early in the program can provide the resources and support needed for overcoming future barriers to graduation.

Cameron (2013) compiled common student needs: positive social experiences with students and faculty/advisors, course delivery system understanding, asynchronous participation understanding, requirements of e-learning, requirements of graduate and program education, and evidence of institutional commitment through excellence in advising and online resource availability and access. A reduction in overall anxiety about entering graduate education and an increased confidence in the ability to succeed are vital for students entering graduate education. Early access to peers, faculty advisors, and university resources can improve the students’ sense of community and belonging and provide a strong support system. These early steps ease technology frustrations, communication difficulties, and any perceived support inadequacies.

A completely online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program orientation course was developed to meet the identified common student needs. The program provides early access to the MSN program’s Learning Management System (LMS), access to peer support, faculty advisor, and university resources. Students were taught the basic structure of courses (including content, discussions, quizzes, and drop boxes) to ease the stress of the first few weeks of class. Graduate study requirements and expectations were explained along with the differences between online and face-to-face study. Students received guidance in balancing work, life, and study. Students were given opportunities to practice the most commonly used technologies in the program.

Ten newly admitted MSN students participated in the study. A post course phone interview was initiated with each following course completion, using a five-level Likert scale (1 being the lowest score and 5 the highest score) to assess the course and student perceived preparedness for the MSN program. Four categories of questions were used: knowledge regarding graduate online study, resources, and program expectation; proficiency with the LMS; communication access to other students and faculty advisor; and access to university resources. A final question was asked of students regarding their overall anxiety level about starting the MSN program. All students reported decreased anxiety and increased comfort with graduate online education, increased self-confidence, and feelings of support.

Students are able to focus more on the course subject matter in the first few weeks of class when they have a clearer understanding of the LMS, graduate school and online learning expectations, and resource/support availability before classes start. A positive early start adds strength for managing future barriers and frustrations of graduate education. These concepts may be applied to meet the specific requirements of other academic programs. Further research is needed to compare the retention rates of those participating in the orientation program and those who did not. The finding in this project support the importance of an orientation program to graduate nursing studies which includes setting realistic expectations, developing a sense of community and support, and practicing for proficiency in the program LMS.


Cape Town, South Africa

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