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4 Strategies for Helping the At-Risk Online Student

While enrollments in higher education have been on the decline, online education remains a bright spot, with projected growth through 2020. While that is good news for the industry (and students, who have access to convenient, flexible education options), it also raises an issue: retention.

Online students can retain less well than face-to-face students, with one study suggesting dropout rates tend to be 10-20 percent higher in online courses than in face-to-face courses. There are a few reasons for this. Online students tend to be busier, juggling work and family. They also tend to be older, and thus have not been in a classroom as recently. And many of them might suffer from low self-esteem, having tried higher education in the past and having not found success.

The positive in all of this? Online students can be encouraged to persist, and faculty can have a significant impact on that retention. There are institutional issues that can be addressed — ensuring the right students are enrolled, offering truly asynchronous classes, offering multiple start dates and ensuring a variety of class offerings and degree laddering. But at the heart of every successful student is a dedicated instructor committed to top-quality course design and delivery. Online education is no different. Here are four strategies to identify and retain the at-risk online student in your classroom.

1: Know Who Is At Risk

First is understanding who is most at risk for dropping out of the course. I recommend a few ways of doing this: build personal connections and utilize technology. The personal connections might seem obvious, but it requires being mindful for online faculty. Make an effort to get to know your students and their personal circumstances. That will help you know who is juggling multiple commitments, what kind of course load they are taking and what their study habits are like. A student who has two jobs, kids and no spouse is going to be stretched thin and might need extra support or earlier interventions. (Of course, that student might be a wizard at time management to juggle everything he or she has going on, and building that personal connection will help you understand where on the spectrum he or she falls.)

But while personal connections are important, there are also tools to help faculty identify these students. Your LMS can help you track who is handing in their assignments on time, allowing you to intervene more quickly with those who are falling behind. With online classes lasting on average only eight weeks, falling behind on an assignment can quickly spiral into missing key portions of the course, and this behavior needs to be nipped in the bud. When a faculty member is juggling multiple courses, being able to run a report that identifies students who are late on assignments or who haven’t participated in a discussion board can be the difference between having a comfortable bird’s-eye view of the course and feeling totally overwhelmed.

Technology also can help identify trends. Assignments on which a significant portion of students perform poorly may indicate a problem with the assignment, at least for some types of students. Perhaps group projects are challenging for students whose time commitments mean they need a truly asynchronous schedule, and other options need to be provided to assess these students’ learning. Again, a robust LMS will help identify these trends sooner, and thus enable faculty to adjust more rapidly.

2: Understand the Motivation

Regardless of how well a course is constructed, success without motivation is impossible. And as anyone who has a child knows, forcing someone to do a task (say, set the table) without them wanting to ends up costing you more in time and energy than it rewards. But faculty who can find a student’s motivation and appeal to it are far more likely to have an engaged class that successfully completes the course.

Motivation can take many forms — it might be a big picture goal, like earning a degree to get a promotion. It also can be intrinsically personal — maybe it’s the satisfaction of completing something that has eluded the student in the past. Maybe it’s something small, like wanting praise for a job well-done. Regardless of what the motivation is, reminding students of that desire and helping them see how their work will help them achieve their goals are critical to retaining the online student.

3: Build a Community

Although online students can easily feel isolated behind their computer screens, building a community is not only possible, it’s also vital. When people feel a part of a group, they are more likely to stay engaged. The group can provide resources and support when needed, offer important accountability and even exert a subtle psychological pressure to stay the course. I always recommend faculty create spaces for community to flourish. That might be email chains, social media groups or other online spaces where students can meet. I also encourage faculty to let groups grow organically, with minimal intervention from the faculty. While I don’t recommend that faculty stay entirely disengaged, communities should feel like they formed from the “bottom up,” rather than decreed from an authority figure.

4: Increase Access

It may sound obvious, but courses need to be designed to be accessible to all students. That means applying Universal Design for Learning principles so everyone, regardless of ability, can access the course. This has the obvious benefit of helping to retain students with limitations such as impaired vision, but it also can help retain other students as well. As I mentioned above, developing a community is important, and creating a class that is welcoming and accessible is a good way to help build such a community. UDL principles also ensure that information is available in a variety of ways, so people are more likely to access it in a way that works for them, making them more likely to succeed at acquiring knowledge. A course built on UDL principles, for example, will have information that those who learn visually and those who are auditory learners can use, helping ensure that all learners have a positive experience.

Ultimately, the key to retention is flexibility and attention. Knowing who you are teaching and adapting to meet their needs is the underlying principle behind all of these strategies. It may not be easy, but it will be worth it.

For more information on these strategies as well as other retention tools, please join me and Learning House Director of Faculty Development and Video Production Galen Davis for a free, live webinar on Thursday, April 20 at 1 p.m. EDT.

About Danny McDonald

Danny McDonald, PhD, is a Faculty Development Specialist at Learning House, where he trains college and university faculty on best practices of online course delivery. Danny has 16 years of experience in education, ranging from teaching high school math to college-level philosophy. Danny’s teaching experience includes both face-to-face and online education. In addition to teaching, Danny also has experience in higher education administration, training and course development. In addition to working at Learning House, Danny adjuncts for Boyce College and Boyce College Online.