July 8th, 2013

A Dozen Strategies for Improving Online Student Retention


Online student retention is one of the most critical components for the success of any college or university. The key to a successful online retention program is the realization that student retention is everybody’s job.

The main objective of a well-established online retention program is to maintain a student’s enrollment and to keep him highly satisfied with the level of education he is acquiring in an online environment. This is not an easy task since there are many reasons why a student might need or want to withdraw or leave the program of study.

Below are a dozen strategies for improving online student retention for administrators and faculty:

  1. Make a good first impression. The first day of class should be both welcoming and informative. The instructor should create a welcome letter with a few details about herself and the course and have students introduce themselves as well. After students post their introductions in the discussion board, the instructor should respond to each and every student. These first-day activities help set the tone for the course as a community of learners.
  2. Never underestimate the importance of instructor presence. Providing students with immediate feedback and being highly visible in the classroom and online threaded discussion boards will improve the online experience for learners.
  3. When grading student assignments, it’s best to provide constructive recommendations for improvement that are highly motivating and encouraging. It’s easy for attempts at humor to fall flat or words to be misinterpreted in the written word, so be sure reread your comments before hitting submit.
  4. Answer all questions posed by students in the faculty forum section within 24-48 hours, and communicate this feedback window to students so they know what to expect. A student could be encountering a discouraging issue or a personal emergency that could lead him or her to withdraw from the program, so a timely response is critical.
  5. Make students feel they are a part of the program by letting them know how important their contribution is to the class. One of the most important factors impacting retention is whether students feel they belong to part of a larger community, which can affect whether they continue on a course of study or drop out (DeVries and Wheeler, 1996; as cited by Ludwig-Hardman and Dunlap, 2003).
  6. Let students know they were missed when they return from being absent. This gives awareness to the student of how important they are to the class, that their classroom contribution was greatly missed, and that you’re aware of their absence.
  7. Practice proven adult learning principles and strategies in the classroom. For example, students should perceive that the goals of their learning experience are directly related to their own personal goals. Also, their learning experience should be organized around what they see as relevant to the “real world.” The student is provided with self-directed and independent learning activities. The faculty should ensure that the learning environment is characterized by mutual trust and respect, freedom of expression, and acceptance of differences.
  8. Introduce collaborative learning techniques in the classroom. The famous Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978), who contributed to the later formation of constructivism, theorized that students learn more effectively in a collaborative environment where they can share their ideas and experiences.
  9. Engage students by hosting live webinars. In addition to the classroom experience, introduce a variety of career skill topics that will provide students with learning tips and other strategies that will help them in the future.
  10. Establish an early alert system. Identify and assist underperforming students who are at risk. Recommend to the students to seek assistance with the appropriate support staff.
  11. Help students establish specific goals for attending the program and each course. At the very beginning of the course, in the announcement section, the instructor should establish the course expectations. This ensures the students know early on what is required of them for a successful completion of the course. If the student does not meet their weekly goals, the faculty should contact the student and remind them of the course goals and help to get the student back on track.
  12. If you’re an administrator, be sure to involve faculty in student retention matters. Because faculty have the most interaction with students, they serve as a tremendous resource for helping improve online student retention and success.

Dr. Al Infande is the online human resources lead faculty at Columbia Southern University in Orange Beach, Ala. He also serves as a professor at several colleges and universities where he teaches courses in human resources management. He can be reached at al.infande@columbiasouthern.edu

DeVries, Y. E., and Wheeler, C. (1996). The interactivity component of distance learning implemented in an art studio course. Education Indianapolis, 117, 180-184.

Ludwig-Hardman, S., and Dunlap, J. (2003). Learner Support Services for Online Students: Scaffolding for success. Available at http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/131/211. Accessed February 28, 2013.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • I was quite skeptical after reading the first sentences of the first two paragraphs, which seem to indicate that "retention" in and of itself is "one of the most critical components for the success" and that the "main objective" of retention programs should be keeping students enrolled and satisfied. I object to the sentiment that these sentences seem to communicate, the sentiment that having lots of students in itself, independent of whether or how well they are learning, is not only a worthwhile goal for colleges and universities but the most important goal.

    Those who hold to that view either naively assume that if students are in college they are learning or cynically don't care about the fact that many students who are in college are not learning much. At any rate, to have enrollment as the highest priority is a direct contradiction of most college and university's mission statements, which proclaim more lofty purposes.

    But after reading the whole piece, these opening statements seem neither naive nor cynical but simply, in my view, poorly stated. Unless, perhaps, they were intended to draw in those who do hold the view I've objected to. Why do I say that?

    Because the tips themselves are wonderful tips: not just for retention but for teaching—and not just for online teaching but for teaching everywhere. They are not just "tips" either, I think. They represent a holistic learning vision, where teachers and students are connected to one another in pursuit of mutually valued learning goals.

