Clear pixel

Instructional Design
Work-Based Learning
Work-Place Relevant
TOP Codes
Skills & Technology

Clear pixel
Image Clear pixel Image
Clear pixel
Home About us Contact
Student Retention

By Jenny Falloon
Adjunct Faculty, Santa Rosa Junior College
Business Office Technology Department

    Tools for improved Student Retention Online

Table of Contents

Student Retention is an important issue for distance learning educators, as it is for face-to-face instructors.  We all have a natural desire to see that the students who begin our courses follow them through to fruition.  Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen.  The following is from an article in the April 1999 issue of NetFuture:

The dropout rate for Internet-based, distance education classes is said to be 32 percent; the conventional classroom rate is 4 percent.  Under the most obvious misinterpretation, those are dramatic figures…. The online dropout rate stands to be much higher once you separate out the Net-focused courses and look at the use of the Net in teaching the core curriculum.

How Compelling Is Distance Education?

           These figures come from one of 300 studies of distance education courses reviewed by the Institute for Higher Education.  Obviously, not all courses experience such bleak drop rates; nevertheless, as instructors in a new medium, it behooves us to do everything possible to help students attain all the benefits of distance learning by completing our courses.  What can we do?   A good place to start is to look at some typical reasons for dropping:  

  • "I'm afraid I will need to drop this class.  … I'm feeling overwhelmed."
  • "I was having problems at home and couldn't get to the computer. I can only access through work."
  • "My back went out due to a car accident last year."
  • "I have not kept up.  My schedule has been very hectic. I've missed two assignments."
  • "I finally got the book yesterday."
  • "I was out of town for over a week due to a death in the family."
  • "I have not been able to access the course in a timely fashion.  I have fallen behind."
  • "I want to continue …  realize how far behind I am … it is challenging being a single mom."
  • "I am unable to find my way around in the course and get confused too easily."
  • "After undergoing immense surgery two weeks ago, my computer crashed again this last week."
  • "Unfortunately, my workload has interfered with the time set aside for this class. For the past few weeks I have been pulling 60-70 hour work weeks and have barely had time to sleep five or so hours.
  • "I am not sure if I am actually in the class, since I never heard again."
  • "I cannot figure out how to download the disks. The directions are not clear."

           Clearly, ineffective time-management and/or competing responsibilities are the chief impediments to successful completion. Real life intrudes. There is not much can do about this. One thing you can do, however, is warn your students what they are getting into.
Top Top


           Studies show that distance learning works best for students who are:  

  • Highly motivated
  • Independent
  • Active learners
  • Well organized, able to manage their time well
  • Self-disciplined
  • Able to adapt to new learning environments

      A May 2000 report on a survey of 200 distance learning practitioners found:

Over 85 percent of respondents reported that particular kinds of students perform better in distance learning than others.  Many noted that successful distance education students must be highly motivated, and found the practice more problematic for younger, less-motivated students. Some emphasized that distance education students must have strong written communication skills; that cyberspace coursework may be more difficult for students whose personal learning styles depend heavily on visual and verbal cues. Finally, many respondents stressed the importance of students receiving good advance information; too many students, they believe, begin distance education courses under a false impression they are easier and less time consuming than traditional courses. 

Distance Education: Guidelines for Good Practice, The Higher Education Program and Policy Council of the American Federation of Teachers (Emphasis added.)

          Warn your students – before the course begins – about the level of commitment and motivation needed to succeed online.  Below is a list of suggestions made by instructors based on their experience and, where applicable, examples of the courses or text used:
Top Top

Tips and Techniques - Before your Class Starts

Courses/ Sample Text/Links

Make sure your Welcome page includes:

  • Estimated weekly time (gleaned from past student surveys)
  • Attributes of the successful online learner
  • Links to Learning Styles questionnaires (see below)
  • A warning that online courses are not "easy"; substantial work is required.

Example 1

Example 2

Have students check their distance learning readiness with an assessment tool.

Example 1

Example 2

Include a page or site with previous students' comments about the experience of taking classes online and your course in particular.  There is nothing like the words of other students to put things into perspective and to encourage!

