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Strategies to Improve Retention: Part One

Strategies to Improve Retention: Part One

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.



While the issue of retention has been getting a lot of press recently, the concern of retention has actually been around for a while. University administrators have been monitoring retention since the late 1800’s and researchers have been conducting studies on retention since the 1920s and 30s.

Online administrators have been focusing more on retention lately because retention numbers can be an important factor in resource allocation at institutions, and many times retention numbers are needed for regional accreditation self-studies and site visits.

I would also say that arguably the most import reason to monitor and study retention in our online courses and degree programs is to help ensure the success of our online students.

It can be challenging to give recommendations on retention strategies because of the great variability that can exist in the quality of online instructors and course design, academic advising, technical support, and overall student support services, to name a few.

However, I’m going to give it a try. Here are six ideas that can help improve retention in online courses and degree programs at your institution.


1. Employ early alert systems to identify at-risk students.

Early alert systems can be used both in individual online courses and in online degree programs to identify students who might be struggling or who need additional attention. For courses, these systems could be used to identify students who are not being active in the early stages of a class or who are performing poorly on course assessments. For programs, these systems could be used to identify students who are not making acceptable academic progress towards degree completion. In either case, an early alert system could lead to appropriate intervention to help students get back on track academically.


2. Promote consistency in course design and navigation.


Offering online courses that have a consistent look and feel can increase student comfort levels. Consistency can be demonstrated in a number of ways, such as the design of a course; making it clear to students what they should do to get started; using hyperlinks from a general content area so students can easily access discussion forums; dropboxes for turning in assignments, exams, etc. At my institution, we provide an online course template in our LMS for faculty to use as they develop online courses. Also, be aware that using multiple publisher platforms can be challenging for students as these platforms often look very different from one another.

3. Understand the importance of instructor presence.


Instructor presence has a positive impact on retention rates in online courses. One of the most frequent complaints I hear from online students is that they don’t feel as though their instructor is involved and engaged in their course. Instructors can enhance their online presence by allowing students to hear their voice (using podcasts) or see their face (using videos). Podcasts and videos could be used by an instructor to give an orientation to a class, to introduce themselves to their students, and to explain challenging course information and content. Other ways to promote online presence might include responding to student questions within an appropriate time frame, participating in online discussions, and providing timely and meaningful feedback on course assessments.


4. Consider higher admission standards.

Being more selective about who is able to sign up for an online course or enroll in an online degree program has the potential to improve retention rates. At some institutions, students interested in taking a single online course can apply with a streamlined non-degree-seeking application, as opposed to the institution’s normal application process. Other items that could be considered during the admissions process might include GPA’s for previous degrees earned, scores on standardized achievement exams, documentation of computer literacy skills and a requirement of professional work experience prior to being eligible to apply to a program.


5. Promote internal and external factors that improve success for online learners.

Studies have revealed that internal factors such as time-management skills, self-efficacy, self-determination, and a student’s overall level of commitment to succeed can impact success in online courses, which could in turn impact retention. Many of these internal factors can be tested for or measured, and information to help students improve in these areas can be shared by an instructor or a program director. Additionally, external factors such as having reliable computer access and supportive family and work environments can influence persistence in online courses and degree programs. My advice would be to make students aware of these internal and external
influences early in their online experience, so that they can take steps to improve them.|


6. Use orientations in online courses and programs.

Student orientations are becoming much more commonplace in online education. Many instructors create course-specific orientations in which they share information on things such as the learning management system used in the class, the course syllabus, due dates for activities and assessments, the availability of tutoring services, netiquette, general course-related expectations, etc. Orientations at the program level could include information related to registration, advising, the curriculum, academic standards, successful program progression, student support services and graduation. Again, these orientations are a great way to enhance faculty presence and can help a student get started on the right foot.

It has been my experience that online administrators sometimes shy away from the topic of retention. This might be due to fear (of uncovering negative statistics in your online program, for instance), to a general lack of awareness of the types of retention metrics that could be monitored, or any number of other reasons. If you are not measuring things such as drop rates and persistence rates in online courses and attrition rates in online vs. face-to-face programs, I encourage you to start now. It can lead to improvements in the overall quality of the online courses and degree programs you offer.

Be sure to catch next month’s column, as it will include more strategies to improve retention.