    I think that the discussion would benefit from some commentary (and citations) to the following effect, which, I think, get at the what these "tips" are really about:

    Retention should be thought of not as valuable in and of itself and not merely as a means to financial ends for an institution but rather as part of an educational mission.
    We probably are not educating and definitely cannot educate students who are dropping out.
    Students are more likely to remain in school when their teachers are practicing those things that are also most likely to help them learn in deeper ways. (At least, I believe that research exists that shows students who are really learning are more likely to stay enrolled. But I don't have any citations on hand. Does anyone have some they could point us to?)
    We need to make sure to prioritize retention strategies that are also educational strategies or, at least, that work along with effective teaching, while refusing those approaches that conflict with the educational goals of the university.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

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  • I would definitely concur with Paul that retention cannot simply be the bottom line.

    When people take online courses, most educators automatically assume that retention is completely reflective of the quality of the course and the satisfaction the students are receiving. This is not necessarily the truth. There are actually many kinds of people who take online courses, and since educators for the most part do not even bother to question their target demographic (online students) or study them, (except for a few who take this seriously like MIT), they make the erroneous assumption that retention is the sole metric they should be after. For a for-profit institution backing an online learning program based on per-head completion, yes this would be their personal bottom line. But as educators seeking to understand and purposefully interact with students, of course not. Students are not cattle, they have individual drives and motivations for doing what they do, and the behavior of them joining an online course is only the tip of the iceberg, which consists of their motivational drives for doing so.

    Not all students who take online courses, and most in particular, free ones, participate for the same reasons. Their reasons for joining vary. Some just take online courses like candy for leisure. Some intend to supplement their existing knowledge, or coursework actually being done in their own chosen educational environment. Some actually intend to learn and finish the course. Some are even fellow educators, some are high school students wanting a taste of higher ed. There are many people taking these sorts of courses with many different motivations.

    Phil Hill, an ed-tech analyst has identified 4 tentative demographics from among course-takers, I invite you to check his observations out here: http://mfeldstein.com/emerging_student_patterns_i


    Scott Beasley

  • Dr. Michael Babula

    This is a most interesting article which is likely to spark debate.

    I would like to render a few comments on Paul Corrigan’s post. It appears that Paul has committed a traditional straw man logical fallacy (i.e. misrepresentation of another’s position).

    Let us state the original argument. Dr. Infande holds that retention is important. Paul has interjected that Dr. Infande is holding this position because it is important for institutional revenue, and then, Paul attacks the position he has crafted for Dr. Infande’s article.

    Dr. Infande’s article is clearly focused on enhancing the benefits to students’ personal experiences in the learning process rather than institutional gain. This is especially true when he discusses the importance of constructivism.

    I believe we need to stay focused on Dr. Infande’s actual recommendations and position because they are well grounded in constructivist theory to help the students. This is much more important than inserting some random position into Dr. Infande’s theory in order to advance some alternative agenda.

    • In turn, Michael, I feel you've misrepresented my position regarding Al's position. 🙂 Maybe you've not read carefully and/or maybe I've not written clearly.

      In terms of one key specific detail, I don't anywhere say that Al values retention for revenue. Instead, I credit him for focusing on things that contribute to learning.

      (Tangentially, would anyone argue that revenue is not important?)

      More importantly, in terms of the overall purpose and direction of my comment, my comment offers limited criticism and substantial praise for what Al has written. While I do attack a certain view of retention, I specifically note that this view is not Al's view.

      Paul T. Corrigan
      Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

      • Dr. Michael Babula

        Interesting response Paul 🙂

        The implication in your message of wanting to open debate about whether "Retention should be thought of not as valuable in and of itself and not merely as a means to financial ends for an institution but rather as part of an educational mission" attempts to form a nexus between the first few lines of the article about retention and the institutional drive for profit.

        It was not clear in the initial comment that you were separating your attack on a view of retention from Dr. Infande's first few sentences. I am happy with your clarification to separate out your view. You are correct in assuming later in your quote that Dr. Infande likely set up the first few lines so as to highlight retention efforts that benefit the students' experiences.

        Let me be clear. I do not necessarily disagree with your desire to open a debate about the quote that I have highlighted above. However, I would like to see you write an independent article about it. I would argue (using Deming, 1986) that the objective of any given institution should not be revenue maximization. It is promoting teamwork to meet a given mission to reduce retention in advancing the quality of students which are produced at that institution. Financial gain would follow from following Deming's TQM strategies. Although there is a lot of literature about Deming's TQM strategies and higher education, we have yet to witness higher education institutions in the United States fully adopt Deming's theories.

  • Mary S. Palmer

    This was most informative. I find that participation at all levels helps students learn to express themselves and makes them feel part of the group. I also like to remind them of connections to their own lives. It's also good if they introduce themselves to each other. If they feel comfortable in a class, they are much more likely to do well.

    Thanks for the input.

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  • Antonio L. Ellis

    I enjoyed reading this article!

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