Example 1

Example 2

Provide a sample of a typical online student's day; this will get students thinking about effective time management. Include this link with your introductory e-mail greeting and/or your Welcome Page

Example 1

Have students read about different learning styles and take a Learning Styles Questionnaire. Most students have never thought about learning styles; this will increase their sense of their own responsibility in the online experience.

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Suggest students buy The Distance Learner's Guide.  Chapter 5 is particularly useful for its coverage on what it means to be a "distance learner," and the book includes lots of practical information on distance learning.

Personal Barriers to Success in Distance Learning

 Top Top

          This is before the course. What techniques have instructors used to maximize retention once the course is underway

Tips and Techniques – Once the Course is Underway

Courses, Sample Text, Links

Find a place – homepage headers are good – where you will regularly post important announcements; use a different font and/or color.  Advise your students of the importance of this location.

Example 1: "Assignment B5 is due by Friday, 8 p.m."

Example 2:

"Read Chapter 3 by Sunday." 

Organize bulletin board fora into meaningful categories so students can be selective in reading and avoid bulletin board "burn out"


Create study groups of four or five students.  Study buddies help each other get through difficult times and develop a learning community.


If a student is having technical problems, contact her personally and attempt to walk the student through the difficulties.

Telephone Support Program ... Student Empowerment

If your institution provides technical support for online students, provide the e-mail addresses of support personnel.


Let students know if you track them and e-mail those who haven't accessed the course recently and/or have missed a deadline.  Personal contact from the instructor is often decisive in retention.

Sample text:  "I notice you haven't access the course recently, and I am concerned …"

Be consistent with deadlines. Some instructors feel tight deadlines are essential to keep students moving through content and maintain coherent discussions.  Others feel deadlines drive students away and run counter to the flexibility of distance learning. Stick to your plan.

Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task

(Note Principle 5 discusses procrastination, one of the main causes of dropping.)

Develop a systematic plan for student contact to keep learners focused on successful completion.

Retention Activities

 Top Top 


          Just as your students need to be prepared for distance learning, so do you. 

          Students drop courses for their own reasons. They may also drop them because they are confusing, full of poorly written materials, and hard to navigate.  Keep in mind when preparing course materials that the student finally sits down alone at her computer, ready to begin, with only your primarily written materials to guide her towards completion.  Since you cannot see her at her computer, you will be unable to see understanding or bafflement on her face.   It is essential when teaching online that materials be well organized and coherent.

          A lengthy abstract entitled "Students' Distress with a Web-Based Distance Education Course" lets us look over the shoulders of eight students in a graduate seminar given online and see how things can go wrong.  It should be noted that even here 75 percent (6 out of 8) completed, and some of the most distressed students posted glowing end-of-course evaluations.  (This latter should make us look twice at the practice of posting evaluations only at the end of the course when students are glad it's over, flushed with success, slightly amnesiac, and feeling a generosity toward the process they may not have felt earlier.)  Here are some comments made by students during the seminar:

  • "The biggest problem is the instruction of our assignments.  I don't understand what she wants."
  • "… the instructions were so ambiguous that it's very confusing."
  • "Usually I e-mail her if I have questions and her answer is ambiguous, too.  So I won't ask again."
  • "You sit in a classroom with somebody and you analyze who they are and what they like and you cannot analyze [here] because you've never seen them.  You're only guessing what the teacher wants."
  • "I think we need a set of very clear criteria so we know exactly what is expected of us and how our projects will be judged."
  • "There was an inappropriate prerequisite statement – there is nothing to say you should know HTML, but our first assignment was creating a website. Fortunately, I knew it, or I would have dropped."
  • "I have spent one hour trying to follow your ambiguous directions. …  I am getting extremely frustrated."

          The word that keeps coming up is "ambiguous."   Ambiguities that are easily resolved face-to-face can multiply online.  And instructors should be wary of too much flexibility.  Attempts to be flexible may look more to online students like ambiguity.  ("What DOES she want?") 

