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Helping Educators Thrive while Teaching Online, so They Can Help Students Develop Their Potentials and Promote Resilience and Lifelong Learning in Their Communities

Dr. Bethanie Hansen 

Strategic Educational Leader and Coach

#96: Student Retention Strategies in Online Education

#96: Student Retention Strategies in Online Education

This content originally appeared on APUEdge.Com.

Every year, a large number of students across the country leave college and fail to complete their degree. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about what educators can do to improve student retention numbers. Learn ways to help students address academic difficulties, resolve academic or occupational goals, and help them gain a sense of belonging and connection during their education.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m Bethanie Hansen, and I’m happy to be with you here today talking about student retention. Student retention is a phrase that you might hear a lot in online higher education. Every year a large number of students all across the country leave college and fail to complete their degree. So as professionals in online learning, we’re especially concerned about this number.

What are Student Retention Rates?

Now there’s a place called the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and in 2019, they reported that nearly 29% of students who entered college in the fall of 2017 at four-year public institutions did not return to those institutions for a second year. That was well before the pandemic ever began. So we know it’s not specifically because of the pandemic. Retention of our online students is particularly low for those who are attending part-time. So nearly half of them are retained, and that means nearly half of them leave.

There’s a lot of data on this and when we think about why students enroll in college in the first place and why they may drop or choose not to return, there are many reasons. There are of course, personal issues, financial issues, family, work-related stress, interruptions, all kinds of things that come into the mix.

But there is a lot that we can do and these things we try to do to help students stay the course or persist and keep going to college, those are called retention strategies. When we do our retention strategies, then we start watching our students to see what they do. Are they staying? Are they enrolling in another class? Are they sticking around for the next semester or the next session? And when they do, we call that student persistence. So retention is what we do as the educators and higher education professionals to try to retain those students in class. And persistence? That’s what the students do.

Retention Strategies to Improve Student Persistence

Today, I’m going to speak with you about retention strategies. Things that we can try in working with our students to really encourage them to persist, to finish the class they enrolled in and continue on to the next one.

Most educators I know, and likely you might be the same way, we get into education because we really want to make a difference with our students. We want to help them reach their potential. We want to make a difference in this world by helping people better themselves through the transformative power of education.

That can’t happen if students are quitting their educations. When they don’t finish and they don’t keep going from class to class, they have a lot less opportunity available to them. Having that degree, whether it’s an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or even a doctoral degree, those things are so encouraging, but they also qualify our students for specific career fields and jobs.

So it’s very motivating for us as the teacher or a faculty member to encourage that student, to help them along. We’re going to talk about things we can do. We’re also going to talk about some things that inadvertently might affect our students’ desire to continue.

As a faculty director for seven years, I had a lot of experiences where I got occasional complaints about this or that faculty member. It did seem like there are certain behaviors that tend to push students away. And if we were together during a face-to-face class, and we did those very same things with a smile on our face, or with a bit of conversation around them, they would not have the same impact at all.

So, we’re going to talk a little bit about things that tend to push students away, as well as those strategies for helping them continue. I hope you’ll find some value in this podcast today, and at least one strategy you can try this coming week with your students. And hopefully continue so you can help them continue as well.

Model of Institutional Departure

There’s a well-known model created by Vincent Tinto. It was created in 1993 after his first published work in 1975. And it’s been used for a lot of years by many institutions. This model is called the Model of Institutional Departure. This model is all about three main areas that impact student persistence. These areas can easily be the reason why students leave the institution and don’t continue with their degree programs.

Academic Difficulties

The first one is academic difficulties. Think about what could enable the success of a student who is having academic difficulties. One thing I’ve seen in online education is a bit of flexibility when a student initially struggles academically. Some faculty will allow a redo. They’ll direct the student to a tutoring center, someone who can help them with their studies or their essay writing. And they’ll start to strengthen that student.

When we see that happen, sometimes the student will gain confidence, persevere through those academic difficulties, and start learning the hard stuff—they’ll really persist. Some will not. But academic difficulties are one of the major sources of student departure.

Challenges in Resolving Educational and Occupational Goals

A second area of students departing an institution is challenges in resolving educational and occupational goals. Now I experienced that myself at one time when I was completing a certificate at an institution. I was trying to change my major from this one area to this graduate certificate. And somehow just in the system itself, my records got stuck. My GPA went to 0 from all the credits that I did have, and I couldn’t figure out who to talk to or get help from. It was so discouraging, I didn’t feel like there was any way to resolve those goals that I had.

