The "Situational Academic and Relational Support in Distance Education" (SARSIDE) Model

By Stephen D. Lowe, Ph.D.
Professor of Christian Education
Associate Dean and Director of Distance Education
Erskine Theological Seminary

This paper was presented at the International Symposium on Theological Distance Education, October 3-4, 1997, while Dr. Lowe was the Vice President For Distributive Learning at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary.


Institutions that provide education at a distance confront a unique set of challenges. The most significant of these is to provide appropriate academic (institutional and instructional) and relational support for students given the constraint of "distance" that separates learner from the provider of the learning. Appropriate institutional and instructional support must be provided to ensure the academic success of our students that eventually leads to course and degree completion. Institutional support is operationally defined to include such elements as provision of competent and credentialed faculty, quality materials, delivery technology, and other typical human and material resources, etc. Instructional support refers to the instructional design of courses, the interaction with faculty or adjunct faculty, tutorial assistance and so on. Relational support describes the more affective dimension of the learning process wherein we encourage, motivate, and nurture students at an emotional level in an attempt to strike a balance with the more intellectual/cognitive support typically provided by academic institutions of higher education.

High attrition rates in adult distance education settings, reflect, at least in part, on our inability as distance education providers, to give students adequate emotional and academic support. I say this with the full understanding that the problem of attrition in distance education cannot be solved by only addressing institutional responsibilities. But I do think the solution to the problem begins there and certainly ought to be initiated by the institution. Tinto makes this same point when he argues that "To single out the institution as being solely responsible for student departure, as do many critics, is to deny an essential principle of effective education, namely that students must themselves become responsible for their own learning" (181). I think this last phrase is especially critical for adult learners at a distance, although it should be a consideration at any level. Adult students in a distance learning environment are confronted with the reality of being the only one truly responsible for their own learning. If they have not learned how to do this prior to their enrollment in a distant learning program of any sort, they are at a serious disadvantage and may be jeopardizing their academic success in that institution.

Although it is difficult to obtain attrition data from institutions, for obvious reasons, there is enough evidence in the literature to suggest it is a perennial problem in adult education in general, and distance education in particular. David Kember (Open Learning Courses for Adults: A Model of Student Progress, 1995) reports attrition data that range from 28 per cent to 99.5 per cent in distance education settings. Most recent data on attrition in traditional higher education from the American College Testing Program and the U.S. Department of Education indicates nearly a 27 per cent attrition rate from the Freshmen to Sophomore year at both state and private 4-year colleges. This represents a dramatic increase from 1983 when the rate was 2.4 percent. Tinto cites evidence to suggest that only 44 per cent of all entering college students persist via continuous enrollment in their original institution over a five year period. This is a 56 per cent attrition rate. Recently, newspaper reports indicated that the State of Indiana had attrition rates as high as 70% in some state institutions of higher education. Not long ago, I spoke with a former colleague, a Vice Chancellor in Student Affairs, at the University of Arkansas, and was told they were experiencing an 84% attrition rate over four years. Historically, distance education providers, whether theological or otherwise, have experienced higher attrition rates than traditional institutions. This is due in part to the "distance" and to the fact that the majority of students enrolled in distance education programs do so on a part-time rather than full-time basis. Given the present realities, when even traditional institutions are experiencing increasingly higher attrition rates, neither traditional nor non-traditional institutions can take comfort in current attrition rates.

A word of clarification about the terminology that will be used in this presentation and which is found in the literature. Attrition is a synonym for "drop-out" "student departure" or "student leaving" and refers to those who enroll in a course or degree program but never complete it. Persistence is synonym for student progress and is the opposite of attrition. It refers to student behavior whereby he/she continues to make "progress" through a course or degree program by remaining continuously enrolled. Retention refers to institutional efforts taken to keep students enrolled in a course or degree program.

Many studies have demonstrated a relationship between the provision of appropriate academic and relational support and a decrease in attrition rates both in traditional and nontraditional institutions. The most significant variables identified from these studies that contribute to student persistence are orientation experiences of various sorts, level of commitment to the institution, early faculty contact, academic support (sometimes referred to as developmental programs) comprising a variety of strategies, learner self-confidence and self-perception, and affective support that takes on a variety of forms but in essence provides emotional encouragement and motivation to persist in their academic endeavors (Turnbull, 1986; Tinto, 1987, 1990; Tallman, 1994; Gibson, 1996). As a result of this research, most traditional colleges now require freshmen orientation designed to alleviate some of the causes correlated with attrition and many have now hired full-time retention coordinators. The Afreshman year experience" is a major topic at seminars and workshops. The result of all of this attention is that most traditional institutions provide year long interventions during the first year of study. Taylor University, a private Christian college in Indiana, has required orientation and other retention strategies to address the problem of attrition, and now reports 89 per cent of their incoming freshmen return for the second year.

Personal variables such as personality, motivation, age, sex, and income level have not been shown to influence attrition rates in distance education (Alone But Together, 1995:53). In fact, Kember states flatly that "entry characteristics are not good predictors of final outcomes" (77). The one personal variable that has been shown to affect completion rates is academic ability. However, even this finding is found to be tenuous when more mature adult students from limited academic backgrounds are included in the sample (Kember, 72)

Another important variable for student progress is the impact of the part-time status of most adult students in distance education programs. Generally speaking, part-time students have higher attrition rates than full-times ones. The University of Southern Indiana reports that five years ago they had a four year attrition rate of about 70% when the majority of their student were enrolled on a part-time basis. Since that time, 95% of their student body is considered full-time and their attrition rate now stands at about 28% over four years. Studies conducted on student attrition have found external factors, in the sense that they are external to the institution but related to the life of the student, to play a significant role in student progress. With this in mind Kember notes that such "external factors become increasingly important when study is a part-time activity" (47). The most plausible explanation for this phenomenon is the lack of "collective affiliation" to borrow Kember's term or integration of the student into the life of the institution. Tinto's model of institutional departure as well as Kember's model of student progress, make provision for the integration of students into the community of the institution. Tinto comments in this regard that "the effect of institutions upon student leaving highlights the intricate web of reciprocal relationships which binds students to the communal life of the institution" (181). Those students who feel at home, comfortable, and accepted by the institution are more likely to persist than those students who feel alienated and alone.