          Sharp, clear structure and design are absolutely essential in online courses where the written word is (still) all.  Students need a clear outline to proceed through your course effectively, knowing exactly what is required and when. Areas of confusion or ambiguity easily resolved with a question or two in the classroom may cause delay, anxiety, and distress for the online student, leading her to drop or at best complete the class with a sense of deep dissatisfaction.  Here are some tips to help you develop structure and clarity in your materials:
Top Top

Tips and Techniques – Course Materials

Examples, Text, Links

If possible, include a face-to-face Orientation before the course begins.


Have your course ready to go by the start date! 


The Syllabus is the framework of your course. It should include:

  • Important dates

  • Course requirements, expectations, and guidelines

  • Grading and late submissions policies

  • How students can contact you

  • Textbook information

  • What students should know ahead – software, research tools, search engines. 

The Online Course Syllabus

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Example 4

Make sure links work!


Keep your homepage clear and well organized.   Everything leads from here. And group pages in a way that is logical and intuitive.

Example 1

Example 2

Avoid fancy features not all students may not be able to use; this adds to anxiety.


Develop a FAQs sheet.  Update it regularly and make sure students use it.


Include a calendar with course dates and/or a link to your institution's calendar


If you add a new tool, include instructions, a tutorial, or Help on its use.


Be consistent in word use:  If you include quizzes, refer to them consistently as "quizzes," not "tests" or "exams" in one place and "quizzes" in another.


During the first week, consider adding a "mini-quiz" on the course tools. 


Include surveys – one regularly offered during the course and one at the end.  Tell students the surveys are anonymous, that they help you improve the course, and that you want them to be crushingly frank!  Review and incorporate.

Sample questions:

"What worked this week?"

"What didn't?"

"What needs improving?"

Be clear on Policies and Procedures.  


Spell out exactly how students will be graded.


Tell students how often you access the course and when they can expect work back.  If your course management software provides a tool for submitting work, use it.  This eliminates panicked messages asking if work has arrived yet.

Sample text:  "I access the course ___ and usually  return work within ___"

Be aware of different learning styles.   With each iteration, add something that addresses a different learning style – multimedia, streaming video, slide presentations. Keep in mind, however, technology should not be the driving force in your course. The pedagogy for the time being is still text based.

Example 1

Example 2

Analyze your retention rates at the end of each course – are they better or worse?   Are there clear reasons for the change?


When you add a new feature or tool to the course, ask your students what they think of it, whether it adds to their learning or detracts.  This provides you with useful information and involves your students in the learning process

Sample text:  "This time, I have added ______ to the course.  Do you feel this enhances your learning?"

 Top Top 


          In From the Seven Principles in Action, Susan Rickey Hatfield observes: 

Frequent student-faculty contact … is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working.   (Emphasis added.) 

          The Distance Education, Guidelines for Good Practice report of May 2000 goes on to discuss the increased need for faculty "presence" in distance learning, noting that:

… once the course is under way, faculty must be prepared to be available to students on an extended basis electronically.  Again and again, practitioners report that it takes considerably more time to communicate with students electronically.  … To reduce potential attrition, faculty must answer questions right away, grade papers very quickly, and follow up with students within a week or two if they are not participating in the class.  (Emphasis added.)

          Students who would happily wait a week or two for a paper to be returned in a face-to-face class will panic if an assignment is not acknowledged or a question answered online within 24 hours.  To retain students, the online instructor has to fuss over her course like a mother hen the first time it's offered.  By the third iteration, she will have learned how to cut down on her time. Nevertheless, during the first offering of an online course, the time, energy, and devotion outlaid are almost overwhelming and this should be recognized and prepared for at the outset. 
Top Top

The following is from a student in the "Distress" study quoted above:

I agree with her [the instructor], but I am not sure if I should send a message saying, "I agree."  That is the problem with this e-mail.  If this is the classroom, you can just nod your head to show your agreement.  I am not always sure if I am contributing enough or not.  Other people [in the course] are really active. I feel a sense of competitiveness.  So, my survival skill is not to respond.  In fact, I haven't gotten any feedback about my contribution. I cannot tell from the e-mail.  You can tell from the classroom what the professor thinks about you from the body language and the way they talk.  … One of the problems is that I'd like to have feedback.  A kind of constant feedback.  With the class, you don't really … I guess you don't get that kind of feedback.

