December 7th, 2012

Online Student Retention Strategies: A Baker’s Dozen of Recommendations


Despite the tremendous growth of online education programs, student retention for online courses remains problematic. The attrition rate from online universities is often cited as 20% to 50% (Diaz, 2002). Studies also reveal that attrition from online programs can be as high as 70% to 80% (Dagger, Wade & Conlan, 2004).

With startling percentages of students leaving online educational programs, the question becomes “What should an institution do to encourage, inspire, and retain students in its online educational programs?” The responses will vary; however, there is no denying the importance of the foundation course. The foundation course is a student’s first taste of online learning and therefore must provide students with a positive learning experience. To help ensure a successful first experience, I offer this baker’s dozen of recommendations.

1. Online foundation classrooms need to remain as centers of encouragement where the professor’s enthusiasm is contagious. It is critical that students experience encouragement, support, and affirmation. The foundation course professor needs to extend a deep respect for each learner and hold each learner accountable for respecting his or her peers.

2. Professors need to maintain a learner focus of support as the needs of students in the foundation course will greatly vary. An effective learner focus includes, but is not limited to, constructive recommendations for improvement, meaningful academic challenges, and consistent grading practices.

3. The responsiveness of the professor to his or her students’ needs is critical. Emails, telephone calls, and all other responses to students’ questions, needs and interests should be responded to within 24 hours. All students’ inquiries need to be welcomed and encouraged by a professor’s open door, open mind, and open heart.

4. Empathy needs to be extended to learners at all times. The empathy and understanding that professors extend to their learners needs to be based upon research with regards to topics such as adult learners, brain research, and multiple intelligences. In addition, students in foundation courses need to be provided a meaningful and relevant education based on current knowledge and skills where theory is integrated into practical applications.

5. Oftentimes our online students are not traditional, full time students. They have careers, families, and additional responsibilities that compete for their time. It is during that initial course that students are learning how to balance all of their responsibilities. Support of each student is critical.

6. Foundation course professors need to understand that adult learners have their own unique learning needs, interests, and preferences. The pedagogy for an adult learner is unique and professors in the foundation course need to individualize, differentiate, and personalize their teaching to the needs of their adult learners.

7. The foundation course professor needs to be aware of the learning curve that many students are enduring. Some students are learning how to navigate the online classroom for the first time and their experiences are often challenging, frustrating, and, at times, overwhelming. Processes, procedures and personnel to support these students need to be provided by the professor and institution.

8. The instructor’s daily presence and participation in the online classroom is critical to helping students learn, gain confidence, and feel secure in their new and sometimes foreign environment.

9. Faculty need to be mindful to always communicate in a supportive, professional, and set a positive tone. Communication pathways should include email, telephone, teleconferences, webinars, Skype, and audiovisual communications implemented within the online classroom.

10. The foundational course professor needs to demonstrate a positive, proactive, and caring disposition at all times. Humor may be implemented in a supportive manner; however, professors need to ensure that their humor is appropriate and welcomed by students. When in doubt, leave humor out.

11. The development of an online learning community is particularly beneficial to learners in foundational courses. The professor needs to clearly establish the online learning community as a place of respect. The support that students receive from their peers and professor in a learning community often results in empowerment, efficacy, and enthusiasm for learning.

12. The professor, along with each student, needs to honor and celebrate diversity of thought. The foundational course needs to be established as a “safe place” where learners feel confident and comfortable in sharing opposing views and challenging thoughts.

13. The foundational course instructor needs to work closely with advisors in support of his or her students. Confidentiality and privacy need to be maintained and students need to feel assured that their rights are protected.

The foundational course provides opportunity for students to gain confidence and competence in their online learning. It is also where they learn about the expectations and standards not only of this first course, but of their programs as a whole. It is essential that these students feel supported and encouraged.

Dagger, D., Wade, V. & Conlan, O., (2004), “A Framework for developing adaptive personalized eLearning”, E-Learn 2004, World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare and Higher Education, Washington, D.C.

Diaz, D. P. (2002). Online drop rates revisited. The Technology Source. Retrieved May 3, 2012, from

Michael Jazzar is the founder of Educational Service & Consulting and has extensive experience teaching online.