Five Strategies to Improve Retention in Online Programs

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online student retention tips

It takes considerable effort and resources to create an online education degree program. Therefore, it is in the best interest of faculty, staff, and administrators to retain students who decide to enroll in such programs. There are many reasons why students decide to withdraw from an online degree: these could include health issues, poor academic performance, a career change, significant family events, or being dissatisfied with the quality of the program. This article explores five strategies university personnel can use to help improve online student retention.

Strategy 1: Develop a comprehensive student orientation program.

As institutions continue to focus efforts to retain online students, it is becoming common for programs to provide comprehensive orientations. Orientation topics could include information on the curriculum students will be participating in, program highlights such as degree completion or job placement rates, and even some innovative and exciting things a program is best known for. Orientations could also address items such as student workload, challenges previous students had experienced and how they overcame them, and why students sometimes decide to drop out of school and how to decrease the likelihood of that happening.

Some orientations include videos of faculty so students can see who they will be interacting with over the months or years ahead, as well as video testimonials from previous students offering advice to those students just starting out. The format can vary and might include written material, podcasts, and video. It could even be housed in the institution’s Learning Management System to give students early exposure to the system they will be using for their coursework.

Strategy 2: Make efforts to connect students to each other and the university.

Students sometimes report feelings of isolation when taking online courses. However, there are strategies instructors and degree program personnel can use to build relationships and community in online courses. One such strategy is to provide social avenues for students to interact with each other. This could simply be a “student lounge” or “student cafe” discussion forum where students can connect about things not necessarily associated with the class.

Another idea, one that I have seen work well at our institution, is to create social media groups (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) for a degree program and students within that program. This also gives students an avenue to interact with each other “outside” of class. Some programs even have these groups include alumni from the program, giving current students the opportunity to interact with and learn from past graduates who many times are out working in the field.

Finally, some institutions livestream campus activities such as plays, concerts, sporting events, distinguished speakers, commencements, etc., for online students to help them feel more connected to campus.

Strategy 3: Provide exceptional academic advising.

It is clear from the literature that strong academic advising has a positive effect on student achievement and retention. However, as many colleges and universities continue to experience significant financial challenges, advising units don’t always have the resources they need.

Institutions approach academic advising differently. Some rely primarily on an institution-wide academic advising center. For institutions where that is the case, it is important that the advising center has the ability to adequately serve online learners as well as those on campus. Some programs have full-time academic advisors whose primary job is to advise students in a specific degree program, and that’s all they do. Yet other institutions use program directors or faculty to provide academic advising to students.

The types of advising services available to students can vary as well. Many programs have early alert systems in place to identify and engage with students who appear to be struggling academically. Advising often revolves around curriculum planning to ensure students are enrolling in the courses they need to be to stay on track for degree completion. It’s also a good idea to have academic advisors regularly interact with online students (e.g. touch base at least every semester) to ensure the students are receiving the help and support they need.

Strategy 4: Measure it.

This strategy seems basic but it is one where many institutions fall short. Sometimes administrators find monitoring retention metrics a bit overwhelming and this can prevent them from collecting and using data that could enhance their online degrees.

It is important to determine which retention metrics are most important to your institution. These could include drop rates, completion rates, time to completion, overall graduation rates, student academic performance, reasons for dropping out of a program, etc. Having these types of data allows program personnel to determine what they might be doing well and where there may be areas for improvement.

Organizing data can be a challenge and administrators sometimes find they have retention data scattered in a variety of locations. I recommend creating some type of an online education factbook to house data in one location. Here is an example from my institution »

Tableau screen - online student retention

Having retention data in one location can make it easier to manage, disseminate, and use. It’s also particularly handy when you need to prepare for a regional accreditation visit.

Strategy 5: Offer high-quality courses in your program.

Of the strategies covered so far in this article, I believe this one, the quality of course offerings, is the most impactful on retention. Students can quickly get frustrated with their educational experience and decide to quit if they feel it is subpar.

The topic of quality is a big one, and I could easily write an entire article on ensuring the quality of online course, but for the sake of this article I will offer two ideas. The first is to provide exceptional faculty development opportunities related to online teaching and facilitation. My institution offers a three-week online instructor training course that approximately 300 of our instructors have completed. That course arguably has had a greater impact on the quality of our online offerings than anything else we have done.

The second idea is to have a quality course review process in place to review online courses prior to them being offered. Many institutions use Quality Matters for this purpose, but there are variety of quality course review rubrics available. In addition, many institutions create their own in-house version, which is something we did years ago and are happy we did.

Brian Udermann is director of online education and Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at University of Wisconsin–La Crosse and a member of the editorial board for Academic Leader.