Online Learner Retention

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

Since the advent of e-learning, there have been concerns that there may be higher attrition rates in online learning. Early e-learning experiences showed high levels of attrition, with some recorded as high as in the 80 percent drop-out range. To increase the retention of online learners, a number of strategies have been mentioned to identify at-risk students early and then to apply the proper interventions: to enhance the learning experience (through adaptivity and customization), to increase learner motivations, to improve learners’ social connections with each other, and to humanize their learning experiences.


Learners will...

  • Consider why learner retention in e-learning may be more challenging
  • Learn ways to enhance the online learning experience
  • Practice ways to increase learner motivations
  • Promote the connectivity of online learners with each other
  • Support the humanizing of the learner experience

Module Pretest

1. Why could it be harder to retain learners in an online course?

2. What are some ways to mitigate some of the challenges that online learners may feel?

3. What are ways to enhance the online learning experience?

4, How may faculty and subject matter experts increase learner motivations?

5. How may online learners have stronger connectivity?

6. How may the online learner experience be humanized?

Main Contents

The Challenges of Online Learning

New online learners have sometimes suggested that they do not find the online experience very “real” or engaging. Those learners who are not comfortable with scheduling their time may find it difficult to keep up with the pacing of online courses. Others experience technology challenges and may be intimidated by the technology requirements—in terms of hardware, software, Internet connectivity, and some general high-tech savvy.

The variable scheduling of some types of online learning (such as “open-entry, open-exit” courses) may be difficult for those who are not disciplined and who have not been able to carve out the time and focus to execute on the work. Very large courses may also result in less one-on-one student interactions.

Some faculty also did not tend to engage students who had questions. They waited for long periods before responded, and some simply ignored their online students. Some faculty treated online learners as “correspondence course” learners.

Administrative Strategies

There are administrative strategies that may support online learner retention. Administrators use plenty of statistics to analyze the causal factors for student drop-out. Various predictive factors help them target interventions to enhance learner retention.

Targeted outreach to particular groups may enhance recruitment. These endeavors use websites, conferences, face-to-face presentations, and other methods to connect with potential learners. Orientation programs may help learners connect. Advisor interventions and supports for online learners may enhance their learning persistence. (This will be addressed for administrators in another section of this site.) Peer support may also be encouraged for mentoring and emotional support. Student leaders are groomed for role-modeling. If the “culture” of a particular field is seen as exclusivist, changes are made to try to be more accommodating and open in regards to a variety of talent (Guzman, Starn, & Santon, 2008, p. 37).

Articulation agreements between colleges and universities, universities and graduate programs and work places…add value to the online learning by smoothing the educational and career pathways.

Administrators may also work hard with the professions in order to connect learners with particular jobs. Such endeavors are particularly important when degree programs are dependent on the health of the particular industries that the educational program trains students for, with institutions of higher education having to work hard to connect graduates to jobs (Stephenson, Peckham, Hervé, Hutt. & Encarnacão, 2006).

Early Warning System

Early warning systems about risks of student drop-out may be integrated with online learning programs. These may include automated warnings to instructors when learners have not been participating for a particular number of days or assignments. These may also include comments made by students to their instructors about the struggles that they are having in class.

Some schools will send out letters through academic advisers. Advisers may conduct outreaches to students to plan interventions. Instructors also will reach out to learners to work out supportive interventions.

Enhancing the Online Learning Experience

In the first-generation of online learning, many faculty members would merely put up course documents in digital format, and they would video tape portions of their lectures, and that would be “online learning.” First-generation online learning often was very text-heavy. Graphics were not information-rich but were free clipart. And the multimedia was very limited. The learning was not interactive nor particularly engaging.

(To be fair, the technologies in those early days were very minimal, and the authoring tools did not allow for much in the way of unique learning captures. Initial work focused on getting the curriculum “transferred” over to online formats, and there was little focus on teaching and learning quality.)

Over the years, the quality of online learning has improved. There have been quality e-learning rubrics defined with input from faculty. Practitioners in the field published their research and writing about their direct experiences. The educational technologies were enhanced and priced in a way that was accessible. Open-source technologies were also created, broadening the availability of a wide range of functionalities.

Plenty of research about the needs of adult learners focused on their preference to have curricular materials that are hands-on and practical. Adult learners do not enjoy being assessed needlessly but prefer formative (vs. summative) assessments. Online learners tend to retain better in situations where they can see that the learning is beneficial and applicable to their particular circumstances. They prefer courses that are “adapted” and “customized” to their particular learning situation. For example, learners who have differing backgrounds, levels of expertise, interests, and job roles—will have different needs. Skilled online instructors may be able to tailor a course to more closely fit the understood needs of particular learners.

Another way to increase retention is to help connect online learners to their profession. For example, online spaces may be designed to connect learners to the professional culture and ethics. There may be simulations of real-world cases. There may be role plays to help deepen the sense of immersion into a particular field. In higher level courses, students may begin early research, publishing, editing, and analysis—depending on their skill set.