          This student is experiencing what Feenberg (1987) calls "communication anxiety," due to poor communication with the instructor and his sense that others in the class are better at using the online medium than he is.  One of the first things we must realize as online instructors is the essential isolation in which the cyberspace student works.  Messages saying, simply, "I agree" or, even better, "I agree thoroughly" are the cyberspace equivalents of the nodded head and are crucial to a student's sense of having been "heard."  Although it would be impossible to provide the "constant feedback" this student dreams of – not to say exhausting! – there are techniques we can develop:

  • Be "visible" – monitor the course from its inception to its ending

  • Provide prompt and meaningful feedback on questions, problems, assignments, procedures

  • Actively manage and facilitate the discussion

          Here are some ways to make yourself  "visible" and provide prompt, encouraging feedback:
Top Top

Tips and Techniques – Instructor "Visibility"

Examples, Text, Links

Create a high level of "interaction" with your students, by being:

  • Responsive
  • Competent
  • Organized

Instructor Interactivity in Web-Based Instruction

Send a welcoming e-mail.  Set an enthusiastic tone as you discuss the requirements for successful online learning and for your course in particular.


If possible, meet for a pre-class session to review course policies.


Phone all students during the first week or two and answer questions.  Make sure they understand they contact you by phone at any time during the course.

Telephone Support

Include a photograph of yourself on your home page or the course homepage. It is essential that students know what you look like – "visibility" at its most basic!

Example 1

Example 2

If this is the first offering, expect to monitor constantly – two or three times a day. Students must sense you there, a heartbeat away, reinforcing progress.  


Set a fast turnaround (48 hours, say) on coursework, tell your students, and  stick to it.  Farhad Saba notes in Student Attrition: How to Keep Your Online Learner Focused, "students need frequent knowledge of how they are performing, and the sooner they receive [it]… the more they become interested in completing the next assignment.  Fast turnaround time … is one of the major strategies to keep the interest of students high and sustain their motivation to perform."

Principle 4, Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback

Include feedback to the class itself, not just individual students.  This has the effect of furthering a sense of community.

Sample text:  "Week 3 was challenging for all."

Provide periodic course evaluations that go directly to students' current satisfaction with the course.  Use these in conjunction with a more substantial evaluation at the end of the course.

Sample questions:  "What worked well for you this week?  What didn't? What could be improved?

How "free" will you be on deadlines? Students need flexibility due to work and other commitments, but firm deadlines encourage them to stay on task and not procrastinate. Deadlines impact visibility: If you're worn down by flabby structure, trying to be everywhere at once, your "visibility" will suffer.

Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task

When a student drops the course, e-mail the student, express your concern and ask why. Sometimes the reason is telling; sometimes not.  Careful wording will often elicit a frank and useful response.  Encourage the student to take the course at a later date.

Sample text:  "I am disappointed that you dropped the course.  Did you take on too much?  Was it not what you expected?  The course will be offered again _____."

Top Top

          You should be most visible to students in the bulletin board or conference area, where most communication takes place. Online discussions should generate substantial and meaningful postings.    Each course – even each offering of a course – will have a different feel based on messages posted, just as each offering of a face-to-face class has a different tone based on its participants.  Your goal is to make online discussions an effective, lively, and thoughtful substitute for being together in class. 

          As you prepare, think how you want to use this tool.  Although it is true that introverted students often shine in distance learning, online courses are like their classroom counterparts:  Certain students do most of the talking while others hang back.  If you will require postings, how will you ensure students know how often to post and have guidelines for content?  How will you avoid the kind of rote, obligatory one-liners that add little to the substance but that students nevertheless feel required to read?

          In The Online Teaching Guide, A Handbook of Attitudes, Strategies, and Techniques for the Virtual Classroom, Ken W. White of the University of Phoenix provides a sampling of the types of messages you might include in your course:

  • Content-related messages (lectures, handouts, clarification of points in the text, discussion questions, synthesis of discussion)

  • Process-related messages (order of assignments, directions for sending assignments, description of the flow of the class, guidance when students become confused)

  • Technical tips (software tips, information about how to send attachments, discussion of how to format notes, URLs)

  • Protocol guidelines (code of conduct, plagiarism statement, netiquette, online tone)

  • Responses (answers to student questions, feedback on work submitted to the meeting)

Top Top
          Below are some useful tips and techniques for maintaining high instructor visibility via discussions and conferencing.