While these issues I have just ticked off, certainly are valid and legitimate aspects of the problem of attrition in distance education, the most critical ingredient has been ignored: the majority of students who matriculate into a nontraditional, distant degree program come from traditional educational institutions. Given this reality we are confronted with a subset of derivative issues. Students in traditional classroom settings fail to learn (or more precisely fail to be taught) the essential skills of self-directed learning and learning how to learn so critical for academic success in distance education. In addition, as Malcolm Knowles has taught us, these same students enter with learner self-concepts shaped by the realities of a classroom experience that taught them to be dependent and passive, two potentially fatal learner attributes in a distance learning environment. As Malcolm put it so succinctly, "most of us only know how to be taught, we haven't learned how to learn." (Self-Directed Learning, 1975:14). These students who arrive at our doorsteps from traditional learning backgrounds are ill-equipped to handle the rigors and demands of study at a distance. Yet, we treat them as if all of their previous educational experience has somehow magically produced in them the requisite skills of self-directedness and the concomitant abilities involving the organizing of one's learning, time management, academic self-assessment, and so on. As part of the provision of adequate and appropriate institutional and instructional support, a distance education institution should assist new students to acquire and develop the skills of self-directedness and the whole range of learning how to learn skills required of those studying at a distance. This point was made quite convincingly in a study by Gibson (AJDE, 10.1:1996) on the relationship between academic self-concept and persistence in distance education. She observed that

Analyses of the data provide support for continuing a number of already-suggested,

although not widely used, practices. For example, a student orientation that introduces

procedures for learning at a distance . . . should be provided. Instruction in the process

of directing one's own learning and in study strategies also seems appropriate early

in a student's program (32-33).

Another study by Fjortoft (AJDE, 10.3:1996) found "a need for [distance] educators to help adult learners prepare for further study with self-assessment exercises and, possibly, learning-style inventories" (58). One of the most comprehensive distance learning retention programs was developed by Rio Salado College in Tempe, Arizona. Their three-pronged approach includes student assessment of learning needs, an orientation video, and a telephone contact program. They have seen about a 20% improvement in retention since the program started a few years ago (Open Praxis, 1:1997:30-33). I would anticipate that any institution instituting a retention program could expect similar results. But irregardless, the critical issue is not just improving attrition rates but providing a high quality academic program in a manner consonant with student needs. The most hopeful outcome of any retention program is that it improves the institution's delivery of academic services to its students in a humane and caring manner that is congruent with our theological beliefs and traditions.

The Proposed Model

The "Situational Academic and Relational Support in Distance Education" (SARSIDE) Model is proposed as a comprehensive framework to be used by distance education providers to guide the design and delivery of academic and relational support as well as specific courses and entire degree programs. The identified elements of academic support (institutional and instructional), relational support, and self-directed learning maturity interact with one another as presented in Figure 1.

A model is different from a theory in that the model is a pattern of observed processes and transactions. A theory posits the best possible way to account for evidence and attempts to explain why certain variables function as they do. A model describes what or how something is being done (descriptive) or should be done (prescriptive). Hersey and Blanchard explain the difference with this illustration:

For example, in trying to imagine why Henry Ford was motivated to mass-produce automobiles, you would be dealing with a theory. However, if you recorded the procedures and sequences necessary for mass-production, you would have a model of the process (1993:185).

The proposed model seeks to be prescriptive in orientation by suggesting components that should be put in place to enhance adult learning and facilitate degree completion in distance education settings of various sorts. It just so happens that my particular institution delivers theological education at a distance but the model could serve any institution regardless of mission, secular or religious, traditional or nontraditional. There is no reason to assume that the model could not have positive benefits for traditional institutions. I have served at the University of Arkansas as the director of a study skills center that was designed to enhance and promote academic support for first-year students, and this center was part of the university's overall strategy to improve retention. In reflecting on my service at the U of A, I am convinced that this model could be of enormous value as a conceptual tool in traditional institutions as well the distant education institutions for which it was designed.

Assumptions of the Model

The SARSIDE model makes the following assumptions regarding adult learners and distance education delivery:

1. Most adult learners enter nontraditional distance education degree programs with little or no experience with the distance learning delivery system.

2. Most adult learners enter a distance degree program with few if any of the essential skills of self-direction and learning how to learn already in place.

3. Self-directed learning and learning how to learn skills are essential cognitive abilities if an adult student is to succeed in a distance delivery environment.

4. Life circumstances (Aslanian & Brickell ' Atriggers and transitions"), beyond the control of the student and the institution, often play a major role in student progress.

5. Adult students grow and develop during the course of their degree program and this includes their skills of self-direction and learning how to learn. Let me elaborate just a bit on this assumption. This assumption is grounded in personal observation, research on adult development, and related research studies. In particular, Gibson (AJDE, 10.1:1996) found in regard to the attribute of academic self-concept among adult learners in a distance learning setting, that . . students' academic self-concept initially ranged along a continuum from positive to negative and then changed as students become more or less confident/competent during the course of their studies. Further, academic self-concept was multifaceted related to both the process and the content of learning within the larger context of learning at a distance. Most important, academic self-concept appeared to be a situational attribute of the learner, with specific institutional factors emerging as influences (30). This suggests to me that similar attributes or abilities, i.e., self-directed learning or learning how to learn skills, follow a similar trajectory across the educational lifespan of the student.

