Strategies to Improve Retention: Part Two

Strategies to Improve Retention: Part Two

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

Last month’s column covered six strategies to improve retention in online courses and degree programs. They were:

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


      2. Promote consistency in course design and navigation;


      3. Understand the importance of instructor presence;


      4. Consider higher admissions standards;


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


    6. Use orientations in online courses and degree programs.

Feeling confident that you are making significant strides in the six strategies mentioned above, I would like to provide six more suggestions that can have a positive impact on retention rates.

1. Provide strong technical support services.

Don’t underestimate the impact that supporting students’ technical needs can have on their overall experience in online courses. It is important that instructors include technical help information in their syllabi, or at minimum, provide contact information for where that help can be accessed (e.g., phone, email, chat). Consider providing students a frequently asked questions document related to technology questions. These questions often become apparent after an instructor has taught online course two or three times.

Online students often engage in their courses in the evenings and on the weekends, so if possible, provide technical assistance to students during these times. Instructors sometimes overestimate students’ technological skills, and if sufficient support is not provided in this area it can be a major source of frustration for students!

2. Make academic advising a priority for online degree students.

The literature is clear that providing high quality academic advising services to students positively impacts their progression in, and successful completion of, degree programs. However, sometimes the advising services available to online students don’t equal the services available to face-to-face students. If this is something you haven’t looked into lately at your institution, I would encourage you to contact your advising center and have a discussion about it. Do distance-education students have as ready access to advising services as on-campus students? Can students access advising services via the phone, email or Skype? It is good practice to assign students in online degree programs an academic advisor, to communicate with them regularly, and to provide them with regular academic progress reports.

3. Strive to make course content relevant to students’ lives and future careers.

I completed my undergraduate degree over 20 years ago, but I still remember some of my favorite instructors, and why they were my favorites. One thing they had in common was making the content in the courses I was taking relevant to me. They showed me how the things I was learning had a direct impact on my life and/or future career. This is an excellent teaching strategy to enhance student interest and engagement in a class and thus positively impact retention.

Here is a great example: Recently, I was reviewing a graduate online course for an instructor at my institution, and the final project in her class assigned students the task of creating training modules they would then implement at their worksite (students in this particular online program were all working adults). Students loved having a course project that helped solve a particular real-world problem or concern where they worked.

4. Have more support and touch points for older students.

Studies show that retention rates for older students are lower when compared to their younger counterparts. There could be a variety of explanations for this. For example, older students might face more challenges juggling work, family obligations and their schooling. I can barely manage to keep up with my job and my three children; I couldn’t imagine adding academic coursework to my life!

Also, students who haven’t been in a classroom for several years sometimes struggle to keep up with technology requirements in the world of online education. However, knowing these factors might enable academic advisors or other student support professionals to plan for and provide more support for older students, such as sharing strategies on how to balance work/life/school, and communicating with them more regularly to ensure they receive the help and support they need.

5. Ease the pain of a gap in enrollment.

There are multiple reasons students may need to take a break from their academic pursuits: illness or a medical reasons; taking care of an elderly parent; having a child; getting a promotion at work and being transferred to a different state; or maybe, as in my case, pursuing my dream of becoming a country music singer. (That one never materialized.)

If a gap in enrollment does occur for a student, there ideally should be a re-entry process that is clear and not labor-intensive. If you don’t know what that process is at your institution, I’d encourage you to find out. The admissions office or the office of records and registration usually handles these re-entry cases. Having this information upfront can be especially important for older students, who can sometimes be less than enthusiastic about having to jump through lots of hoops to get re-enrolled in school.

6. Find ways to connect students with each other and the institution.

Facilitating social connections and enhancing a sense of community among online learners, whether at the course, program, or institutional level, can have a positive impact on retention. Within courses, this can be accomplished by having a virtual “student lounge” or “student cafe” for social interactions. Having students work together on collaborative group projects or conducting peer-evaluations on course activities, can also foster social connectedness.

At the program level, I’ve seen social media used effectively (e.g., creating a Facebook group for all students in a particular cohort) to keep students, who might live hundreds or even thousands of miles from each other, connected and engaged. Sometimes distance learning students miss out on events that occur on campus, such as entertainers, distinguished speakers or even commencement ceremonies. Live-streaming these events to online learners is a good strategy to help them feel more connected to the campus community.