Tips and Techniques - Bulletin Board Visibility

Examples, Text, Links

Ensure students know how to use the Conference tool; include a link to a tutorial or directions to a Help screen.  Augment these in an introductory posting.


Provide guidelines for appropriate bulletin board participation.

Netiquette Guidelines

Organize fora into categories – by topic, chapter, procedures, e.g.


Respond to postings at least daily. If you must miss a day, let students know.  They should always have a sense of you there, aware of their progress, contributing.


Quantity isn't always quality: Lots of short required postings add little to the substance of a course and may leave students feel overwhelmed.

Principles 1 and 2, Good Practices

Include humor. 


Acknowledge introductions.  Post one yourself with your goals for the course.

Sample text:  "I hope that by the end of the course …"

Don't just say "Post to the bulletin board."  This will result in rote messages that contribute little.  Ask for substance that leaves room for further development.

Sample text: "By Friday, post your ideas on  ____ based on this week's reading of ___"

Create student groups of four or five and a forum for each.  This allows group communication, further engaging students in the course.


Create a private forum for students to which you have no access. 


When responding to a message with relevance for everyone, copy your response and post to the board so all students can benefit.  Add to FAQs.


Learn to facilitate, foreshadow, guide, and summarize discussions. Your participation is essential in modeling its use and tone.


Encourage students to respond to each other. This helps increase their confidence online, lessens their reliance on you as fount of all knowledge, and further develops the learning community.

Sample text:  "What do you think of Jane's question?  Is there another way to … "

Create "extra-curricular" fora – vacations, hobbies, e.g. – and participate.

 Top Top
Ken White, in The Online Teaching Guide continues:

If the students connect to the classroom once or twice a day, finding a number of new messages in the open forum each time, they feel reassured to be working collaboratively with their instructor as well as other students. … The comfort felt by students whose instructors are visible cannot be underestimated in the distance education environment, where students do not have the trapping of the traditional university (e.g., familiar faces, student unions, and student activities) to provide a sense of belonging.  (Emphasis added.)

          You should direct all your efforts toward maintaining a frequent, friendly, managerial presence.  Think of this focal point of your course as a room into which you regularly look, perhaps not always staying long, but nodding your head and saying "Yes, I'm here."  

Top Top


          Peg Saragina, writing for The Business Education Statewide Advisory Committee in Creating an Online Learning Community, defines the learning community as follows:

… individuals interact[ing] in a common location for the purpose of gaining knowledge, understanding, or skill in a subject through instruction, study, and/or experience by the creation of a social state and condition that nurtures and encourages learners.

          Instructors and learners involved in distance education marvel again and again at the camaraderie and support that develop online, far greater and better, many say, than is ever achieved in the classroom.  Why is this?  Why doesn't the learning community happen in the classroom as it apparently does online?  Is it because the teacher remains the center of learning in the classroom no matter how diverse the activities or complex the subject? Her very physical presence at a given day and time create a structure of which she is the central frame.

          In the online classroom, on the other hand, many students seems to sense early on the importance of developing other ways to augment their learning and other sources of support throughout the course.  The second of Chickering's Seven Principles, Good Practice Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students, notes that:

The extent to which computer-based tools encourage spontaneous student collaboration was one of the earliest surprises about computers.  … Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated.  Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one's ideas and responding to others' improves thinking and deepens understanding … Study groups, collaborative learning, group problem solving, and discussion of assignments can all be dramatically strengthened through communication tools that facilitate such activity. 

          As is suggested, much of this happens spontaneously, as new technology frees students up to do things in different way.   There are, however, numerous things you can do as an instructor in your online course to create and foster a learning community in your course:
Top Top

  • Tips and Techniques – Building a Learning Community

  • Have students post Introductions or create an "About You" activity during the first week. Some instructors have students complete a skill-level or learning-skills assessment (see Tips and Techniques, Before your Class Starts above) and discuss the results in their introduction.  Others simply have students "talk" about themselves, their goals, why they are there, work/educational background, e.g.