6. Adults who are given a proper orientation and support to the unique demands imposed by the delivery of education at a distance, will more likely complete their first course, first registration, and eventually complete their degree program and do so at a high level of academic excellence.

7. Distance education institutions need some conceptual framework to guide their provision of academic and relational support.

8. The institution does not impose time constraints on student learning so that the learner studies at his/her own pace.

Influences on the Development of the Model

The SARSIDE model has been informed and influenced in design by Hersey & Blanchard's "Situational Leadership Model" (1984); Pratt's "Variable Direction and Support Model" (1988); Smith's "Situational Instruction Model" (1989); Grow's "Staged Self-Directed Learning Model" (1991); Kasworm and Yao's "Stages of Teaching/Learning in Distance Education Model" (1993); Kember's "Model of Student Progress in Distance Education" (1995) and the theory of adult self-directedness propounded by Knowles (1975) and Tough (1979).

Hersey and Blanchard's Situational Leadership Model (see diagram), provides a useful conceptual tool for viewing and analyzing one's leadership style. The horizontal axis of the model emphasizes leader task behavior, while the vertical axis stresses leader relationships to subordinates. Four distinct leadership styles emerge from the convergence of these two variables in relationship to the maturity or skill level (from low to high) of subordinates which forms a continuum across the base of the model. Leadership style is situational in that it depends upon the maturity level of subordinates, which is presumed to grow and improve over time. As the subordinate matures (in a variety of areas), the leader's style of relating and tasking adjusts accordingly.

The Smith, Kasworm and Yao, and Pratt models, are educational variations on the Hersey and Blanchard leadership style model. Although Kasworm and Yao do not use the four quadrant approach of Hersey and Blanchard, the conceptual idea is similar. They propound a continuum of three stages from low learner autonomy and self-directedness to high learner autonomy and self-directedness (see diagram). Included in their model are task and relational roles for instructors and course designers that provide alternative way of tasking and relating depending upon the learner's ability to become more autonomous and self-directing. Obviously, the more autonomous and self-directing the adult learner becomes, the less structure, direction, and support provided by the instructor or institution. The benefit of the Kasworm and Yao model is that it was constructed with the unique needs of distance learners in mind.

The Pratt "Situational Variables Model" is more obviously dependent upon Hersey and Blanchard's model than Kasworm and Yao. The only difference in the diagrammatic representation between Pratt and Hersey and Blanchard is that Pratt labels his #1 quadrant in the top right hand section rather than the bottom right hand as do Hersey and Blanchard. Pratt's model reflects his desire to highlight the situational variables that prevail in adult learning settings. He defines situational variables as "those conditions which prevail during learning which cannot be considered personal, psychological attributes of the learner or teacher" (1988:162). According to Pratt, situational variables might include goals, content, time, cost, and audience size. He notes the role of external constraints from employers (i.e., recertification or ordination) as a situational variable that could have drastic effect on student preferences for instructional delivery. Consequently, adult instructors and course designers must be aware of the fact that adult learners may prefer more pedagogical or more highly structured learning experiences at times rather than more andragogical or collaborative approaches. Therefore, he proposes the adjustment of instructional delivery and stratagems in response to adult learner preferences and needs. The teacher would function in the role of leader in Hersey and Blanchard's model and adjust his/her style of teaching and delivery to meet the needs of the student as the situation prevails. While this model might work well in a traditional classroom environment where such adjustments can be made relatively easily, it becomes more problematic for distance education delivery systems that already have pre-packaged courses designed with a particular instructional strategy in mind. But the model is useful in that it supports our notion that the adult learner grows and develops in his/her skills as a self-directed learner and that consequently, adjustments must be made in the way in which instruction is delivered and academic support provided.

Smith's "Situational Instruction Model" has been proposed as a way to view instructional interaction in adult education. The model comprises instructional and content components conceived along a bi-polar continuum from low to high (see diagram), as well as a learner component that describes the "educational maturity of the adults" involved in the learning experience (7). The educational or learning maturity level of the adult student determines the appropriate teaching strategies and content level. The model recognizes the necessity of adjusting instructional delivery to the needs and abilities of the adult learner and offers, therefore, a highly dynamic view of the teaching/learning situation.

The Model and the Problem of Attrition in Distance Education

All voluntary educational enterprises are confronted with the problem of attendance. In some settings, the problem has more to do with identifying barriers that prevent participation in educational activities. In other circumstances, the issues are not getting people to attend but keeping them for the duration of the learning activity. Attrition rates tend to be significantly higher for nontraditional, voluntary educational activities than for other forms of education (compulsory traditional education). Let me assert at the outset, that in any discussion of attrition, the primary concern of any educational institution must be to provide a satisfactory learning experience for its students. Attrition or drop-out issues are by-products of our central concern which is to provide a quality academic experience for our students. If we are doing a good job at that, attrition usually takes care of itself and often does not surface as a major problem. However, if an institution focuses its attention solely on the problem of attrition and makes this its all-consuming concern, it will often lose sight of its primary responsibility and mission. The net result will be that the attrition problem, although of primary concern to the institution, will not improve because the more important things, that most dramatically impact attrition, are being neglected.