For very inexperienced learners, some scaffolding involves supporting their “mental modeling” of a particular field—by spelling out relationships and understandings. There may be opt-in practice (such as through digital flashcards) to learn the new terminology. There may be calendaring aids to help learners plan their work. There may be progressively more difficult assignments that build up the smaller pieces of a cumulative project. There may be substantive discussions of ways to enhance the learning experience.

Increasing Learner Motivations

Learners tend to show greater persistence in their studies when they achieve some “early wins.” Faculty will set up some low-value early assignments for online learners in order to help them acclimate to the online learning / course management system (L/CMS). They will enable some early successes for learners to promote their sense of confidence.

Instructors work hard to maintain a sense of learner morale. They reinforce learners’ identities as students. They work to enhance student self-efficacy by building assignments that develop step-wise, so learners are not left frustrated and lost.

Faculty members often strive to keep the communications channels open in order to be aware of the challenges that learners face. They may work with the learners to encourage resilience.

Some instructors also “power-share” in their online courses by supporting learners in allowing them to select research topics and field trip destination. They allow a more democratic process in deciding the direction of the learning.

Another type of motivation involves the creation of “hard fun,” or motivating types of learning. Proper course designs may “increase enjoyment”—which has been linked to an increase in learner motivation, engagement, and retention (Neal, Perez, & Miller, 2004, p. 1590).

The presence of international learners is encouraged because of their varying backgrounds and unique insights.

Promoting Learner Social Connections

Often, online students care a lot about what their peers think of them. Some online instructors will facilitate small-group work among learners and promote social interactions—in order to increase learner retention. (In face-to-face courses, the presence of a friend in a course was found to increase learner retention.) Some faculty will set up ways to pair learners with each other for mutual support (McDowell, Werner, Bullock, & Fernald, 2006). Others use peer-led team learning (PLTL) to improve retention (Biggers, Yilmaz, & Sweat, 2009).

Humanizing the Learner Experience

The instructor’s telepresence refers to how his / her sense of self is conveyed to others through digital means. Part of this telepresence is defined by the static sharing of information and also by the dynamic interactions of the individual in terms of engaging with others online. The term “social presence” refers to the awareness of the others in the class. Each learner has a kind of “telepresence,” and the whole class and the small groups then have “social presences.”

The instructors and learners also have a kind of presence on the WWW based on social networking technologies and various types of information-sharing websites. These are only partially within the control of the instructor.

Online courses should have formal channels for information sharing. They should also have methods for informal information sharing. Some faculty will set up “learner lounges” (which are instructor-free zones) for students to socialize, to share information, and to support each other. Back-channel methods for information sharing stand-in for the hallways conversations that are important for group socializing and mutual support.



How To

1. Learn why students are dropping out of their online courses.

2. Enhance the online learning experience through adaptivity and customizing the learning.

3. Increase online learner motivations.

4. Connect online learners to each other in constructive ways.

5. Humanize the learner experience.

6. Keep the lines of communications open with online students.

7. Support learners by connecting them to a range of campus resources to enhance their retention.

Possible Pitfalls

There are some aspects of online learning retention well beyond instructor control. These may involve issues of student health, finances, personal and professional life situations, and other elements. In some situations, faculty intervention may be helpful; in others, it may be counter-productive. Instructors need to use their best judgment to decide if to intervene, how to intervene and when.

The endeavors for retention should include a whole-campus effort. Instructors are one part of this larger endeavor.

Module Post-Test

1. Why could it be harder to retain learners in an online course? Are there particular challenges for retention in your particular courses? If so, what are they?

2. What are some ways to mitigate some of the challenges that online learners may feel in your particular courses?

3. What are ways to enhance the online learning experience in your particular courses?

4. How may faculty and subject matter experts increase learner motivations in your particular courses?

5. How may online learners have stronger connectivity in your particular courses?

6. How may the online learner experience be humanized in your particular courses?


Biggers, M., Yilmaz, T., & Sweat, M. (2009). Using collaborative, modified peer led team learning to improve student success and retention in intro CS (computer science). In the proceedings of the Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education: Chattanooga, Tennessee. 9 – 13.

Dahlberg, T., Barnes, T., Rorrer, A., & Powell, E. (2008). Improving retention and graduate recruitment through immersive research experiences for undergraduates. SIGCSE ’08: Portland, Oregon, USA. ACM. 466 – 470.

Guzman, I.R., Stam, K.R., & Santon, J.M. (2008). The occupational culture of IS/IT personnel within organizations. The DATA BASE for Advances in Information Systems: 39(1), 33 – 50.

McDowell, C., Werner, L., Bullock, H.E., & Fernald, J. (2006). Pair programming improves student retention, confidence, and program quality. Communications of the ACM: 49(8), 90 – 95. Neal, L., Perez, R., & Miller, D. (2004). eLearning and fun. In the proceedings of the Special Interest Group on Human Computer Interaction: Vienna, Austria. 1590-1591.

Stephenson, P., Peckham, J., Hervé, J.-Y., Hutt, R., & Encarnacão, I.M. (2006). Increasing student retention in computer science through research programs for undergraduates. In the proceedings of the International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. Boston, Massachusetts.

Extra Resources

Educause Review Online

Please look up stand-alone articles on retention using the search feature. The student retention issue has been dis-aggregated.