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Building Connections That Matter: How Appreciative Advising Improves Retention Rates

I have talked a lot about how institutions can build successful systems to improve higher education, from developing the right programs to using best practices in curriculum to crafting marketing with outcomes-based messaging that resonates with students. But one often-overlooked piece of the success puzzle is how to retain students once they’ve enrolled.

Online education presents a unique challenge for retention because it’s easy for students to feel disconnected from the institution. Combined with that is the fact that typically, online students are older, working and have families — in short, they are busy, and their education is one more task they are trying to squeeze into an already full day. That can lead to high dropout rates.

Those dropout rates are one of the ways success is measured. It was one of the strongest criticisms levied at the for-profit colleges (both online and on-ground institutions); according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2008 the graduation rate for bachelor’s degrees was 60 percent, but only 27 percent at for-profit institutions. While enrollments were high at these institutions, students were not being given the tools they needed to complete their education.

At Learning House, we have placed a premium on not just finding students for our partners, but helping them achieve their education goals all the way through to graduation. We base our process on the philosophy of appreciative advising.

Defining Appreciative Advising

“OK, Todd,” I can hear you saying, “that sounds great, but I have no idea what appreciative advising is.” To be honest, I didn’t either, until I spoke closely with members of our retention team, who use it as the foundation for everything they do.

Appreciative advising is both simple and incredibly difficult: It is the idea that taking a fully student-centered approach to advising helps build long-lasting relationships tailored to student needs and leading to success. We want students to recognize they do belong in school, and they have the capacity to succeed.

Our approach is based on what strengths students bring, not what deficits they have. We ask questions to understand students’ intrinsic motivation, and these conversations facilitate students finding their natural skills to make their classroom experience a success.

How It Works

At Learning House, there are six steps to the appreciative advising process, but all of them are based on the principle of asking open-ended questions, listening closely to what the student says and building a trusting, respectful relationship. Steps include:

Disarm: Frequently, students who start our programs have already taken college classes elsewhere, and for a number of reasons, it hasn’t worked out. They are wary, nervous and concerned about being judged. Our advisors work to be friendly, respectful and knowledgeable, so students feel they can ask whatever questions they have, no matter how small, and they will get an answer quickly, without judgment.

Dream: Part of being without judgment is knowing why people are earning their degree. Is it to get a better job? To improve their salary? Simply to finish something they started? To paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, when you understand the why, you can figure out the how. Our advisors ask open-ended questions designed to help students think through their motivation, and then that information is used to continually motivate students throughout their program.

Discover: Knowing what students value, what they are good at and where they are concerned helps us tailor our advising to their individual needs. Again, that’s where the open-ended questions and non-judgmental attitude come into play. Let’s say there is a student who tells us she has a tendency to procrastinate and then miss assignments. We can help her by facilitating a simple reflection experience with questions such as: What other course experiences have you had when procrastination was not an issue? What did you do differently and why was procrastination not a factor? Once the student has identified the reason why procrastination is happening, she is empowered to own an outcome that matches her strengths. Meaningful change is at the root of her mindset, and now both advisor and student can work out the details for change. This reflection exercise has long-lasting benefits, as well. The next time the student recognizes a challenge, she may opt for a positive approach.

Plan for Success: As the example above shows, having a plan for success relies on our strengths. An academic plan for success should be developed in conjunction with the student and clearly communicated, so the team knows what they can expect from each other. And then, it’s incumbent on both the student and the advisor to follow through on the plan, so students have the best chance possible of succeeding. This might be knowing the best way to communicate with students, helping them plan their degree or ensuring they are in regular contact with professors. But whatever the plan, it must be followed.

Ownership: We’ve talked a lot about how the advisor guides the student through strengths discovery, but one of the most important pieces that balances this relationship is accountability. This education is for the student — the advisor can support, cheerlead and encourage, but ultimately, success or failure is down to the student. Creating a structure and a relationship where students feel empowered to be their own champion not only helps students be more successful in their program, but also in other aspects of their life. If they know they have conquered this mountain, they are more confident about tackling other challenges they face.

Continuous Improvement: I feel like I say this a lot, but it’s in part because this is a core tenet at Learning House — measure what matters, and improvement will follow. So while it’s important for our advisors to build strong relationships and focus on that personal interaction, they also are monitoring how students are performing and are making suggestions for improvement. Those improvements might be institutional (perhaps changing the order classes are taken or opening up more sections) or they might be student-centric (helping students understand how to manage their time better, for example). But no matter what, advisors know there is always more to achieve, and they are committed to continuously improving the student experience and advising process.

Applying Appreciative Advising to a Retention Strategy

As I said above, appreciative advising is the foundation of our retention strategy here. The emphasis on student-centric services, an open and honest dialogue and respectful communication informs every step of our process. But appreciative advising cannot be the only aspect of a successful retention strategy. At Learning House, our online advisors:

  • Provide a motivation-focused onboarding
  • Serve as a one-stop resource
  • Offer coaching and develop plans for success
  • Assist with degree planning and registration
  • Monitor student outcomes
  • Help with graduation and planning for the next steps in a student’s education

But underpinning all of these tactics is a belief that every student has the ability to graduate, and that providing a support structure will bring more ROI than letting people sink or swim on their own. It requires a significant investment in time, human capital and resources, but for Learning House and our partners, it’s worth it.

Speaking of Outcomes…

Like I said, it’s important to measure what matters. We send out surveys to our students regularly, and that’s one of the ways we know that appreciative advising works. At Learning House, we average 115 interactions per student over the course of their program, whether it’s via email, telephone or text. And those interactions are making a difference; 62 percent of students said they felt connected to their institution because of their advisor. That’s more than people who said they felt connected to their institution because of interactions with their peers or faculty.

Students who feel connected are more likely to stay enrolled and, ultimately, to graduate. That’s not only good for the institution, it’s good for students and helps Learning House fulfill its mission of improving lives through education.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: