The Secret to Student Retention: 25 Lessons to Be Learned from Online Programs

August 26th, 2013 No Comments Features


Note: The following article is written based on studies conducted by US-based Universities. Unfortunately, we cannot find similar information for providers in Australia, but the lessons learned should be applicable locally.

With students spread across 47 states and a dozen countries, you might expect the University of Illinois at Springfield to face significant challenges in promoting student retention.

But that’s not the case.

A few key strategies have earned UIS an online course completion rate that hovers just 2-3% percent below the on-campus completion rate, not to mention an equally strong degree-completion rate. 

And it’s not alone.Pennsylvania State University, which entered the online learning market with the launch of the World Campus in 1998, now serves more than 10,300 students (primarily adult part-time learners), representing nearly 50,000 course enrollments, and delivers over seventy online degree and certificate programs to students in all fifty states and more than fifty countries worldwide.

It now has a 92% student retention rate, considered one of the highest in the U.S.

Yet another hero in the battle for student retention, the Iowa Community College Online Consortium (ICCOC), formed in 1999, includes nine community colleges that partner to provide online education to their students. The consortium includes the Eastern Iowa Community College District (Clinton, Muscatine, and Scott Community Colleges), Iowa Lakes, Iowa Western, Northwest Iowa, Southeastern, Southwestern, and Western Iowa Tech. The ICCOC delivers a wide variety of online courses and 11 fully online degrees to students across the state of Iowa.

Like many institutions, the ICCOC faced the challenge of improving the way in which it identified at-risk students. In 2007, 40 percent of students were new to online learning and unfamiliar with the self-discipline needed to perform well in such an environment. At that time, just 77 percent of at-risk students completed their courses, and of those, only 57 percent got a grade of “C” or higher.

Using analytics tools tied to its online learning platform, the ICCOC was able to increase the student success rate for at-risk students by nine percent between fall 2005 and fall 2007 (by james at dhead fashion). At the same time, at-risk students’ course completion rates increased from 77 percent to 82 percent. In fall 2009, at-risk students’ course completion reached 85 percent.

So what is the secret to these online institutions’ success? You may be surprised to discover that it’s not terribly different from that of successful on-campus programs…

The University of Illinois at Springfield

  1. Course Standardization: Online programs are requested and developed by the academic department and approved through the same college and governance structures used by traditional face-to-face programs.
  2. Professional Development: Faculty members are supported in their online and blended teaching by the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service (COLRS), which offers technology training and pedagogical support in several formats: group training, online webinars, and one-on-one support sessions. Online workshops and certificate programs are offered to faculty members through the university’s membership in the Sloan Consortium.
  3. Small Class Size: Many online courses are capped at 25, allowing students and faculty to develop close relationships over the 15-week semester.
  4. Courses Designed for Degree Completion: Online courses are developed for degree-granting programs, rather than as stand-alone courses.
  5. Data-Driven Decision Making: Advanced data-driven decision making has been enabled through the services of professionals in IT Services, COLRS, and Institutional Research who mine the rich data collected by the Banner enterprise reporting system. Read more about learning analytics.
  6. Online Program Coordinators: Recruit students, track student schedules and progress toward degree completion, encourage and facilitate communication between students and faculty members, advocate for students in administrative and bureaucratic matters, support students who confront individual challenges in moving toward degree completion.
  7. Student Peer Mentors: Facilitate discussions, track participation, provide training on classroom technologies, and answer questions about the course. Read more about peer teaching.

Penn State’s World Campus

  1. Use technology in innovative ways: Use technology where and how students expect it, where it adds value, where it can offer students options, and where it can extend student services to be available almost 24/7. For example, technology can be used to make students feel a part of the unique Penn State community, even at a distance. Read more about emerging educational technology.
  2. Mind the Data: Use thoughtful metrics and data to determine which technology is working — and which isn’t. Don’t assume that it will work as intended for students. Be prepared to stop using what doesn’t work.
  3. Personal Touch: The personal touch is still very important — don’t try to use technology for everything. Choose wisely. For example, advisors and the Help Desk are critical links for students who need a real person to answer a question or troubleshoot a technical issue. Engage students through technology AND the old fashioned way—through human contact.
  4. Experiment regularly with new approaches and technologies: For example, World Campus contracted with Inside Track to provide one-on-one coaching to prospects to map out a plan for their education and identify any barriers that would hinder their success, even before they make any long-term commitment.
  5. Partner with Businesses: Colleges and universities can no longer do everything themselves. Consider working with businesses that specialize in certain kinds of services, e.g., software development. Be sure to do your homework before partnering with them.
  6. Offer Career Services: Student success doesn’t end with the degree — career services should be offered throughout the educational experience and beyond.
  7. Tech Support for Students: Online learners have varying familiarity with technology. Providing excellent and timely technological support and resources is critical.
  8. Invest in learning design and faculty development: The quality of the engaged learning experience is dependent upon the commitment of faculty and learning designers to exploring innovative ways of teaching and learning.
  9. Recruitment and Marketing: The marketing unit, internal to the World Campus, is critical to its success. Prospective students are provided with an overview of what World Campus offers for those seeking a quality academic experience. An external firm, Inside Track, provides prospective undergraduates with personal coaching from point of contact to the end of the fourth week of their first semester. Smarter Measures, a purchased software assessment tool, helps incoming students assess their readiness for distance education.
  10. Archived Resources: Archived lectures, videos, course tools, and presentations allow access whenever needed. Use of digital-learning objects facilitates learning through visualization, resulting in a more illustrative learning experience. Scalability is achieved by providing access to these digital-learning repositories for multiple students simultaneously.
  11. Adaptive Testing: This is a new technology that personalizes the learning process for each student. With Knewton, World Campus is pilot testing new software for helping students with remedial and developmental needs.
  12. Library Access and Research Tutorials: World Campus students have access to Penn State’s world-class research library, including digital resources, books, journals, e-journals, newspapers, microforms, databases, movies, music, and more. World Campus offers online tutorials for students who want to hone their research skills.
  13. Advisor Assignments for Struggling Students: World Campus faculty complete “Early Progress Reports” for all struggling students, which are then provided to the student and advisor. Advisor intervention has resulted in improved retention.


  1. Monitor and act on key performance indicators: When red flags arise, take appropriate action and make adjustments.
  2. Define consistent and organized learning outcomes for students to attain: Students need consistency and clear-cut examples of what faculty are looking for and what constitutes success.
  3. Set the optimal pace for each student to succeed by providing customized and appropriate learning paths guided by performance data: This speaks to an emerging initiative called Learning Paths. Learning Paths allows an instructor to develop and customize learning based on student performance within a chapter or unit. A student requiring remediation in a chapter will take a path different from that of a student who demonstrates mastery.
  4. Collect, provide feedback on, and score student success: You can only improve what you measure.
  5. Consistently evaluate teaching and learning, and continuously collect and assess student feedback on well-documented and overlooked topics: Well-documented student feedback includes response time (the need for instructors to provide feedback within 24 hours), and course navigation and design. Overlooked topics would be any student feedback on an issue of which we are not aware. We conduct student surveys at the end of every semester so that changes can be made when necessary. Read more about effectively giving student feedback.

Educators and administrators of both online and on-campus programs across the globe would do well to learn from institutions like these. While measures of retention alone cannot fully reflect a program’s quality or potential for student engagement, they can certainly provide a jump-off point for improving a program’s infrastructure, enhancing the student learning experience, and ultimately creating a more educated and self-directed workforce.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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