David Kember has proposed a "model of student progress" designed with nontraditional or Aopen" educational institutions in mind. Adapting Tinto's (Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, 1987) student integration model for explaining student leaving as his theoretical grounding, Kember has constructed a comprehensive model that is currently being used by some distance education institutions as the guiding light of their academic and institutional decisions. Kember describes his model as one that

. . . defines academic integration to encompass all facets of the offering of the course to the student by the institution . . . and any interaction between student and institution whether of an academic or administrative nature (43). He goes on to include in his model the component of Asocial integration" which refers to . . the degree to which the student is able to integrate the demands of part-time study with the continuing commitments of work, family and social life (43). He concludes that . . these redefined social and academic integration constructs can then be seen as complex variables which impinge upon student progress once a course has started (43).

Although there is much to commend Kember's model, the one glaring omission is any consideration of the student's self-directed learning and learning how to learn skills does provide a helpful taxonomy of leaving types that sharpen our ability to analyze the attrition problem. He divides students into one of several discreet persistence categories that are appropriate for distance education institutions:

non-starters ' those who enroll but never begin a course

informal withdrawals ' those who started but stopped working on a course

formal withdrawals ' those who started but requested formal withdrawal

academic failure

those who pass a course but do not enroll or complete another course

those who pass and enroll for a subsequent course

those who transfer to other institutions

The proposed SARSIDE model, seeks to focus attention primarily but not exclusively on non-starters and informal withdrawals since they are perceived to be the students most in need of academic and relational support. Institutional and instructional behaviors in Quadrant # 1 of the SARSIDE model are targeted primarily toward new students and non-starters. Quadrant # 2 academic and relational behaviors are targeted primarily to informal withdrawals, who have started a course, by submitting a lesson, but have not completed the course and received a final grade. In both cases, the model assumes, the student suffers from a lack of skills in self-directed learning and is therefore unable either to know where to begin or how to continue. It is expected, that as a result of an institution's aggressive action as depicted in the model, attrition rates will improve.

As Kember shows, the largest percentage of non-completers in distance education are non-starters. These are students who never submit their first lesson for grading. Here we have a student who has taken the initiative to contact a school, inquire as to its degree programs, concluded that what that school has to offer he/she wants or needs, makes application and pays a fee, selects a program of study and enrolls in that program, paying all or part of the tuition, and receives the course materials, and then does NOTHING! The really nagging question is "why?" Why did this student enroll to begin with! And why has he/she not made any obvious effort to begin what he/she clearly committed to both financially, emotionally, and in most cases spiritually. These are known factors, for many of our students tell us that they enter our programs out of a real sense of God's call on their lives and ministry.

Based upon my experience working with adults over the last twenty-five years, my personal interaction with adult students in distance education, and a review of the literature of attrition in adult distance education, I have concluded that the primary barrier to beginning and completing a course or degree program at a distance is a skill barrier. It is not a matter of motivation because these students enter with a high degree of motivation and expectation. An institution cannot get the materials to them quickly enough to suit them. They are eager to begin and get on with their studies. But something happens between the time their course materials are received and the time they should have submitted their first lesson. Consequently, motivation is affected by a lack of direction and knowledge. It is at this stage that most students are confronted with the reality of distance education. What do I do now! Where do I begin? How do I make sense out of all this? I had no idea it would be this much work!

The typical distance education students, who have taken all or most of their previous education at traditional institutions, are not well prepared to handle this reality. They have not been sufficiently equipped to handle the demands now being placed upon them by the distant delivery system. Now, possibly for the first time in their life, they must take the initiative for their own learning, know how to do their own learning organization, plan their own schedule, pace themselves, and hold themselves accountable for whether or not a lesson is done today or tomorrow. Previously, all of these learning tasks had been the responsibility of the faculty member and all the student had to do was show up and follow directions. All of a sudden, the traits of dependency that served this student so well in a traditional setting, now become as a major inhibitor to student progress in a distant learning environment. Consequently, students confronted with this reality most often conclude that they are not cut out for distance education and quietly shove their course materials over in the corner or set them on a bookshelf never to be opened again!

Students in this situation are in desperate need of institutional intervention in order to avoid being another statistic. The primary form of this intervention, at this stage of student need, is to provide the necessary learning skills required of distant learning students. Students who have learned how to be dependent learners can also learn how to be independent and eventually interdependent learners. It is a skill issue that has very little to do with academic ability, personal variables, and motivation. Therefore, early on in a student's enrollment, the institution needs to provide direction and guidance regarding the acquisition of learning how to learn and self-directed learning skills. I will present more about how we do this within the confines of the model in due course.

The Model and Relational Variables

Anyone who has served in academia can attest to the fact that the process of learning and study is not a purely intellectual endeavor. Social, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and relational variables also play a vital role in understanding all facets of the academic experience. The SARSIDE model recognizes that certain relational variables, that is, various forms of social interaction and support, can and do play a significant role in student persistence. Social or relational dynamics can include a wide array of social interactions and relationships from informal phone contacts with administrative staff to prolonged mentoring relationships with faculty. All of these combined, provide a psychological scaffolding most students need to engage in academic endeavors. As our model suggests, students display varying needs for relational and academic support. Those students who need it most can have it made available to them at those critical moments of the degree completion process.

Components of the Model

The SARSIDE model assumes that most adult students enter the distance education experience with few skills in the craft of self-directed learning and with an external locus of control. By external locus of control, I mean the psychological state in which students perceive that persons and events external to themselves have a dominant influence over the course and direction of their life. Since new students (quadrant # 1) entering distance degree programs have little or no experience in distance delivery systems, they are in need of greater amounts of academic guidance (high direction) and to a lesser degree emotional support (low relationship). As adult students acquire greater facility in self-directedness (high learning skill maturity), resulting in greater student autonomy and academic interdependence (quadrant # 4), they require little if any academic guidance (low direction) or emotional support (low relationship) since the motivation for self-directedness and locus of control have been internalized.

