The Journey to a Research Question

When I signed up to help plan Dalhousie’s Orientation Week the summer after my first year of university in 2009, there was no part of me that thought orientation was about to become a career.

When I created a summer communication plan for incoming students at Saint Mary’s University in 2014, there was no part of me that thought I would be doing the same thing for two other post-secondary institutions over the next five years.

When I challenged my Canadian student affairs colleagues, in early 2016, to “step back from the first six weeks [of the term] for a minute, and consider the last six weeks [before new students arrive]” (Crozier, 2015, p. 14), there was no part of me that thought my entire job would eventually become focused on those last six weeks.

I did not know it at the time, but all those things have, in fact, been pretty pivotal events in my life that have led me to where I am today, doing the work I am doing, and asking the questions I am asking.

Where I am today

I currently work for the Office of Student Life at the University of Victoria (UVic), where my job is focused on developing and implementing an online orientation program for incoming students at UVic. Our goal is to help students understand what to expect, know what resources and services are available to support them, develop a few strategies for success, and overall feel more prepared and confident about starting at UVic (University of Victoria, 2019).

Essentially, my job is to help students prepare for and be prepared for university. Since these students are not on-campus, or even in Victoria, yet, the only way to do this is online, using various forms of technology. So the online orientation program was born.

All the questions.

For the last several years, I have been interested in how we share information and educate in online spaces. Instead of simply using social media to promote our educational events, can we also use the platform to help meet the goals of said educational event? Instead of a webinar that is simply one person talking for 45 minutes or more, can we add in interactive components as well? How can we move away from creating boring videos as a solution to boring text, and create something truly engaging instead?

Those are the questions I was constantly asking even before I was hired to design an online orientation program. Now that I am in this role, many of my thoughts, questions and research have started to coalesce around one main question: How do we create an impactful online orientation program?

“How do we create an impactful online orientation program” is not a search you can just throw into Google. There is not very much (if any) research that specifically answers that question or provides a framework or guidelines. So, the question then branches off in dozens of different directions, creating what seems like hundreds of additional questions:

  • What are the best practices for online learning?
  • Do different types of content (i.e. text, video, interactive) have a different impact on learning and/or engagement? How so?
  • Do online learning best practices change depending on the target age group?
  • How do we maintain student’s attention in a distracting online world?
  • Is it better to have all the content available from the beginning, or release content throughout the summer?
  • How much time will students put into the program or an activity before their attention wanders off?
  • Is there a difference between online learning, in terms of a 12-week academic course, and online training, focused on specific skill-based topic?
  • What order should content be presented in?
  • Are students more likely to start at the top and complete activities sequentially, or jump around to what interests them the most?

Research does exist for many of these questions; I simply need to figure out how this research applies in my specific context. This means that the research-based content I am looking for to help inform my work seems to be both everywhere, and nowhere, all at the same time.

Beginning the research

This “everywhere but nowhere” conundrum was one of the reasons I was excited when we read The 5 R’s for Indigenizing Online Learning: A Case Study of the First Nations Schools’ Principals Course (Tessaro et al., 2018). Reading about the process that someone else went through in designing an online program, and hearing what worked and did not work for them, was both helpful and validating.

When I then found a study looking at how an online information literacy module in a first-year experience course impacted student success, it seemed right on target. So, I dove in.

Studying library instruction in the learning management system (LMS)

The study, Supporting Student Success in the First-Year Experience: Library Instrcution in the Learning Management System, was conducted at Nevada State College (Marineo & Shi, 2019). The Nevada State library, in an effort to promote the use of the library’s resources and teach basic information literacy skills, such as knowing what to search for and how to evaluate sources, had been partnering with first-year experience (FYE) courses to run in-person sessions for years. However, recognizing that rapidly growing student populations, as well as an increase in online and distance learners, were stretching resources to their limits, the library designed an online module, hosted within the LMS, that could teach basic information literacy (Marineo & Shi, 2019). They then went a step further and conducted the study in question to evaluate the impact and success of the online module.

In their paper, the researchers outlined five specific research questions and looked at many different variables. However, at its core, the study was looking whether the online modules and library use impacted student success, defined as semester grade point average (GPA), one-year retention and academic standing (Marineo & Shi, 2019).  

The study looked at 374 students, mostly first-year students, enrolled in 11 different sections of a FYE course. Five of the 11 sections used the online module within their course LMS; three of those sections also had in-person instruction sessions about library usage. This created three subject groups: those who received online instruction online, online and in-person instruction, or no instruction (Marineo & Shi, 2019).

