Online Retention Strategies

About this document

This is a supporting document for a panel discussion I participated in at Nashville State Community College on 8/14/2014. The topic was Early Intervention Strategies – Making the Connection.

Note: This is a easy reference to the materials I provided during the panel discussion. It is not an exhaustive list for all of the panel members.


Retention in higher education is an issue1. When the course delivery is online, it is even more so. In a 2013 article in EduCause, one cited study found that roughly 5 percent of students who signed up for a Coursera MOOC earned a credential signifying official completion of the course2. Since MOOCs are large self study courses with little to no instructor guidance, this is not surprising. Nashville State’s retention numbers are not so dramatic, but judging from the numbers of students that do not complete even my own online classes, the percentage of success is not as good as my own face to face courses. Why?

During my graduate program in eLearning Design, it was stressed that online education should emphasize “high touch” in addition to “high tech.” This notion is consistent with my own experience. It also concurs with the findings of several studies that I’ve found for your convenience (see references). In general, reaching out personally to the students through email, discussion forums, phone, and office visits going a long way of building a sense of community. That sense of community, for many students, is essential for success. To foster that sense of community early on, I follow the practices as outlined in the following list.

My List

The strategies are easy.

  1. I send out a bulk email to all my advisees the first week I’m back on campus. I invite them to connect with me for advising and help with their schedule. I also list the courses they “should” be enrolled in that semester due to course availability. I’ll do that on Aug 13 or 14th. Depending on the fires that burning when I walk in the door.
  2. When online classes start, I send an email to all of the students telling them to watch the discussion forums. I post important to dos in the discussion forum
  3. Towards the end of the first week, I look at the progress of all my online students, if there are some that have not  logged in yet, or posted an introductory message, I send them an email to see if they need help. If I don’t hear from them by week two, I call.
  4. I watch the discussion forum every day. If the discussion forum gets quiet, I’ll post a message to see how everyone is doing. Sometimes that gets a response. Not always. I find that students watch their email more than the discussion forum in some classes.
  5. Following the due date of an assignment, I check to see that everyone has submitted it. There may be an opportunity for low lying fruit here. If a student hasn’t submitted the assignment, that is an opportunity to reach out. A quick email asking if they need help is often the nudge they need. It let’s them know that someone is monitoring them. Just knowing that I’m paying attention is itself is a motivator.
  6. When teaching, I always tell my students that our relationship is just beginning. I tell them that if they have an issue, I’m available. Then when they test that, I follow up. It helps me build trust.
  7. I have mandatory “reflective writing” assignments throughout the semester. Even for those students that don’t reach out, it gives me a peek into their process, challenges, and over-all experience of the course and subject matter. Sometimes, quiet students are still enjoying the course. (whether or not that is reflected in IDEA).
  8. Allow students to work on projects that interest them and connect to the real-world.


It works for me is to reach out early and encourage students to connect with me and with the class (preferably in one place, i.e. the discussion forum, so I don’t have to duplicate my communications effort and waste time). The students that decide to connect typically have a good experience. There are some that choose not to connect. Some struggle. The independent learners do fine. The “no-shows” are not going to engage regardless of what I do, so there is nothing I can do about it. As the semester gets rolling, teaching, grading, solving student problems, meetings, and other faculty responsibilities take up a lot of time and making extra effort for student out-reach becomes more difficult.

I hope you find this article, the list, and the references helpful. Want to continue the discussion? Reach out. Leave a comment or contact me via my contact page.



  1. Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students. (2014). Institute of Education Sciences.
  2. Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng, Chuong Do, and Zhenghao Chen (2012). Retention and Intention in Massive Open Online Courses: In Depth. Educause,
  3. Chapter 1: Concerns and Opportunities for Online Student Retention, in the book, Motivating and Retaining Online Students: Research-Based Strategies That Work, by Rosemary M. Lehman and Simone C.O. Conceição. It is part of the Jossey-Bass Guides to Online Teaching and Learning. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. [] Copyright © 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,
  4. Zhenghao Chen, Justin Cheng, Daniel Chia, Pang Wei Koh (2012). CS224W Final Report
    Engagement, Interaction, and Retention in Online Classes, Stanford University.
  5. Mandy Zatynski (2013). Calling for Success: Online Retention Rates Get Boost From Personal Outreach.


Free education anyone?

The following article appeared in the NY Times, The web is certainly changing things. Learning objects are everywhere on the web. The educators of the future will be curriculum designers, advisers, learning object creators, learning object aggregaters, assessment specialists, and provide some sort of gateway or certification process to assure industry that employees are ready. Wait!! That’s what we’re doing now!! Son of a gun. The business model sure is changing though.