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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.

#63: Benefits of Mentoring Online Students [Podcast]

#63: Benefits of Mentoring Online Students [Podcast]

This content originally appeared on APUEdge.com

Teachers are always seeking better ways to connect with their students, especially in the online classroom. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the value of mentoring students and why it can be helpful to think of students as customers. Learn how forming a mentoring relationship can help teachers connect better with students, improve student learning, and also bring greater satisfaction to the teacher.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
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Read the Transcript:

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.

In today’s episode we’re going to look at mentoring online students in higher education. This is a hot topic right now because everyone wants to connect better with their students. And here on the Online Teaching Lounge, connecting with our students and working with them much better than we have in the past is one of our primary objectives.

At the university where I teach and work, we have a focus on student success, and we want to have students-first programs. So it makes sense that we would want to also include a mentoring approach. This is something some of my faculty have explored, and other leaders across the institution. So I’m going to share some thoughts with you today about mentoring online students.

Choosing to be a Leader

As an instructor or an online educator, you may not be in a leadership role at your institution. But you can lead from any seat that you’re in. As a leader in the classroom, you can try things out that may work for you, and share them with colleagues. You might be able to get an IRB request and do a little research on what you find, and share it with the bigger community as well.

And of course, there’s the practitioner report. You can just notice what’s going on and prepare a practical presentation to share with others, or write up an article on that. There are so many ways you can have an experience with mentoring and share it with other people.

When we think about ourselves as online educators, perhaps we get into some routines or patterns that don’t bring us as much satisfaction and joy as they once did. Mentoring our students can be something that freshens that up and helps us connect much more deeply with the people we’re teaching.

There’s a story in a book called “Lead From Any Seat” by Andrei Anca, and in this book, he shares a story called The Parable of the Coffee Bean, and he has an unknown author listed there. But the story is like this. And I’m going to read it directly from the book, “Lead From Any Seat.”

“A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were hard for her. She didn’t know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed that when one problem was solved, a new one arose.

Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water. And in the first pot she placed carrots. In the second one, she placed eggs. And in the last pot, she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil without saying a word.

In about 20 minutes. She turned off the burners. She took the carrots out of the water and placed them in a bowl. She then pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. She then ladled the coffee into a bowl. Turning to her daughter. She asked, ‘Tell me what you see.’ ‘Carrots, eggs and coffee,’ the daughter replied.

The mother, brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noticed that they were softened. She then asked her to take an egg and break it. After peeling off the soft shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, she asked her to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled and she tasted the rich aroma.

The daughter then asked, ‘What’s the point mother?’ Her mother explained that with each of these objects, they had all faced the same adversity, the boiling water, but each of them reacted differently.

The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. After being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior. But after being exposed to the boiling water, the inside became hardened.

The ground coffee beans however, they were unique. After they were placed in the boiling water, they had changed the water. ‘Which are you?’ she asked the daughter. When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?”

Now let’s take this to our online teaching. Each of us enters the profession of teaching as educators, and we have goals and we have things we’d like to accomplish there. Things happen, jobs are difficult. We can’t reach some of our students. We have success with others. Many things occur during our teaching career. And as we’re teaching, we transform in one of these three ways.

Just as we transform in one of these three ways, our students also approach their experience with us in either an approachable manner, soft and ready to be taught. A resistant manner, perhaps they don’t want to take the course and they’re taking it because it’s a required class. Or maybe they come in with mixed feelings. And they can have an impact on others as well.

Through mentoring, we can have that difference, like the ground coffee beans.

Changing Your Perspective

When we think about students, an interesting thing is that many of us think about them as these people that need to be taught, need to be molded, need to learn the ropes in some way, either in the subject matter or in the field.

Either way, it would be an interesting flip to see the student instead as a customer. If we were a business in education, instead of looking at ourselves as simply an educational entity, thinking about your student as your customer gives you a whole different perspective on the way you approach the people who come to learn from you. A student wants to learn, of course, but a customer wants value from what they’re getting.

If we were to make an impact on our students that’s much more significant than simply giving feedback and conversation in the online classroom, we can think about our students in a way that we see them quite differently.

Again, in the book, “Lead From Any Seat,” the author tells us that the first step in making an impact is to change the way we think about other people. One way we can think about our students as customers will be to see through their experience. We need to understand what they need, what they really want in life and in their education.

