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Engaging Online Students to Increase Retention

Wren Mills (Western Kentucky University, USA)
Session Information
October 14, 2015 - 12:45pm
Learning Effectiveness
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Asia 4
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 2
Virtual Session

Educators worldwide struggle with retention in online courses. This session will explore strategies to engage students and keep them enrolled.

Extended Abstract

Retention is a hot topic on any campus, especially in online courses and programs where students seem to slip away at a higher rate than in brick-and-mortar classrooms. Patterson and McFadden (2009) found that dropout rates from online programs were significantly higher than the same programs offered on campus: 43% compared to 11%, and in some cases, 6-7 times higher than on campus offerings. There are, however, ideas faculty and instructional designers can utilize in putting together courses and programs that can lead toward better retention and success of online learners.

Sadera, Robertson, Song, and Midon (2009) found “a strong correlation between learner interaction and engagement, sense of community, and success in online learning” (p. 282). Other studies have found a strong relationship between better retention and success and an instructor’s social presence in a course (Boston, Diaz, Gibson, Ice, Richardson, & Swan, 2009; Ley & Gannon-Cook, 2014; Motteram & Gorrester, 2005; York & Richadson, 2012). Motteram and Gorrester (2005) and Sherdian and Kelly (2010) both linked clear directions and expectations of what to do to lower dropout rates, too. Integrating certain types of assignments into online courses has also shown to be effective in keeping students enrolled and helping them to learn (Mooney, Southard, & Burton, 2014; Sancho-Vinuesa, Escudero-Viladoms, & Masia, 2013) as well as the type and timeliness of feedback received (Ley & Gannon-Cook, 2014; Sherdian & Kelly, 2010; York & Richardson, 2012).

This session will briefly review some of literature on what can affect the retention of online learners, including community building, fostering faculty-student interaction through the development of a social presence, and the role of feedback on retention of students in online courses. We’ll also look into some of the “most important instructor behaviors” (Sherdian & Kelly, 2010) and “most valued instructor interactions” (Ley & Gannon-Cook, 2014), as well as some of the factors that cause students to leave that faculty cannot control (Fetzner, 2013). The presenter’s own decade of experiences in online teaching will be shared and used to jumpstart each conversation about ideas participants have tried or quandaries they’ve faced in their own courses. Additionally, we will discuss what other offices or services offered by campuses might help faculty in their attempts to retain their online students. Ideally, this discussion will be a highly practical conversation rooted in best practices that are grounded in the literature and tried-and-true, on-the-ground experiences of those who attend.

By the end of this session, participants should be able to:

  1. Describe methods of community building in online courses and their effect on retention
  2. Discuss the role of feedback in retention
  3. List possible assignments, materials, and techniques to be used to engage and interact with students, connect them with content, and aid in retention.


Boston, W., Diaz, S.R., Gibson, A., Ice, P., Richardson, J., & Swan, K. (2009). An Exploration of the Relationship Between Indicators of the Community of Inquiry Framework and Retention in Online Programs. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13 (3), 67-83.

Fetzner, M. (2013). What do unsuccessful online students want us to know? Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, (17)1, 13—27. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/jaln_main

Ley, K. and Gannon-Cook, R. (2014). Learner-valued interactions: Research into practice. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(1), 23-32. Retrieved from http://www.aect.org/pdf/proceedings13/2013/13_16.pdf

Mooney, M., Southard, S., & Burton, C. H. (2014). Shifting from obligatory discourse to rich dialogue: Promoting student interaction in asynchronous threaded discussion postings. Online Journal of Distance Education Administration, 17(1). Retrieved from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring171/mooney_southerland_burton171.html

Patterson, B. & McFadden, C. (2009). Attrition in online and campus degree programs. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(2). http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/summer122/patterson112.html

Sadera, W. A., Robertson, J., Song, L., & Midon, M. N. (2009). The Role of Community in Online Learning Success. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2), 277-284. Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol5no2/sadera_0609.pdf

Sancho-Vinuesa, T., Escudero-Viladoms, N., & Masia, R. (2013). Continuous activity with immediate feedback: a good strategy to guarantee student engagement with the course. Open Learning, 28(1), 51-60. doi: 10.1080/02680513.2013.776479

Sheridan, K., & Kelly, M.A. (2010). The indicators of instructor presence that are important to students in online courses. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6 (4). Available at http://jolt.merlot.org/vol6no4/sheridan_1210.htm

York, C.S. & Richardson, J.C. (2012). Interpersonal interaction in online learning: Experienced online instructors’ perceptions of influencing factors. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, (16)4, 83—98. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/jaln_main

Lead Presenter

As the Distance Learning Training Coordinator, Wren provides both in-person and virtual training and consultations for faculty who wish to better their skills with technology in the classroom and online teaching; this includes Quality Matters training. She also serves as the point of contact for all Blackboard Outcomes Assessment inquiries. Additionally, Wren conducts ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Section 508 Compliance training to help faculty revise their course materials to be ADA compliant. Previous to her position in Distance Learning, Wren worked as the Instructional Coordinator for the Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching at WKU and was an Assistant Professor in English at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College. Wren has also worked as an Adjunct Instructor for WKU since 1999 and won the Potter College Part-Time Faculty Teaching Award in 2014.


Questions asked by the Virtual Audience but unanswered during the live session, have been answered by the presenter below: 


Q. What do you think about providing texts as quick check-ins/support?

A. I think that if you’re comfortable texting students, and they want to share their cell numbers with you, this is a great idea. I’m not a texter, and I’m also not someone who gives out my cell number. However, this is another way to create that instructor presence that the literature shows to be so important in helping students to persist in online courses (and any modality, really!) . I have heard about apps that can assist with this, but because they are not something I would use, I’ve not investigated.

I do, however, reach out to students via email when they have disappeared, or put a comment in with their grades (outside of the rubric, where they’ll see it when they check grades) to ask if they need help or give kudos for a good work or improved performance. I have had students comment that the encouragement and support means a lot to them. I’m just giving a sentence or two of specific feedback, but that can make the difference to some folks. It helps them know I’m there, I’m really paying attention, and I’m happy to help… and only takes a moment for each student.