The "situational" aspect of the model is suggested by the one word descriptors provided for each quadrant that reflect the institution's or the instructor's attitudes and behaviors toward students as they develop more learning competencies across time. Adaptation to the growth experienced by adult learners as they develop more learning facility, is essential since the level of learning maturity determines one's institutional or instructional "style." As in the Hersey & Blanchard Model, leaders adapt leadership style to the growing maturity of subordinates, so too teachers and administrators must adapt their style of relating to the student and allow the growth of the student to dictate the nature of the relationship between all parties involved. The model is a practical reflection of what we experience as parents. In fact, the Hersey & Blanchard model has been used quite effectively in parent education. Parenting style adjusts and changes to the increasing maturity of children. The kind of controls and expectations you had of your children when they were four and five, should not be the same when they become teenagers. As parents, we tend to back off and enlarge the parameters for decision making, acceptable behaviors, curfews, and privileges extended. The same principles apply to the teacher/student relationship. The reason parents change their parenting style is because the child matures and displays competencies and skills essential for citizenship and adulthood. The reason teachers and administrators need to adapt their relational style is because adult students continue to mature and grow in the same ways as children grow and mature over time.

The "guiding" style of providing academic and relational support offers the novice learner as much institutional and instructional direction as the student can handle and absorb. The relationship at this stage would be more akin to a trail guide who is not so much concerned about establishing a relationship with you as he/she is in getting you safely through rough terrain. The guide does a lot of pointing and directing but very little time is spent getting close to and emotionally engaged with those being led.

The "clarifying" style is akin to the coaching relationship in which a great deal of teaching takes place along with a high level of emotional and affective support and encouragement. Good coaches are usually good teachers and great motivators. Lou Holtz, Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Rick Patino were all outstanding coaches. What made them great was the combination of teaching and motivation skills whereby they were able to instruct their players in the fundamentals of the game and then get them emotionally ready to play on Saturday or Sunday

The "encouraging" style of providing academic and relational support is akin to a cheerleading role. Cheerleaders stand and jump around on the sidelines offering emotional motivation to players on the field. When an instructor or institution provides relational encouragement, they recognize the student has mastered most of the skills essential to academic success in a nontraditional setting, but may need more nurturing and cultivation than direction and guidance. The type of relationship described here was illustrated in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. At the age of 34, Carl Lewis, the premier U.S. track and field star was competing in his last Olympics. When the games were over, he had won his ninth gold medal, this time in the long jump. In August, 1996, as the athlete was being interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS, Lewis shared with Rose that the critical ingredient in his Olympic was the emotional support provided by his coach, family, and friends. He had the technical aspects of his sport mastered, but what he needed was just enough emotional support to keep him focused and motivated to compete.

The "monitoring" style is a laissez-faire approach that appreciates the fact that mature adults who are competent and skilled at learning are no longer in need of close "snoopervision." Our confidence in their abilities is demonstrated by the fact that we allow them a great deal of autonomy. At this stage both academic support and relational support are at a minimum and provided only as needed and requested by the adult learner, or as warranted by institutional constraints (graduation procedures, and so on). The instructor or institution Amonitors" but does not become proactive unless the student makes the request.

The model recognizes and expects this growth in learning maturity and so depicts it as one of four points of self-directedness along a continuum from dependent to interdependent (bottom line of the diagram). Those adult learners who need various forms of academic support can access that support as it is needed. None of the support scaffolding (academic or relational) is imposed upon the student. Students, no longer at a dependent stage of self-directedness, can ignore the support prompts and focus their attention on specific areas of need, whether they are at an independent or interdependent stage of self-directedness. Students who need more relational and emotional support than they do academic support can access those services and contacts that facilitate their own learning needs. The model does not lock a student, teacher, or administrator into assuming that everyone will enter a distance education degree program with the same academic and learning skills. It may be that a student who enrolls should be treated as an SD 3 learner and can by-pass many of the support scaffolding provided in Quadrant # 1. Students are able to assess their own level of self-directed learning skill by taking the Competencies of Self-Directed Learning: A Self-Rating Instrument, constructed by Malcolm Knowles. Students take this as part of the Learning How to Learn Orientation provided when the enter a Trinity degree program. The results of the inventory place the student at one of the four points along the continuum.

Quadrant # 1 High Academic Support

Institutional academic support at this stage of the adult learner's distance learning experience will take the form of an Orientation to Adult Self-Directed Learning designed to be used supplementally or taken for credit. Although the Orientation is not required, significant academic incentives are offered to prompt students to request the materials. For instance, students who choose to take the orientation for credit can receive academic credit and have their degree core reduced regardless of degree program.

The Orientation materials consist of a booklet, audio tapes, and a workbook. The Orientation to Adult Self-Directed Learning covers such subjects as "Becoming a Self-Directed Learner," "Learning How to Learn in Distance Education," "Learning Across the Lifespan," "Developing Nontraditional Learning Skills," and a final section about how to navigate our institution's system of distance delivery, "Navigating the Trinity System." In addition, students will be given the opportunity to take several inventories and self-assessment instruments designed to facilitate their awareness of present learning skills. The cassette tapes provide an audio presentation of the booklet and workbook with elaborations, illustrations, and step-by-step instructions for taking inventories and self-assessment instruments.

