Student Retention in Online Classes: More Questions Than Answers

By Laura Paciorek, MiraCosta College (Child Development)


Introduction: Student Retention

Student retention has always sparked a lot of questions for me and for many faculty with whom I have discussed the issue.  Why do some students finish a class and others do not?  Why is it that some sections of the same classes, even those taught by the same instructor, have different student retention rates than others?  What can an instructor do, if anything, to help with student retention in classes?  Should we be concerned about student retention or student success?  Are success and retention the same thing or are they different?  Whose issue is student retention: the student, the instructor, the institution, or some combination of the three?

Throughout my conversations with fellow faculty members and administrators regarding the topic of student retention, many theories have surfaced.  In preparing for this blog post, I decided to do a bit of research into the literature on student retention in online classes.  As a whole, my research has led to more questions than answers. 

I reviewed a total of six articles on online student retention, each on a totally different aspect related to retention.  I tried to find some of the most recent articles on the topic that were available to me.  The six articles found have all had a different focus and approach.  I will briefly describe the articles here:

Article 1

Leeds, E., Campbell, S., Baker, H., Ali, R., Brawley, D. & Crisp, J. (2013). The impact of  student retention strategies: an empirical study.  International Journal of  Management in Education, 7(1/2), 22–43. doi: 10.1504/IJMIE.2013.050812

This article by Leeds, Campbell, Baker, Ali, Brawley, and Crisp (2013) was particularly interesting to me because it looks directly at what instructors do to help with retention and whether or not those strategies were successful.  The study was empirical with an experimental and control group.  The focus was on whether or not the following strategies would increase student retention: video orientations, welcome e-mails, personal phone calls, e-mails of course contracts, course/syllabus quizzes, start here documents, welcome to student services activities, post-introductions, ice breakers, team projects, and small group discussions.

The finding: There was only about an 0.85% difference in retention for the treatment and control groups (Treatment = 70.37% retention, Control = 69.14% retention).

Does this mean that what an instructor does to help with retention does not matter?  Is there some other issue with the study that may have impacted the results?

Because there is a lot more to the article than what is listed here, I encourage you to read it yourself and see what questions and answers it brings up for you.


Article 2

Britto, M. & Rush, S. (2013). Developing and implementing comprehensive student support services for online students. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(1), 29-42. Retrieved from

This article by Britto and Rush (2013) suggests that “retention” is both completion and success.  The main point of this article is to describe what one college system did to address online student retention.  The Lone Star College system, in the Houston area, created a Comprehensive Online Student Support Services Model to attempt to provide comparable services to online students as are received by face-to-face students and to increase completion and success rates.

The following services were described in detail as a part of what was offered to students: technical support, an early alert system, advising services, case management advising, readiness assessments, student orientations, tutoring, new student orientations, and e-newsletters.  For individuals interested in institutional responses to retention, this article provides information that could be useful.  The authors are still looking at outcomes related to the model.  However, they noted that face-to-face students are requesting to access online advising because of efficiency of model (p. 39).

Article 3

Tobin, T. J. (2014).  Increase online student retention with Universal Design for Learning. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(3), 13-24. Retrieved from

Tobin’s (2014) article provides information for instructors who are interested in implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, which are suggested to increase student retention.  Tobin comments that it is helpful to consider access for students with disabilities, but that UDL strategies could help all students, including those using mobile devices more to access classes. 

“UDL is an approach to the creation of learning experiences that incorporates multiple means of engaging with content and people, representing information, and expressing skills and knowledge” (p. 14).  The article outlines five strategies and provides ideas for what instructors can do in the next 20 minutes, 20 days, and 20 months to incorporate UDL into teaching practices.  Resources are provided in the article.


Article 4

Russo-Gleicher, R. J. (2013). Qualitative Insights into Faculty Use of Student Support Services with Online Students at Risk: Implications for Student Retention. Journal Of Educators Online, 10(1).  Retrieved from

Russo-Gleicher’s (2013) article provides the results of 16 in-depth qualitative interviews with faculty who teach online.  The focus of the interviews was on how faculty use student support services in the classes they teach.  A variety of approaches were discovered.  While some instructors may refer students to support services, other instructors may not.  The conclusion of the article included three recommendations that would attempt to create more of a consistent approach to using student support services.  The suggestions were to provide training for faculty that includes information on prevention of attrition, insure that online referral forms are available, include details in the faculty handbook about student support services, and have the e-learning department reach out to faculty with student contact information.


Article 5

Cochran, J. D., Campbell, S. M., Baker, H. M., & Leeds, E. M. (2014). The role of student characteristics in predicting retention in online courses. Research in Higher Education, 55, pp. 27-48.  doi: 10.1007/s11162-013-9305-8

This article by Cochran, Campbell, Baker, and Leeds (2014) looked at student characteristics and whether or not they were correlated with student retention.  Out of the several factors considered, recommendations were made. First, policies and guidelines should be developed “to provide increased support for and monitoring of students at the lower level, e.g. freshmen and sophomores, who are enrolled in online courses” (p. 46).  Also, policies and guidelines should be developed “for students with lower cumulative GPAs (<3.0) that enroll in online courses and in programs with more analytical or technical content, such as those in business, science and math” (p. 46).  Those involved in online education are encouraged to “be cognizant of gender differences in withdrawal rates in field that have predominant gender roles as those in the minority are more likely to withdraw” (p. 46).  Lastly, institutions should “follow-up with students when they first withdraw from an online class to mitigate future withdrawals” (p. 46).

Article 6

Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11(1), 19-42. Retrieved from

If there is any one article to be read, this article by Hart (2012) might be it.  Although it was published in 2012, it contains a comprehensive review of literature pertaining to “student persistence.”  The results of the literature review were categorized into the following areas: persistence as a phenomenon, facilitators of persistence, quality of interactions and feedback, satisfaction and relevance, self-efficacy and personal growth, social connectedness or presence, support, and barriers to persistence.

Facilitators of persistence that were reviewed were college status, graduating term, comfort with online coursework, flexibility, asynchronous format, time management, goal commitment, GPA, quality of interactions and feedback, satisfaction and relevance, self-efficacy, personal growth, self-motivation, social connectedness or presence, and support.  Barriers that were reviewed were auditory learning style, basic computer skills, college status and graduating term, difficulty in accessing resources, isolation and decreased engagement, lack of computer accessibility, non-academic issues, and poor communication. As is stated in the article’s abstract, “factors associated with student persistence in an online program include satisfaction with online learning, a sense of belonging to the learning community, motivation, peer, and family support, time management skills, and increased communication with the instructor” (p. 19).


Conclusion: Student Retention

After reviewing the above six articles, I have been left with more questions than answers.  In fact, the questions listed in the introduction still stand.  With so much time and so many resources being invested into techniques that are meant to improve student retention, it would be useful to insure that the techniques themselves are improving student retention.  However, it might be that a particular practice is not proven to increase retention, but it still creates a more positive learning atmosphere for online students.  If that is the case, the practice may still be warranted.  More research is likely needed in this area to learn what does and does not work.

What are your theories?  Have you done your own investigation into this issue?  If so, it would be great to hear more and continue this conversation about student retention, success, and persistence.

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