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September 6, 2016

Improving Retention in Online Courses Takes Work, But Do Retention Techniques Help?

I’ve been teaching online now for 18 years. Makes me sound old, especially since so many instructors are brand new to teaching online. Well times have changed, students have changed, and the technology we use to teach online has changed too, not all for the better. What I mean by that is students have different expectations of what online learning is and most mistakenly believe online courses will be easier for them to complete. As an online instructor, this is often difficult to deal with especially if you’re set on improving retention in your courses. Over the years I’ve developed some pretty standard processes to help with this, but more so lately I’ve found that those strategies are reaching directly to the student and not necessarily the course design. However, I’ll preview a few of each in this post.

First, students need to be aware of what the expectations are for the online course up front and preferably before the course begins. This way students will have an opportunity to learn what is expected and make a wise decision to continue on or drop and add an on-ground course. As a policy for our English department online courses, we open the courses 3-7 days before the start date. We also send a welcome letter to students outlining the expectations of the course, which generally discusses expected study time each week and advice on what it takes to be successful in the online course. Here is an example letter here. I’ve had a few students opt out of the class after reading the letter and taking a look around the online course.

Another retention technique is to include an orientation in the first week of your course. The orientation will give students early on a taste of many of the kinds of tasks they will be assigned to do throughout the course. Having them experience these things early on with low stakes makes doing these tasks later on much easier. It also ensures the instructor that all students know how to do what is expected when it’s time to do them. I require students to complete the orientation within the first five days of the course in order to remain enrolled in the course. If they don’t complete it, they are dropped as a No Show and get a full refund.

The orientation includes things like checking email, posting to the discussion forum, setting up a blog. If they can complete the list of tasks in a timely manner, the idea is that they should be able to handle following directions and completing the tasks for the course. Below is an example of an orientation for a lit class.


Keeping a progress list is crucial to everyone’s sanity. Students, as well as the instructor, want to know if they’ve completed items on the list, so I create a spreadsheet with the items across the topics. Once a student completes the student information form, they make it on the list. And then I fill in the rest as the complete it. I generally update the list twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. On a daily basis for these first five days I send out emails reminding students to complete the orientation.


Another technique I use to reach out to students is text messaging. I ask students for their cell phone numbers in the student information form. If they provide it to me, I add them to my Gmail address book and create a group (ENH114 Fall16). My Gmail contacts are attached to my Google Voice number and inbox, so I can use that to send text messages to students individually or as a group. I also set up a Remind class for students who fill safer using that than giving me their cell phone number. Most students use both. I use text messages to probe students about missing assignments or not engaging in the course enough throughout the week, and I use Remind to send out blanket reminders about due dates for assignments. Using text messaging is not as time-consuming as one would imagine, and the fear is that instructors will be constantly fielding questions via text all day long. That simply isn’t the case. In the first three weeks of the semester, I’ve received less than 10 texts – average 3 a week.


I schedule the Remind announcements 3-4 weeks at a time, so only once a month do I have to go in deal with that.

timeadvisoryLastly, time commitment seems to be the biggest challenge for students, especially the students who sign up for an online class because they work full-time and have a family to care for and think online courses are the only way they can do college. I tell them it’s not a great recipe unless they are willing to make sacrifices, but I also try to help them out by giving time estimates for each module, each week and each lesson/activity. I start with the big picture which is general a 3-4 week module.


Below is example of the text I provide each week:

Plan your time: Unit 1.1 should take you about 5 hours to complete. After completing the course orientation in the first part of week 1, you should turn your attention to this unit. You should have a good 4 days to complete the three lessons in this unit. You should also plan to start the Lesson 1.1.4 Discussion this week.

Then at the assignment level, each lesson has a time estimate as well:

Instructions: Please view the entire video (5 minutes) as Melvyn Bragg explains some of the features of African American language as it developed during slavery and provides examples of the African American vernacular as used in the works of many authors.  Take notes as you view the lecture and afterwards, take 5-7 minutes to write a summary paragraph between 200-250 words about what you learned from the video.  Viewing this video, taking notes, and writing the summary should take approximately 20 minutes to complete.

Overall, I think these strategies have been successful, although there are no full proof plans or guarantees. Three weeks into the semester, and I’ve already had three students drop, presumably because they realized they were in over their heads. And then I still have six students who are failing despite my constant emails and texts asking if they need help and reminders that work is due. If I can’t reach these six, my retention numbers will be in the dumps once again despite all my efforts to improve it – three week in! Guess I’ll just have to be satisfied that 13 of the original 22 (59%) are passing and doing great.

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