The Orientation materials are designed to overcome the inertia typical of non-starters in distance education programs. The assumption of this model is that the strategies employed by a distance education institution will enable and empower students to overcome this entrance inertia created by a lack of self-directed learning skills. Once the skills have been identified and a means to acquire them provided, students have the opportunity to "get over the hump" and get started on course work with a new appreciation and understanding of what is required of them in our particular nontraditional delivery system (Navigating the Trinity system). Students may take the Orientation as part of a Regional Seminar experience, which I will say more about shortly, or they can take the Orientation at a distance through our normal delivery mode. In addition, we make summary excerpts of the materials available in a Study Skills Section of our Virtual Campus on CompuServe. Students who encounter learning difficulties or wish to take self-assessment inventories may access this site. If they conclude that they need more help they may request further assistance and contact can be made online or by phone.

Instructional academic support also takes the form of a specially designed study guide distributed with each course in which the student is enrolled. The adult learner friendly study guide applies principles of self-directedness and adult learning theory to its structure, format, design, and content. Existing study guides do not need to be revised by instructors because the new piece has been designed as a template that can be superimposed over any existing study guide. The new study guide template provides prompts, information, direction, expectations, and other pertinent pieces needed to give a new student as much direction and support as possible in written form. The element of choice provided in the modular format of the Trinity study guides, enables an adult student to select those assignments in a given course that are most consonant with their preferred cognitive/learning style while at the same time accommodating differentiation by degree levels. Selectivity of course assignments, provides students with the privilege to choose their own form of experiential application of the subject matter to which they have been exposed in the first two modules, required of all students at all degree levels, thereby, providing students the opportunity to shift the locus of control from an external to an internal orientation.

Along with these proactive engagements with the new student, it is at this stage where the student would be informed about instructional support provided in the form of online and phone seminars for selected courses in their degree program. The online and phone seminars provide a much needed opportunity for student/faculty contact and student/student interaction, often missing in most distance education, especially print-based delivery systems. Daniel Eastmond (Alone But Together, 1995) in his book on facilitating adult distance learning through computer-mediated technologies, notes that "computer conferencing individualizes distance education as no other medium can" and allows both instructor and student to take a more active role in the learning process, thereby improving Kember's notion of "collective affiliation" and enhancing student satisfaction. An Online/Phone Seminar Handbook guides faculty members through the process of designing and implementing their own seminars for courses in their respective departments and disciplines.

Upon enrollment, new students are made aware of our Regional Seminar option which provides not only a way to expedite degree completion but also provides a more "high touch" experience for those students who prefer to learn in a more social environment. The Regional Seminar brochure informs new students of the locations and course offerings at selected sites around the world (United States, Great Britain).

The Regional Seminar experience is intended to accomplish several objectives. First, it reduces the "transactional distance" described by Michael Moore as the psychological and geographical communication gap that exists between teacher and student in distance education (see Eastmond, 145). Second, it provides an alternative learning style for those students who prefer to learn in more social and interactive settings. In other words, the offering of the Regional Seminar option is prompted from a desire to accommodate divergent learning styles rather than assuming that distant education students are homogeneous. Third, it establishes rapport and relationships between staff/faculty and students who attend. Fourth, it enables busy students to concentrate a period of study away from the typical distractions they may experience in their everyday environment. Fifth, it provides students an opportunity to accelerate their degree program by finishing off course requirements through the imposition of an artificial deadline. We impart the expectation that the majority of the additional course requirements be completed prior to the student's attendance at the seminar event itself. Although students are not penalized for failing to do this, the vast majority do so simply because it has been set forth as an expectation. Another positive benefit of the Regional Seminar experience, not envisioned at the time of its inception, has been the way in which the experience has validated the credibility of our institution in the eyes of our student's spouses and colleagues.

Each student is also sent a copy of the Student Handbook which details a range of institutional support services and policies that will be important for the student to know and understand if they are to successfully navigate their new degree program.


Quadrant # 1 Low Relational Support

Although we strive to provide the highest academic support needed by a novice distant learner, the need for high emotional support is relatively minimal at the beginning. While we still try to convey a sense of warmth and acceptance, (especially at the time of recruitment and enrollment!) we are not overly concerned, at this early stage of the student's self-directed learning maturity, to provide a "warm fuzzy" overly nurturing environment. The overriding need at this stage of the student's learning development is for direction and a maximum of academic support. There is less need for warm mentoring relationships with faculty. The relational support at this stage is limited to friendliness, cordiality, and a caring politeness intended to grease the social mechanisms of first encounters. Anything beyond this would tend to interfere with the need for clear and unambiguous directions and guidance. The adult's greatest need from the institution as this stage is information, direction, guidance, and clear instructions regarding enrollment processes, course assignments, and lesson grading procedures.

Upon enrollment, a new student also receives an official letter and/or a phone call of welcome from the Dean of his/her department. The letter/call is designed to introduce the Dean and other faculty and to provide the new student with additional pieces of information they may need to access Departmental or institutional services. The letter informs the student about the peer mentoring option available to those students who request it. We have found that some students enjoy and appreciate having a mentor assigned to them, others resist this effort and prefer to go it alone. Those student who choose to access our peer tutoring program, are assigned another student, preferably in their degree program, who will get in touch with them and serve as a friend and guide to help get them started and oriented from a student perspective. In addition, we also offer the services of Trinity students who serve as Directors of Distributed Learning Centers. The Centers are located throughout the United States and around the world and are staffed by a trained Trinity alumnus or older student who provides academic guidance and tutorial study support to those students who express a need for this type of academic intervention.

Quadrant # 2 High Academic Support

As the student becomes familiar with a particular institution's system and requirements, and as they acquire the essential skills of self-directedness, and as they feel more confident about their academic abilities, especially if they have been out of school for any length of time, the approach taken by the providing institution must adjust to the learning skill and personal growth that has taken place in the student.

