5 Effective Ways to Increase Student Retention Online (and On Ground)
Updated: May 5
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle
One of the challenges facing colleges and universities today is student retention. Higher education institutions spend a lot of time and resources recruiting students. But once enrolled how do we make sure students become successful and complete their program of study on time?
As educators, we are positive, optimistic, lifelong learners and believe that ALL students can achieve success but not in the same way, which is why we use different ways to teach, think, and communicate. We empower students with the tools to become accountable and responsible for their learning so they may achieve their full potential.
I'd like to share five science-based strategies for increasing student success:
"Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed no hope at all." - Dale Carnegie
Research on student retention shows that students have a need to belong and be part of a learning community. The feeling of belonging is a human need and applies to all people. Therefore, to pursue knowledge and develop a growth mindset students must have an environment that creates this feeling. Effective educators create learning environments for students to dream more, learn more and be more.
"The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explain. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires." - William Arthur Ward
Online teaching requires a different set of skills than on-ground teaching. Without proper training and support, online teachers, just like online students, may feel alone, overwhelmed, and disengaged. Over the years I have participated in countless training seminars, developed and presented various professional development on teaching and learning and here is a list of a few of my “best practices” that I use in my own classes in both environments, online and on ground, and have resulted in high student retention and persistence rates.
Course setup and ready to go at least a week prior to course starting date. We lead by example so having the course ready, nicely organized and easy to navigate show students that we are highly professional, detail-oriented, efficient, on time, and we expect the same from them. Add a video welcome and let your personality shine - I bet students would appreciate it.
First Impression Matter- I send a “Welcome to the course” class email or a video a few days before the first day of class. I always try to create excitement and I tell students that they are about to embark on an unforgettable learning experience. Working together and helping one another results in a win-win outcome.
Welcome every student to class on the first day and every day during the first week. I always try to connect with my students on a personal level. I tell them that "I am here to help you achieve your goals. I have been in your shoes, I have taken online classes, experienced all the challenges and more and there is nothing to fear as long as there is dedication, persistence, and commitment to achieving your academic goals." I make it clear that if I could do it, they can do it – "the only limitation is in the mind." I also post my bio so they learn more about me and they can also learn how to write their own.
Interaction on the discussion forums. Students love to interact with their peers and the Instructor. I usually use the sandwich constructive feedback approach and always try to be aware of how students perceive my feedback. Perception is reality so it's important that we learn about our students and how they perceive the world. Instructors who are actively engaging with their students have much more success with student retention.
Respond promptly to students’ concerns or questions. I developed a Q & A document and posted on the discussion forum. Every class I collect questions and update the list. This approach results in fewer and fewer phone calls, questions, and frustrations, which means that students can find an answer on their own. After all, I want them to be in control of their education and to solve problems on their own.
Use technology to connect. I use videos, voice over, video chat live, and screen cast to introduce topics that may be difficult for students to comprehend. I use it to explain assignments and other concepts. I use it for feedback and for motivation and encouragement. Videos feedback adds a human touch to it and students love it and respond very positively to it. I am also doing YouTube and plan on getting better at it.
Grade on time. First, do explain how assignments will be graded. For instance, in one of my short video clip I “show” no just tell what I am looking for when I grade an assignment. I introduce the rubric and ensure student understand how to use it when they complete their work.
Send an email or post an announcement weekly with motivational quotes or reminders about assignments coming up. I love to use empowering messages to inspire students, it takes a minute but it could change lives. Here is an example of a student's feedback:
Call students if they missed work. Sometimes a one-minute phone call is all it takes to convert a student from close to dropping out to actively participating and completing the course. Yes, we all want people to care about us and students are no exception.
Late work policy, I usually work with my students if they encounter unexpected circumstances that prevent them from submitting work on time. Life happens and we need to be aware and accommodate our students when there is a sound reason for it.
Have fun. Learning is supposed to be fun, empowering and exciting for both, students and instructors. I tell students that as long as they focus on expanding their knowledge and developing a lifelong learning mindset then they should not worry about grades or passing the class because most likely they will.
One last thing – send a “Farewell” letter during the last week of the semester. I thank students for the journey and all the things we shared and learned together. I remind them to always work toward achieving their goals, to never give up because that’s too easy and to ask for help. No one achieves success by themselves. We all need support and encouragement from time to time.
3. Interaction between Student and Institution
Consistent interaction between the Instructor and the student is imperative to student retention. The same is true about the interaction between the institution and the students. First, we need to acknowledge that there are many people involved in a student’s online learning experience. From recruitment to admission, to financial aid, to academics, computer support, every office on campus needs to understand the role they play regarding online learners. However, the Instructor has a unique opportunity to make a change and help those who needed most. Do not hesitate - go for it and change someone's life today.
4. Institution’s Culture – Environment
In my research dissertation on the relationship between selected variables and timely graduation, the primary institutional variables that students reported as most important were administrators’ interest and availability to listen to students’ concerns, faculty responsiveness to students’ needs, quality teaching and timely feedback. I create positive, safe learning environments so every student can share their ideas and do their best work.
"Students learn what they care about from people they care about and who, they know, care about them."- Barbara Harrell Carson
Student demographics are changing, especially for online learning as many students work different time schedules, have families and other responsibilities, all of which require that institutions offer schedule options and support during the weekend, and deadline extensions in order to meet the needs of distance learners.
BONUS - Enthusiasm and Belief in human potential. If and when we lose the enthusiasm, passion, and the belief in what we do then it's time we change careers.