Instructor Strategies to Improve Online Student Retention

Student retention is an ongoing challenge to online educators. While there is great variation in retention rates across programs and institutions, online retention rates tend to be significantly lower than those in the face-to-face environment. However, not all online educators struggle with student retention. Kari Frisch, a communications professor at Central Lakes College, has consistent retention rates of around 95 percent in her online courses, which include interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, mass communication, and online social networking. In an interview with Online Classroom, Frisch talked about the factors that she believes help her achieve such high retention rates.

Consistent, strategically timed deadlines. Frisch has two deadlines per week: Wednesday and Friday at 1 p.m. By having the deadline during regular work hours, students will be more likely to contact Frisch or support staff if they need help as they are working on their assignments. The assignments that are due on Wednesday tend to be smaller (and worth fewer points) so there is less of a time crunch.

Here’s a typical student comment on this approach to deadlines: “I liked the way deadlines were set up for the class. Having a deadline on Wednesday and Friday really encouraged me to work hard and to be engaged during the week. It works well because then people won’t wait until the very last day of the week to do class work.”

Week-by-week access. Frisch does not grant students access to the entire course at the beginning of the semester. Rather, she opens one unit per week to prevent students from working too far ahead of each other. “It also helps them from getting too overwhelmed by the cumulative amount of work given during the semester. Work is perceived as more manageable—more doable—when you’re only seeing what’s due one week at a time,” she says. Opening each unit at 3 p.m. on Fridays gives students a weekend at the beginning of the unit to get work done, “instead of at the end to procrastinate.”

Variety. At the beginning of each course, Frisch has students do a learning styles assessment so she is aware of how each student learns best. She also uses assignments and activities to match each learning style. “I tell them, ‘I’m going to try to offer assignments that match your learning style, but that also means that there are going to be some assignments that don’t necessarily match your learning style,’” she says.

In addition to using a variety of types of assignments to address different learning styles, Frisch strives for variety in presentation of course content, including videos of her interviews with experts in the communications field. “The students love that. When they can hear my voice asking the questions or see me in the video, it’s one degree of separation. … I was scared I was talking about myself too much, but the students have reported that one of their favorite things they get from the classes is being able to experience things on a personal level,” Frisch says.

The interviews give a variety of perspectives and convey Frisch’s and the interviewees’ strong interest in their disciplines. “We all have stories that we can share. There is something in all of us as instructors—that spark, that passion—that made each one of us go into the disciplines we did. I think sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that or get so overwhelmed or so overworked that we forget that,” Frisch says.

The effect of the videos is often reflected in student comments, such as the following: “I enjoyed watching about these events rather than reading about them. I feel it gives them more impact and absolutely helps me connect more with the concept. The personal touches make it easier to connect with you as a person.”

Surveys. Frisch uses surveys to understand the students’ experience with the course. When she started teaching online, she did weekly surveys, asking the following types of questions: What did you think of this assignment? How much time did you spend on this assignment?

She has since gotten away from weekly surveys and now does one midway through the semester and one at the end. She asks students to rank assignments according to how valuable they felt those were. She also asks the following questions to get students to think about how much work they’re putting into the course: How many chapters did you read thoroughly? Did you skim the majority of chapters? Did you read about half of the chapters and skim the rest? Did you read the chapters completely and take notes as you were reading?

She then asks the following questions: How often do you check your grades? Do you know what your current grade is in this class? Are you content with your grade? If you’re not content with your grade, what might you do between now and the end of the semester to improve your grade?

These questions tend to get students focused on their performance rather than on complaining about how difficult the course is, Frisch says. “I was half expecting some of the answers would be pointed toward me—‘You give us too much homework’ or ‘You have too many questions on the quizzes’—but I found that students realize they have to put in more time and not procrastinate. They self-identify things instead of pointing toward me, which is a great thing.”

Classmate questions. In each course, Frisch has her students post questions and answers to nonacademic questions. The following are examples: If you could change one thing about the way society is today, what would it be and why? If you could meet one fictional character, who would it be and why?

These questions build community and may help deepen the content-related discussions that occur throughout the course, Frisch says.

Excerpted from Online Classroom, 12.6 (2012): 1,8.