For a time, the same high level of academic support and supervision will need to continue as the novice adult learner develops greater facility with the newly acquired skills of self-directedness. At this stage, Trinity will be especially concerned to highlight the role of adjunct faculty and course assessors as they interact with students submitting lessons, papers, and exams. Efficiency and speed whereby course assignments are graded and returned in a timely manner are of utmost importance. One of the advantages of computer-mediated instruction is the increased turnaround time for lessons submitted and graded online. Peter Cookson's review of persistence studies found that completion rates rose dramatically when correspondence course turnaround was reduced by several days. The lower attrition rates in computer-mediated instruction (10% in one study) may be due to this factor (see Eastmond, 93). The need to capitalize on the student's high level of motivation and excitement is paramount at this stage. Unnecessary and undue delays caused by long turnaround times for grading lessons and papers, will dampen the student's enthusiasm and interest that has been so carefully cultivated during the initial phase of entrance and orientation. The Trinity TriadC which is comprised of faculty, continuous adjunct faculty, and course assessors-- becomes critical at this stage of the student's progress and can have a powerful influence on promoting further growth and continued academic success of the student.

Instructional support can be highlighted at this stage in the form of a greater emphasis on research resources, especially in regard to our Online Research Librarian. Although primarily designed with computer technology in mind, the services can also be accessed via fax and phone for those students who are not online. The Research Librarian can provide students with guidance and direction in locating and accessing research resources available on electronic databases and traditional forms of hard copy literature.

Quadrant # 2 High Relational Support

As noted earlier, Kember and Tinto both indicate in their models the strategic importance of personal affiliation between the institution and the student. Students who persist feel as though they are valued members of the institution's academic community. In short, they have a sense of belonging and acceptance.

The institution, which is represented by its staff and faculty, will now need to continue high levels of academic support and direction, but couple it with greater affective and relational support. The role of faculty and course assessors, not only includes the grading of assignments but must also involve the verbal and written encouragement needed by students at this stage of their academic and personal development. Kember refers to this attribute of "pastoral interest" in describing the relationship between faculty and students and advises that "Even a few friendly words can mean that students will be prepared to contact a person" at some later time as the need arises (204). Peer mentors, if they have been assigned, can provide valuable affective support and encouragement for the student's academic progress at this time. Part-time students, who are full-time ministers or professionals, may sense a feeling of being overwhelmed by work-related demands and course requirements. Their need for continued academic direction does not diminish their need for personal attention and the perspective of one who has gone through the process and survived to tell about it.

Relational support may take the form of phone calls, letters, E-mail messages, or handwritten notes on returned assignments. Staff members can play a vital role in providing this kind of support by offering a word of encouragement as they handle more institutional concerns. The institution and its staff must be attuned to the emotional needs of adult learners at this critical stage of their academic progress and go out of their way to be sensitive and caring while providing needed direction and guidance. Kember highlights this dimension of our model when he suggests that, Warmth, interest and perceived competence will contribute towards a sense of belonging. Coolness, tardiness in responding, bureaucratic indifference and incompetence will all have a negative impact which is often not perceived by those responsible for engendering it (204).

The bottom line is this: the greater the contacts and communications between student and school, the higher the rates of persistence (Kember, 206). At a more practical level, it seems most beneficial if a student can have regular contact with one staff member or faculty rather than multiple contact persons. This gives the student the sense that they have an advocate within the institution who is watching out just for them and taking care of their needs in a personal and professional manner. Although my experience took place in a traditional campus environment, the principle is still the same. During my graduate work at Michigan State University, I had one staff member in the Department of Higher Education, Geneva Speas, who served me in this capacity. She was the secretary to my major professor. We developed a very friendly and cordial relationship. Whenever I inevitably had a problem with the enormous bureaucracy of a state university with 40,000 students, Geneva would come to my rescue and guide me through the process, often getting special considerations and directing me to just the right people and greasing my entry with a phone call or note. She not only saved me a lot of headaches, frustrations, and delays, but she also saved me a lot of money by making a special provision so that I did not have to pay out-of-state tuition rates when I moved to accept a faculty position but was still paying for dissertation credits. These kinds of relationships, although transpiring at a distance, can still prove beneficial and rewarding to the student.

Quadrant # 3 Low Academic Support

At this stage of the adult learner's learning development, there is less need for intense academic direction since it is assumed that the adult learner has acquired a significant arsenal of academic and learning skills enabling them to function effectively as a an independent, self-directed learner at a distance. Although the academic support presented in quadrants # 1 and # 2 are still available, they are not offered as aggressively as they might have been early on, when the student's learning needs were greater. At this stage all the adult needs are gentle nudges in the direction of self-directedness since the momentum has already been generated by the array of services and supports offered and accessed earlier in the new degree program.

Quadrant # 3 High Relational Support

Whereas the need for high academic attention has diminished by this stage in the adult's learning development, the need for emotional involvement continues at a high level. What the adult needs most at this stage are words of encouragement from both faculty and administrators. He/she has mastered a significant array of learning abilities and is functioning at an acceptable level of academic performance. However, there is still a need to be affirmed by those who are held in such high esteem by the student. Approval for what a student is doing academically is needed to encourage the student to continue a course of action in which they have invested heavily at all levels of their personhood and studenthood. Commitment to the institution and its faculty and staff becomes a critical factor at this juncture of the adult's journey toward degree completion, as does the students own personal commitment to the goal of degree completion. Many studies of retention in higher education and participation in voluntary organizations, have demonstrated that level of commitment plays a vital role in extent and duration of participation and involvement. The consensus of the educational and sociological literature on this subject is clear: the greater the level of commitment (as measured objectively and subjectively), the higher the rates of participation. By providing high levels of affirmation and encouragement, the institution and its representatives, help foster and facilitate institutional commitment. (This proves to be very helpful later on when you come to them with your hand out asking for a donation to your endowment program!)