The study findings turned out to be quite favourable for the library. Students who completed the online library module performed significantly better on a research assignment than students who did not complete the module, and also had a higher semester GPA (Marineo & Shi, 2019). The study also found a positive relationship between: library use sessions and research assignment grade; research assignment grade and semester GPA; number of library sessions and one-year retention; library use sessions and good academic standing; research assignment grade and one-year retention; and research assignment grade and good academic standing (Marineo & Shi, 2019).

Essentially, the study found that the ability to do good research and library usage were both positively correlated with student success. Completion of the online library module helped students to do good research and encouraged use of the library’s resources, and therefore, it can be argued that the modules supported student success.

Reconnecting to my work and my question

In concept, the information literacy module created by Nevada State College is very similar to the modules we have created within our online orientation program. They are hosted in within an LMS, they are trying to teach a specific concept, and their goal is to impact student success. The paper may not have answered any of my design questions, as they provided no details on how the module was set up, how long it took, what type of content it delivered, or student feedback, but it did provide valuable insight in a few other areas.

First, the questions that they ask in the research study are also questions that we could easily be asking about our program: Is it resulting in the behaviours we want? Is it impacting student success, including semester GPA, retention, and academic standing? Those answers do not exist for my program yet, as we have only just launched the program for the first time, but this paper has given me a good framework for asking and answering some of those questions.

Second, this study has really driven home the importance of our choices around learning outcomes and content. There are lots of different things that we could cover in the program. However, by identifying the behaviours, skills and knowledge that have the largest impact on GPA and retention, and focusing our content to influence or teach those behaviours, skills and knowledge, we have the greatest chance of impacting student success.   

With that in mind, there is so much research out there that could influence this program.

My area of interest and my research question remains simultaneously specific and vague: How can we use technology to help students prepare for university, how can we create an impactful online orientation program, and what are all the things we need to know in order to make those things come true.

The answers are out there. I just need to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

Featured image by Lauren Sutherland, UVic Office of Student Life


Crozier, N. (2016, Spring). The Last Six Weeks. Communique, Fall 2015, 15(3).

Marineo, F., & Shi, Q. (2019). Supporting student success in the first-year experience: Library instruction in the learning management system. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 13(1–2), 40–55.

Tessaro, D., Restoule, J.-P., Gaviria, P., Flessa, J., Lindeman, C., & Scully-Stewart, C. (2018). The five R’s for Indigenizing online learning: A case study of the First Nations Schools’ Principals Course. Retrieved from’s_for_Indigenizing_Online_Learning_A_Case_Study_of_the_First_Nations_Schools’_Principals_Course.

University of Victoria. (2019). Pre-Arrival Program. Retrieved from

Additional Academic Resources

Dalal, H. A., & Lackie, R. J. (2014). What if you build it and they still won’t come? Addressing student awareness of resources and services with promotional videos. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 8(3–4), 225–241.

Dicheva, D., Dichev, C., Agre, G., & Angelova, G. (2015). Gamification in education: A systematic mapping study. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 18(3), 75–88. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Dumford, A. D., & Miller, A. L. (2018). Online learning in higher education: Exploring advantages and disadvantages for engagement. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 30(3), 452–465.

Etherington, N., Baker, L., Ham, M., & Glasbeek, D. (2017). Evaluating the effectiveness of online training for a comprehensive violence against women program: A pilot study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 00(0).

Istrate, O. (2017). Lessons learned from developing online training for humanitarians. Knowledge Management & E-Learning: An International Journal, 9(4), 419–432.

Kahn, P., Everington, L., Kelm, K., Reid, I., & Watkins, F. (2017). Understanding student engagement in online learning environments: The role of reflexivity. Educational Technology Research and Development, 65(1), 203–218.

Montgomerie, K., Edwards, M., & Thorn, K. (2016). Factors influencing online learning in an organisational context. Journal of Management Development, 35, 1313–1322.

Shapiro, H. B., Lee, C. H., Wyman Roth, N. E., Li, K., Çetinkaya-Rundel, M., & Canelas, D. A. (2017). Understanding the massive open online course (MOOC) student experience: An examination of attitudes, motivations, and barriers. Computers & Education, 110, 35–50.

Additional Non-Academic Resources

Blogs: E-Learning Heros, Shift E-learning, Science of Learning, E-Learning Guild, Design for Performance

Twitter handles: @Shiftelearning, @pattishank, @elearningheros, @cpappas, @michelledmoore, @salinaskim, @solangelalonde

Twitter chat: #GuildChat

Nicole Crozier

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