By Lurene Kelley
Retention. It’s a hot buzzword at CBU and every university in this country. But student retention is not your typical academic trend. It is part of the promise we make as institutions of higher learning – that we will attract, retain and produce college graduates and is at the core of why universities exist. As new CBU President Jack Shannon has stated, it is our “moral obligation” to ensure that the students we admit will graduate on time.
That’s a heavy lift, especially considering the many barriers to graduation students face. Our students work (some full time), many have family obligations, financial struggles, health issues, learning disabilities and just the everyday activities and lifestyle that go with being college students. And then you add online education to the mix — a learning modality that is still new to both students and faculty.
The research on online learning retention rates can vary dramatically, however, due to definitions of what “retention” actually means for online learning, and the dramatic differences in the quality of online courses across programs. Just as it is in traditional teaching environments – not all online earning experiences are created equal. As it turns out, how you design your online course could make a big difference in how well students perform, despite other obstacles.
Variables that Affect Student Retention
In research focused specifically on retention in online programs, Berge and Huang (2004) designed a comprehensive model that identified and categorized why students drop out of online courses. They focused on three clusters: personal, institutional and circumstantial.
Personal: These variables include demographics, individual traits (like academic skills and motivation) and past educational experiences. These variables are unique to each student and largely involve who the student is when they come to us.
Institutional: These include university mission, policy, structure, institutional attitudes and how the system is structured in ways that either help or hurt individual students. It is this cluster in which the institution holds the greatest ability to control.
Circumstantial: These are things that happen to the student, both by the institution and outside of it. These include institutional variables, such as interactions a student has with the university, professors and fellow students. It also involves external variables, such as work, family life, stress and health. These are things that happen while a student is with us and can be challenging to predict, control or alleviate.
The Difference that Online Course Design Can Make
It is impossible to help a student navigate all of these challenges while at CBU. Berge and Huang’s (2004) set of Institutional variables is a good place to start, because these are the policies and structures set by our private university. At various levels of our administration, it is critical to examine and bring change to policies and other structures that are frustrating or even stopping student progress.
On the individual level, you already know that as a professor, you can have a significant effect on a student’s satisfaction with their college experience. Dietz-Uhler (2007) took a more granular approach to how professors can impact student retention – by considering the design of online courses.
In their article, Dietz-Uhuler designed and revised two courses according to national standards set by the online course assessment nonprofit, Quality Matters. They found that across multiple semesters, retention rates in these individual classes each exceeded 90%!
You can read the full article here to assess the quality of their methodology and conclusions, but the authors maintain that applying these eight Quality Matters standards to their course design increased student retention:
1. Course Overview and Introduction: Detailed information in the syllabus about course navigation, expectations and information about the instructor. An “Introduction to Online Learning” was also included in one course, which is something the OLET team will be rolling out in the next few months.
2. Learning Objectives and Competencies: “Clearly defined and measurable learning objectives” were included in both the course overview and at the module level. Learning activities that contributed to learning outcomes were included in each of the course modules and the connection to the learning objectives were made explicit through rubrics and other explanations.
3. Assessment and Measurement: The courses included activities that were connected to the learning objectives, such as lecture note reviews, watching videos, interactive puzzles and simulations. The students were required to follow these activities by answering questions intended to stimulate reflection. The student reflections were given detailed feedback via email by instructors. The authors felt it was critical that all activities connect back to the learning objectives and that students were made explicitly aware of the connection.
4. Resources and Materials: Students were supported with instructional material related to resources required for the course. For example, in a course using graphing calculators, the professor provided video tutorials on how to program it. In another class, screen captures were used to create PPT tutorials on how to use a particular program. Another effective tool is a FAQ sheet to address commonly asked questions about resources, material or the course.
5. Learner Interaction: This pertains to meaningful interaction between the professor and the student. This could take place in email exchanges, discussion boards, video conferencing or videos submitted for back-and-forth visual conversations!. This standard also includes interaction between students in the class, all of which can be facilitated with the aforementioned modalities.
6. Course Technology: This standard was met by including “technology that enhances student learning and fosters learner interactivity.” Again, this involved discussion boards, video conferencing and email. The course syllabi in these courses also contained detailed information about downloading or installing any software or plug-ins required for the course. This could also mean instructions in the syllabus about technology and tech assistance provided by the university.
7. Learner Support: The professors provided information about technical, academic and student support offered by the university. Here at CBU, that could include adding our Online Student Success Resource Guide to your syllabus and encouraging students to utilize it.
8. Accessibility: Meeting this standard involved information about disability accommodations for students in the syllabus. CBU has a resource link for faculty with information about how to provide assistance for students with disabilities. One of the authors of this article also designed her coursework to be accessible to student with visual or hearing impairment.
Reading these standards can feel overwhelming but know that building a high-quality online course does not have to happen all at once. It can be done by revising or building your course with what you feel are the most important or simplest changes first, and then continually improving your course each semester. You can also contact one of the Instructional Designers on the OLET team to evaluate and recommend changes to your course (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Call: (901) 321-4004.)
Any change that moves your online course closer to these standards can result in students feeling less frustrated and better prepared to learn. Despite the myriad of personal, institutional and circumstantial barriers that my come their way – your online classroom could be the one place where they feel well supported to thrive.
Want to Learn More About Designing Online for Student Success?
If you are interested, you can check out the Showcase of Best Practices on the Quality Matters website that demonstrates how professors across the country are making changes to their online courses to increase student success.
You can also read this brief post about tweaking your course to be more student-friendly: 7 Ways to Improve Your Online Course Retention Rate via Learning Revolution.
Berge, Zane & Huang, Yi-Ping. (2004). A Model for Sustainable Student Retention: A Holistic Perspective on the Student Dropout Problem with Special Attention to e-Learning. DEOSNEWS. 13. Retrieved October 10, 2019 from: https://tinyurl.com/y2tseub3
Dietz, Beth & Fisher, Amy & Han, Andrea. (2007). Designing Online Courses to Promote Student Retention. Journal of Educational Technology Systems. 36. 105-112. 10.2190/ET.36.1.g. Retrieved October 10, 2019 from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249233937_Designing_Online_Courses_to_Promote_Student_Retention
Lurene Kelley is the Online Learning Specialist for CBU