Challenges in resolving educational and occupational goals for our students can literally appear like a brick wall. So, the student does not feel like there’s any way forward to get where they really want to go. And, of course, that could be discouraging enough that they stop altogether.

Failure to Connect with the Institution

And third, failure to become academically and socially connected with the institution. When we think about this one, it’s really interesting because we have a variety of college age young people between the teen years and around 25 years old, which we would call traditional learners. And we also have adult learners who are over 25, all the way up to 80, 90 or so years old. We have a wide range of people going to college, especially online.

If you think about this wide range of age groups and demographics, failure to become academically and socially connected with the institution is an interesting obstacle to overcome. What does the student really want through academic connection? And what does the student want through social connection? Not every student is going to want the same thing. So, there are a variety of things that might attract the student to really get engaged and stay.

The bottom line in that academic and social connection is that the student feels a sense of belonging. They feel like they’re part of that college community and they want to be part of it. Some of us love it so much we become professional educators and we just want to stay forever because that sense of belonging was so rich and so inviting.

Think about your online class. If we just look from the lens of the single educator teaching one course with students in it, how can you help the student become connected to the academic life of that institution? What can you do to really build cognitive presence throughout the experience so the student feels richly involved? And what can you do to help them feel socially connected with the institution?

We had an example in the fall of 2021. We had an event that was about two hours long called World Philosophy Day. This event was recorded. So any student who could not attend could watch it after the fact. Simply knowing that it’s there, makes a lot of students feel socially connected and academically connected too. Attending the event really boosts that level. We had many students attend live and they stayed through the question and answers section at the end and asked a lot of questions. That did a lot for social connection in that group of students. Anything we do to help them feel like they’re part of a community is going to really go a long way.

Academic and Social Connection Support Students’ Goals

Now there are a lot of people who have done research on retention strategies. These three areas that I’ve mentioned from Tinto’s Model of Institutional Departure are really good, broad areas to be thinking about as faculty members, as teachers of our courses, and as members of this academic community. We can also think about how students need significant interactions with other members of the college.

That could be other departments. It could be faculty members. It could be the Dean, the President, the Provost. There are a lot of ways that students can have significant interactions, but they must be significant. Simply seeing someone’s name on a website is not going to check that box. So, as you’re thinking about different things you might do in your teaching throughout the session or term that you’re teaching your students, consider what might constitute a significant interaction with other members of the college.

What can you do to get students working with each other and connecting with different departments as they need to for your subject matter? How can you get your students to really get involved in the institutional library? Some online institutions have live librarians they can connect with and students can go there and talk to a real person. They can go to the advising department and connect with real people there.

We have student accommodations and a whole department associated with that. There are many different departments filled with live people that can speak with them and with whom they can really gain relationships. These are going to be significant interactions that help them feel part of the community and like they belong. Really integrating our students into this community is what’s going to help them want to stay.

The Role of Mentoring

Think about this point: Mentoring has been mentioned a lot in recent years in higher education, but particularly in online higher education. Mentoring has a lot of potential to help students feel like they’re connected to the institution and that they’re having significant interactions. Mentoring can go a lot of different ways. For example, mentoring might have to do with helping the student prepare for their career field. It might have to do with help guiding them in the subject matter, helping them to balance their life, get their study skills down.

There’s a wide range of areas that could fit into mentoring. But particularly for students who are isolated and don’t have a really clear way to connect to the institution, mentoring can go a long ways towards helping that student feel like they really do have a space there and a person that’s their go-to person.

Now, another variation of mentoring could be group work throughout a class. If you can get your students combined into groups of some kind and work together for projects and things, and yet grade them on their own contributions, not dependent on those other people. If they can work together, but still be individually accountable, that’s going to be a form of peer support that can be especially rich and supportive during a course.

Anything we can do to share what’s happening in the institution with our students, especially if there are events happening, webinars, if there’s a commencement ceremony, even if the student isn’t graduating that year, for them to know about it, to hear about it, to see it coming up, they’re going to be able to imagine themselves participating sometime in the future.

So there are those three big areas that tend to push students toward departure. And there are a lot of things we can do that helps students to really feel anchored and like they belong in the community to prevent those things from happening.

Now, on the flip side, I mentioned that I occasionally get student complaints and although I’m no longer a Faculty Director, I am a Department Chair, so I still have my finger on the pulse of what students are experiencing in my department. And when they have an experience with a faculty member that is not friendly, not inviting, not supportive, I hear about it.