Essentially, the idea is if we’re going to be successful mentoring students and really helping them in what they’re learning, we need to see their point of view. We need to be able to understand their perspective, and we also need to see through their eyes. This is sometimes called an outward mindset from others. It could be called many things. It could be taking on a new perspective. It could be servant leadership.

But either way, when we take the focus off ourselves, our workload, and our approach to teaching, and we put the focus instead on the person we’re teaching, and seeing through their experience and their eyes, we have a totally different experience working with them in our course.

Understanding the Value of Mentoring

You might be asking yourself at this point, what is mentoring? What is that in higher education? And what is that in online education? I can’t answer all of those questions in today’s brief podcast, but I will start with the idea that mentoring is about giving a relationship to someone else, connecting with them, and working with them for their own development. This could be personal development, professional development, growth in a specific area.

Through the mentoring relationship, we connect with other people and we share our expertise. We might provide guidance and examples about how they can repeat our success, or success of others in the field.

Or more generally, it could be about academic success. What does it take, for example, to be a great student? If we think about the things our students come into our classroom wanting to know specifically from us, this can turn us towards a mentoring approach. It can help us think a lot more about what kind of mentoring we would give our students.

Now, even if there is not a formal mentoring program in place, we can always take a mentoring approach to the way we teach our courses. For example, in the comments we might use in a discussion, we can mentor students by talking through the ideas with them, giving critical questions to help them think more deeply about how to apply these concepts in real life. And we can ask them about how they might use the ideas in their professional world, now and in the future.

If we’re mentoring them in a subject matter where they’re going to major in it, like, for example, if you’re a communication faculty member and you’re teaching students majoring in communication who intend to go into that field, you might bring in relevant career examples. Scenarios and situations to prompt their deeper thinking about that. And then you can ask students how that might apply to what they’re seeking to obtain in the future.

Group mentoring is also possible if you have live calls or group discussions. You might try some kind of group approach to mentoring where you share different scenarios about the professional world, and have students chat with you and toss around the ideas about how they might prepare, or how they could apply the concepts you’ve shared.

Whether you’re mentoring someone in their academic skills or the academic ability to survive the online class, generally, or perhaps you’re mentoring them in becoming someone who moves into that professional area, students really need a sense of their identity. And by the word identity, I mean they need to be able to see themselves as a scholar or student in the academic space.

Students also need to be able to imagine themselves in that career when they’re finished with their degree. Something difficult for a lot of people who go into a new field is feeling like they are legitimate or prepared in that field.

For example, there have been a lot of studies done about the field of education. And people who major in something to become a teacher later often struggle seeing themselves as an educator. There’s a lot of imposter syndrome that can happen for folks when they start teaching for the first time.

And just an extension of that, I remember my first year as a teacher, 25 years ago, when I walked into that classroom and I didn’t have any faculty or supervising teachers with me. I was extremely nervous every day. Sometimes I called my mentor teacher that had done work with me the previous year, and I asked for guidance and feedback. I looked for some kind of insight to help me feel more like the official educator that I wanted to be.

Things we can say and do with our students can help them imagine themselves in that profession, and create a professional identity for themselves in their minds, and in reality, as well.

As we wrap up this brief discussion about mentoring, I’d like to encourage you to look at your students and find out what they really want from their experience with you. Even if they post in a discussion during week one what they’d like to get out of the class, many times these statements are brief or even superficial.

As you start to see them engage and think about who they really are, where they’re coming from, and what their experience is with the subject matter, you might be able to see beyond those comments into a greater depth of who those students would like to be in the future.

And as you see through their eyes, you might have some insights about small things you can do to connect with them through a mentoring style and a mentoring approach, until you’re able to give a little bit more in the future where you might create some ideas around some kind of more formal mentoring experience with your students.

You can also give them some feedback when they give you assignments, that is more focused on who they’re becoming in that academic area, and more mentoring-focused as well. And in the long term, something might occur to you that you can do to give a little bit more mentoring to your students, again, even if there is no formal program.

There were some faculty that I worked with, and they took a mentoring approach to a course. And we found that the brief and small changes they made actually had these students re-enroll in courses at a higher rate, just because the faculty took a unique approach or approached it through a mentoring lens.

When you approach your teaching as a mentor and not just as a teacher, you’re going to find a little bit of a difference in your results as well. I encourage you to think about this in your online teaching this coming week, and I wish you all the best in your 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.