ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

What makes students stay?
concern over quitters has online programs stepping up retention strategies

By Bridget Murray / October 2001

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Keeping students enrolled in online courses can be a struggle. But it needn't be, in the view of John Arle, faculty chair of life sciences at Rio Salado College, a Phoenix-based online community college enrolling mostly adult students. He has made online dropout prevention his personal crusade. The catalyst came last year, when Arle found more than half of students—20 of 35—dropped the introductory environmental biology course at his institution.

Part of the problem was the instructor, who failed to engage and support students from the start. And part of the problem were the students, who often expect an easy ride from online courses—particularly 101-level ones—but instead "encounter a far more rigorous course than what they're used to traditionally," says Arle.

The truth is that lack of regular face-to-face contact online means both faculty and students must work harder, he says. However, he admits that too few realize this. And that shows in the statistics: While no formal numbers are available, it is widely believed that most online courses average just 50 to 60 percent retention, while traditional courses average well above 60 percent. Some object to that statistic, claiming that, just as with brick-and-mortar education, e-learning retention varies by institution.

"Online retention depends on factors like how much support is provided and how the course is offered," says Steve Ehrmann, director of the Flashlight Program, the American Association for Higher Education's e-learning arm. "There's really more value in studying it locally than nationally."

Nonetheless, some colleges offer local proof that online retention lags behind brick-and-mortar retention. For example, WashingtonOnline—Washington state's online division for community colleges—claims a retention rate of 70 percent for online students versus 85 percent for the state's traditional community-college students. But as more schools investigate the discrepancy, more are finding ways to combat it through such strategies as better student advising, increased group work, and stronger academic and technical support.

Why Do E-students Drop Out?

Though no e-schools have yet conducted formal studies of the drop-out rate, administrators believe that, anecdotally, several main factors spur it:

  • Students take e-courses for the wrong reasons. Some students mistakenly assume that they can coast through e-courses, when, in reality, e-courses require more typing, more reading—and often more tests and assignments—than regular courses, says Connie Broughton, managing director for instruction at WashingtonOnline. "A student may be used to sitting back and doing the minimum in traditional course for a 'C,' " she says. "That same student will fail online."
  • E-courses lack auditory stimulation and in-person contact with others. Missing online are the sound, activity, and social stimulation that engage students in the regular classroom, says Denzil Edge, who built a distance education program at the University of Louisville and is now building Spalding University Online. "In class, you can see and hear each other," he says. "Some online students feel lost without that."
  • Some e-courses skimp on student support. Without constant guidance and feedback from online faculty, students tune out, says Edge. "It's not because of poor content that most students drop out online," he says. "It's because of poor communication."
  • E-students may be overbooked. Online courses tend to attract older, working students with more time- and family-pressures than regular students, says Cliff Moore, associate director of extended university service—including distance education—at Washington State University. For example, Washington State's typical online student is female, 36 years old, and employed full- or part-time.
  • Student may lack technical skills. In addition to basic computer skills, students need strong writing and typing and study skills to succeed online, says Broughton. "What if you're a slow typist?" she says. "That could be murderous because that's how you talk online."

How to Keep E-students Enrolled

Such growing understanding of what doesn't work online is also giving e-learning experts a much better idea what does. Their main advice to those running e-courses:

  • Train faculty to teach online. Since online faculty can't grab students' interest with their body-language, they need to tap tools, such as chat rooms and whiteboards, and illustrative strategies, such as stories and scenarios, says Edge, of Spalding University Online. To help out, Washington State and other institutions offer training that advises faculty on such matters as how to grade students online.
  • Give students lots of upfront information and advising. Students new to the online world need plenty of advice on accessing Web materials, participating in discussions, completing online assignments and the like, says Broughton, of WashingtonOnline. Specially appointed advisers help, as do preparatory tutorials or courses, such as one called "Succeeding in Distance Learning," offered by Spalding University Online.
  • Make registration easy. The easier it is to enroll in online courses, the more likely students are to sign up and stay in them, says Edge. At Spalding, for example, the director of student services walks each student through course registration. And at the University of Phoenix, the computer system automatically enrolls students in courses that follow sequentially in degree programs.
  • Ensure that students feel connected right away. The class must "immediately become real to students or else they might start off disengaged," says Moore, at Washington State University. He advises that instructors use name-games, real-time chats and other icebreaker activities to get students talking. He also advises making an assignment and providing immediate feedback in the first week.
  • Offer tech support. Since e-learning can pose technical difficulties, more institutions are beefing up tech help desks and sending students tutorials on using the Web and trouble-shooting. Washington State even offers students on-the-ground learning centers, complete with flexible hours and staffed computer labs.
  • Provide academic support. Faculty "have to reach out to students—they can't wait until students contact them," says Edge. Regular calls, e-mails and chats are a must, he says, as are faculty receptivity and availability. At the tutoring service,, for example, students can call on "e-structors" any time—day or night. That level of access "really reduces students' anxiety levels and frustration," says Christopher Gergen, the firm's president.
  • Assign students to teams. Linking students to each other helps link them to a course or entire degree program, says Tony Digiovanni, CEO of the University of Phoenix Online. His institution is well-known for sending students through its programs in small teams or cohorts. "Some people think e-learning is almost solitary," says Digiovanni. "But it's quite the opposite here." Also beneficial to students, he says, is giving them plenty of group work and encouraging their participation in online discussions.
  • Track students and check in with them regularly. Online students can easily lie low, so monitoring their progress is crucial, says Moore. At his school, staff check whether students turn in assignments on time and call them if they haven't. And at Rio Salado College, faculty use a course-management system to track how long students stay online.

"The point is, if you see students not logging on, you call and leave messages about how to be productive" says Arle of Rio Salado. He is teaching two sections of introductory environmental biology this fall and plans to put his new online insights to work. His goal: retention rates well above 60 percent in both courses.


  • There are no comments at this time.