I think another need for strong relational support at this stage of the process is because most students are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel and begin to think they are actually going to complete their degree. I have found that students at this stage of their programs really need someone from the institution to come along and say "Keep on truckin" "keep up the good work" "don't quit now" "the agony is almost over," "hang in there." This kind of affirmation encourages the student to persist and get over that final hurdle and reach degree completion.

Quadrant # 4 Low Academic and Relational Support

Since both academic and relational support are equal at this stage of the model, it seemed logical to address them together rather than separately. The model assumes that at this stage the student in a distance education program has acquired the requisite skills and competencies, and received the necessary affirmations to function as an interdependent adult learner. Consequently, there is little need for either academic or relational support. This does not mean the institution withdraws and leaves the student to function alone but simply reduces the extent to which services and relationships are highlighted and aggressively offered. The student is capable, at this stage, of determining for his/herself what help and direction they need from the educational provider. They have learned to take responsibility for their own learning. We have by now created an environment in which a student has been allowed to flourish and grow academically and personally to such an extent that they require little support and direction. In effect, they have been academically weaned and are capable of feeding themselves when and where they are ready to be fed. The institution now functions in the role of parent-provider who offers well-stocked shelves of food for the adult student to access when they are hungry, anytime, anyplace, day or night.



The intent of the SARSIDE model is to guide instructional and academic support activity in a coherent fashion while facilitating self-directedness and academic interdependence in adult students unfamiliar with the demands and expectations of the nontraditional distance delivery system with the intended outcome of degree completion. Any institution can "fill-in-the-blanks" of the four quadrants and identify specific strategies and services that can be provided to match the level of appropriate academic and relational support simultaneously cognizant of the adult's level of academic and learning maturity. The model enables institutions and even individual instructors to organize and plot the variety of strategies that may already be in place but which have no guiding or coherent master plan. By adopting such a model, distance education institutions increase their own student services efficiency while enhancing the academic performance and learning outcomes of its students.

Trinity College & Seminary's





High Personal Relation:

* Peer Tutor Relation continues

* T-Delta Forum contacts continue

* Personal relationship with Dissertation

Chair begins to develop

* Closer contact with Department staff

* Easy access to faculty and staff

* Regional Seminar contacts maximized

* Continued use of audio feedback tape

* Initial contact about Alumni Association

Low Academic Support:

* Beginning contact with Dissertation Chair

* Beginning contact with Committee

* Contact initiated by student

* Prompts regarding status of Registration

(Computer generated letters)


High Academic Support:

* Peer Mentor Match-Up

* Trinity Triad

* Research Librarian Services

* Course Assessor Feedback and Reaction

Through detailed evaluation form

* Contact with Faculty member

* Online Seminars by Department

* Rapid Lesson Response

* Regional Seminar Option Encouraged

High Personal Relation:

* Initial relation with Peer Tutor

* Personal contact from Department

* Personable contacts with Trinity staff

* Participation in T-Delta Forum

* Participation in Online Seminar

* Use of Audio Feedback Tape


Low Personal Relation:

* Peer Tutor fades out

* Dissertation Chair relation remains stable

Low Academic Support:

* Graduation details finalized

* Lesson grading & Comps

* Closure to dissertation process


High Academic Support:

* Streamlined Learning How to Learn

course for academic credit in any degree

* Student friendly Materials Pack

* First Course Packet

* Adult Learner Oriented Study Guides

* Informational contacts from Staff

* Academic Troubleshooting Unit

* Six Week Check-Up

* Online Seminars by Department

* Rapid Lesson Response

* Detailed Evaluation Response&Feedback

Low Personal Relation:

* Letter from Dean

* Contacts initiated by student as needed


4 3 2 1

Select Bibliography

Case, Patricia S. and Elliott, Betty (1997). Attrition and retention in distance learning programs: problems, strategies and solutions. In Open Praxis 1: (30-33).

Eastmond, Daniel V. (1995). Alone But Together: Adult Distance Study Through Computer Conferencing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Fjortoft, Nancy F. (1996). Persistence in a distance learning program: a case in pharmaceutical education. In The American Journal of Distance Education 10 (3): (49-59).

Gibson, Chere Campbell (1996). Toward an understanding of academic self-concept in distance education. In The American Journal of Distance Education 10 (1): (23-36).

Harasim, Linda et al (1995). Learning Networks. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Hersey, Paul and Blanchard, Kenneth H. (1993). Management of Organizational Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kasworm, Carol E. and Yao, Bing (1993). The development of adult learner autonomy and self-directedness in distance education. In Bruce Scriven et al, eds., Distance Education for the Twenty-First Century (77-89). Queensland, Australia: International Council for Distance Education and Queensland University of Technology.

Kember, David (1995). Open Learning Courses for Adults: A Model of Student Progress. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Knowles, Malcolm (1975). Self-Directed Learning. New York: Association Press.

Smith, Douglas H. (1989). Situational instruction: a strategy for facilitating the learning process. In Lifelong Learning 12 (6): (5-9).

Tinto, Vincent (1987). Leaving College. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tough, Alan (1979). The Adult's Learning Projects. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Turnbull, William W. (1986). Involvement: the key to retention. In Journal of Developmental Education 10 (2): (6-11).

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