How Universities Can Improve Student Retention in Online Courses

How Universities Can Improve Student Retention in Online Courses

Online courses are more likely to have students drop out than traditional classes. Though there are many reasons for this, the overall causes are vague expectations and lack of rapport. Fortunately, improving the retention of online learners becomes easier if these two elements are addressed correctly. 

First of all, most learners believe that an online class means convenience. After all, logging on from a laptop or smartphone to attend class sure beats fighting traffic and finding an elusive parking spot. But along with this convenience is the expectation that schoolwork will be completed anytime and anywhere. 

To help learners understand the true dedication it takes to successfully complete an online course, they must understand the expectations. One of the best ways to do this is through an interactive tutorial. Here are a few things a non-course-specific tutorial should include:



Time expected watching lectures/videos per week

  • Explain that watching a lecture/video is not the same as studying

Time expected participating in class discussions

  • Include examples of productive discussion comments to illustrate the effort involved

Live screen-to-screen presentations may be required in some courses

  • Some students may shy away from these and opt for traditional courses


After completing this type of tutorial, first-time online learners would benefit from speaking directly to an advisor about these expectations. The advisor can answer general questions about expectations. In addition, an advisor could describe a typical online course problem, such as when a learner does not understand the learning management system. The advisor could ask the learner how she might handle it. While on the phone with the learner, the advisor can walk through the location of online resources, such as the help desk.

The second area that must be addressed to improve retention is building rapport between the learner and instructor. Instructors may need to be trained and encouraged on how to leverage technology to create a friendly virtual atmosphere. Possible activities to begin creating rapport include:


Asking learners to create a short video introducing themselves

  • Instructors should respond to each video with an individualized message

Create a survey for each course to see what interests learners

  • Incorporate these interests into lessons or assignments

Schedule at least one one-on-one short online interview with each student during the first three weeks of school (before the drop date)

  • Instructors should ask learners for questions about the course, content, and her college experience as a whole


By providing learners with clear expectations and an opportunity to speak to someone about them, learners feel supported. When instructors acknowledge individual learners, each learner feels validated. The personal connection between the learner and her advisor and instructor provides her with the human contact she would otherwise not receive. Retaining online learners can be done using the resources and educational organization it already has: It’s amazing advisors and faculty.

Download Our 4 Tips to Help You Create Engaging Content for Online Courses

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