  • Post an Introduction yourself – include your goals for the course.

  • If your course-delivery software permits, give students the option of creating Student Homepages. Such a page, with photographs and information about pets, children, hobbies, etc. reinforces the sense of being "known" by others, part of a community.   Provide instructions or a link on how to create homepages.

  • Chat rooms have mixed success due to their synchronous nature and the need to be a fast typist to fully participate.  Try asking students when they would like them scheduled – if they would like them scheduled!  Be present yourself and if possible, save a log of the discussion for those unable to attend.

  • Invite students to provide answers to questions and solutions to problems, rather than rushing in yourself. This shifts the emphasis from you as fount of all knowledge to the students as autonomous seekers of knowledge.

  • Create study groups or learning teams of four or five students.  Provide a list for students with their phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

  • Your "presence" in this learning community should be inclusive and guiding but not dominant.

Top Top

Tips and Techniques – Collaborative Learning Projects

          One of the best ways to promote a learning community is to incorporate collaborative projects where students work in groups. Ken White of the University of Phoenix, a pioneer in distance education, notes in The Online Teaching Guide:

Much of my most valuable learning took place in UOP study groups, cooperative groups of three to six students who worked together for the duration of the course.  Onsite study groups meet out of class but online study groups create separate electronic meeting places where they can build a unique way of responding to course objectives and assignments.  By sharing resources and information in groups, online students can achieve more and increase their capacity for self-assessment. … online instructors should take advantage of this tool when and where they can. 

          Depending on the course itself, there are myriad ways in which group learning can be built into a course.  Collaborative, small group activities can include:        

  • Researching a topic and presenting a paper
  • Design and creation of assessment tools
  • Projects and presentations
  • Research and writing articles
  • Reports on a "virtual" field trip
  • Creation of WebPages
  • Summarizing of online discussion

          Some sites that consider the development of collaborative learning projects are listed below:

          Collaborative Learning and TQM and Accountability
Publications on Online Collaboration

Top Top

                    If you are considering adding collaborative projects to your course, ask yourself the following questions, based on Rena Palloff's Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace:

  • What is the content of my course?
  • How does it lend itself to group activities?
  • What specific group activities would work in this course?
  • What are the goals of the small-group activities?
  • What size groups or teams should be formed?
  • Should I form the groups?  The students?  The course management software?
  • How many of these activities should the groups be responsible for?
  • How much monitoring should I do?
  • How can I ensure that all members of the groups participate?  (A frequently voiced criticism of collaborative projects is that certain students do most of the work while others coast.)
  • Should I arbitrarily appoint group leaders?
  • How will I grade/assess these activities?
  • Should the group members themselves grade/assess these activities?
  • Should there be group-to-group feedback on this assignment?
  • What kind of time frames should I include?

          Some questions students might ask themselves, perhaps in the form of a shared self-assessment, once the course has finished:
Top Top

  • Did I look forward to this exercise?
  • How well did I participate? Was I a team player?
  • Did I make a significant contribution?
  • Did I share the workload?
  • How comfortable do I feel with the group process?
  • Did I enjoy it?  Did I enjoy it more than I expected?
  • Did I feel that the work was shared fairly equally by all members of my group?
  • How well did this experience contribute to my learning goals and objectives?
  • How would I have modified this group assignment to make it contribute more to my course goals and objectives?
  • If we didn't have a leader, could we have used one?

Top Top


          Clearly, there are many things we can do – before and during the course – to encourage our students not to falter and to remain with us for the duration.   But retention will remain an issue in distance learning, as it is in face-to-face classes.   For this reason, it is important, finally, to let go and accept that each group of students is different, each time of year is different, and it is entirely possible to have a good retention rate on one course and a dismal one following.  It is to be hoped that as you increase your expertise teaching online, your students will come to realize what is expected and meet the challenge by creating their own structure and submitting quality work on time. 

Clear pixel
Image Clear pixel Image