A good example of this would be just a slow and abrupt response. If a student has a reason to ask for support with an assignment or clarity about a topic, and maybe the instructor is feeling like “this is a question I get all the time and I’m tired of this question,” the comment may come back slow and it might be a little terse or abrupt. And that can be incredibly rejecting to the student who’s asking for help.

Many students do not want to ask for help. And when they finally do, they’ve thought about it a really long time. So it could do us a lot of good to think about what that student is experiencing when they’re coming to us for help? What their experience with us in the class might be? What our impact is before we think about what their question is?

Educators Can Improve Engagement and Interactions

So, we can see things through the eyes of our students a lot better when we ask questions, when we pause and notice the tone, the question, the words that the student is using. And what we choose to focus on in our engagement with another, whether it’s virtual or a face-to-face engagement, that’s going to grow. So if we focus on the unkind part or the abrupt part of it, we’re going to continue to have that kind of an interchange with that person.

Likewise, if we focus on curiosity and patience and understanding, we’re going to grow that side of our teaching as well. Once we slow down and we pause and we notice where the student’s coming from, ask a lot of questions, and really try to understand, then we can be really present with what they need. And we can focus on that one thing and just give them that presence and that support that’s going to help them keep going in their studies and be really capable of exercising the grit that they need and the resilience that they need to continue.

Send a Welcome Note to Invite Students into the Class

Now you might be thinking that you’ve heard a lot about retention programs at your institution. Maybe there’s been an initiative rolled out that everyone needs to do a certain thing a certain way, and that’s going to help students persist in their classes. There are a lot of things that work incredibly well for retention purposes.

And if you’re doing them and you’re watching the results and you’re approaching them with a true desire to help your students keep going, they’re going to be more effective. One of those things is communicating to your students before the session begins. And that could be a few days before the class begins. It could be a week before the class begins.

When you do that primary outreach before the course has started, you introduce yourself, you start building a connection with your student and you build a bridge before the first day of class, your student is more invited and they’re feeling less nervous, less anxious about showing up in your classroom. They have a little bit of a sense of safety already before the first day of class.

Set Expectations Early to Help Students Plan Ahead

Another thing that we can do that helps students to persist is to share with them what our expectations are and what the assignments are early in the session. Maybe they even get a copy of the syllabus before the first day of class. Whatever it is, they need to know what they’re going to have to do that whole time so they can plan their time accordingly.

If students don’t know that they’re going to have a large number of pages to read every night and several essays, they will likely drop the class when they get too busy to do those things. But if they know it going into the class, they can plan ahead and set the time aside and manage it.

Some students even decide when to take certain courses, whether to take only one course at a time, or to take two or three courses at a time, based on the perceived workload they think that course will have. Mine’s a really common one that students like to pair with at least one other class, because they think it’s going to be super easy. It’s music appreciation and they think they’re going to just listen to music all day long.

They are very surprised when they learn they have to write an essay, they have to read a lot, listen to a lot, discuss a lot in the discussions. But it’s a lot more helpful when they know on the very first day of class or even a couple days early in that welcome message that I’m going to send out. That gives them the chance to decide, should I move my courses around? Am I going to be able to take two or three classes at a time? And they can judge for themselves.

Communicate with Kindness to Build Relationships

So, even if there’s no big strategy at your institution, you can do some of those things to give students advanced information. Be very patient and kind in your communications even if you have to say no to something. And, help students feel like they belong, that they have some connection in your course and connection to the bigger university setting.

So be thinking about academic difficulties your students could have in your subject area and in your particular class. Think about what could present a challenge to them in resolving their goals while they’re trying to get through your class. And think about how they can become academically and socially connected to the institution. With those three things in mind, you’re more likely to help your students finish the class and persist to enroll in the next one and eventually graduate with that degree.

I hope you’ll think more about that this week and try one of those strategies. Maybe you’ll come up with one that I haven’t mentioned here. If you’d like to share it back, please visit my site, bethaniehansen.com/request, even though that form is set up for you to request specific topics. I’ve also gotten communications of all kinds and even feedback about our podcast at that address. And I would love to hear from you.

So let us know what’s working for you in retention strategies that really helps your students to persist and what keeps it from happening. And, just so you know, we’re almost to episode number 100 in this podcast. We have some special guests coming up in just a few weeks and I hope you will enjoy all of the student affairs topics we’ll be talking about. We even have a special appearance from our university president at American Public University, Dr. Kate Zatz coming up. So definitely tune in each week. Don’t miss an episode and share it with a colleague or a friend. Here’s to you and wishing you all the best this coming week in your online teaching.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.