Mission Impossible: Keeping Online Students From Dropping Out

Posted by: Alison Damast on September 10, 2010

Online classes have never been more popular at colleges and universities, but instructors continue to struggle to find ways to prevent students from dropping out. According to a new study from Kennesaw State University’s Coles College of Business in Kennesaw, Georgia, they shouldn’t bother trying.

Keeping students engaged in online classes is a growing concern for educators as the online education sector experiences rapid-fire growth. More than 4.6 million college students were taking at least one online class at the start of the 2008-09 academic year, according to the 2009 Sloan Survey of Online Learning. Yet the student dropout rates for online courses are 15 to 20 percent higher than those for traditional face-to-face classes, according to a 2007 study published in The Journal of Educators Online.

A group of six Coles professors noticed they too had the same problem when it came to online classes. For example, the online version of one popular business class, a prerequisite for entrance into Coles, had a spotty track record when it came to students completing the course. In the fall of 2008, only 55 percent of students managed to finish the class. In the spring of 2009, they decided to put seven well-known retention strategies to the test on two sections of the course.

The researchers did everything from making students sign an e-mail course contract to placing personal phone calls to make sure they were on top of their class material, according to the study, which will be published in the International Journal of Management in Education in October. Students exposed to the strategies dropped out as frequently as those who were not, the authors said.

"We called them at home, sent them emails, quizzed them on the syllabus and
made other efforts to try to engage them," said Elke Leeds, an associate professor
of information systems at Coles and one of six study authors, in a press release issued by the school. "The students will say they appreciate these efforts, but these weren't a factor in making them stay in the course."

Further research is needed to find out what makes a student a successful online learner, the study said. But for now, before students sign up for an online class, they might want to reflect on whether they have the individual traits that might help them stick with the course, like good time management skills and motivation, Leeds said.

Readers, have you had trouble sticking with an online class before? Was there anything that your professor did that helped prevent you from dropping out?

Reader Comments


September 10, 2010 8:00 PM

Seems to me, students are either motivated, or they are not.. I had a test in a stats class last week, It was open book and open note. Someone still managed to get a 46%.

Jamey Fancote

September 12, 2010 4:28 PM

I will tell you in my experience, that the hardest part is moving from course to course, with no breaks. Online students do not get spring breaks, and are required to take in much information in short periods, and at times lacking proper tools.

However once you get past that hurdle of managing your time, and focusing on the education that is being paid for, you learn new techniques, such as; Completing work in a more organized and less procrastinated manner, setting up important me time, and learning what your strengths and weaknesses are, that allow you to distinguish that need for extra support.

All in all, it comes down to remaining focus, not giving up during challenges, and understanding that it's not always easy, and sometimes your best just simply lacks.

I was to a point of dropping out myself, communicated honestly with my adviser,and my solution was to loosen the work load for a term, and if need be two. As a result, I was able to reconnect with my own self,reduce stress, and regain that drive that had been failing me. Honesty goes along way, had I stuck to my original plan with creating alternatives. I would have been one of the dropouts myself.

It's not easy giving part of your life to meet these wide array of demands, but you learn to work around them.I find many just give up because they feel there is no alternative solutions, my own adviser specifically said to me "I cannot stop you from dropping out," which to me provided me that much needed boost to say to myself, this is no longer an option..

I can go for days on the topic, it's really about what the student really wants, and how they define their education..


September 13, 2010 8:22 AM

The problem is not keeping all the students in the classes. The problem is finding the right students for online education.


September 16, 2010 2:17 PM

You have to read a lot more as an online student. This was the biggest set back for me. There are also some instructors who are very helpful and others, not so much. It is very discouraging to have a problem with the material or assignment and when you ask your instructor for help, they copy and paste the assignment details from the syllabus rather than actually helping. Don't they realize I have a copy of that same syllabus and I CAN read.. uuuhhggg.. I think videos and interactive learning is helpful for the online learner, but most of all a supportive, teacher who is not overwhelmed by their day job is the most beneficial tool :)


September 17, 2010 2:29 PM

I teach an online course. Had 115 students enrolled last summer and 108 finished the course. I've done quite a bit of research, asking student questions and seems like what they want is a balance between being able to work independently (working within their own time frame) while still receiving direction and instruction from the professor. My course design balances both of these aspects by integrating a variety of teaching tools (short prerecorded audio clips, animations, practice questions and weekly chat room work) that augments their own study of online notes and textbook readings. In addition, tests are open during a 2.5 period over each weekend, adding more flexibility to their work-testing schedule. Works well for my subject area (Human Physiology) but might not work for other subjects.


September 23, 2010 12:55 PM

One factor to look at is who is paying for their class. It is much easier for a sutdant to drop a course that they are paying for, but to drop a course your employeer/government is paying for is more of an eye sore. External factors such as employer tuition assistance and grade reporting are things we must acknowledge when looking at the drop-out rate. Basically, when you tie education to career and involve a third party to your learning process, esp your employeer, you gain another powerful motivator.


September 23, 2010 1:18 PM

Alot of it depends on the course, the instructor, and how it’s taught. I've done several online classes and the courses where the instructor is involved, and sets clear instructions and objectives for the students, more students stay in the class. I've had other instructors who were pretty much non-existent, didn't reply to any questions or concerns you had, and took forever to grade assignments and give feedback. In these classes alot of the students dropped the course.

Melanie N. Clay, Ph.D.

September 27, 2010 10:47 AM

I agree that retaining online students is a challenge, but strongly disagree that efforts to improve cannot be highly fruitful. As the associate dean of eCore, the University System of Georgia's online core curriculum, we've successfully developed programs to increase course completion from under 68 percent a few years ago to 89 percent this past summer semester. Ingredients include at-risk student identification and follow up by both instructors and student support experts; user-friendly course design; mandatory student orientations; ongoing contact by student support professionals; instructor training focusing on online student needs; and a cultural change that makes student success paramount.


September 28, 2010 4:03 AM

From my experience and many discussions about this same topic with my friends who are currently pursuing their education, the personal trait that is key to success as an online student is self-motivation.

The ability to stay focused, time management, and the disconnect from the classroom are other reasons for not completing the online classroom experience.

I agree, either it's for you or not. One has to persevere through the online classroom experience...regardless of the obstacles.

I must say, offering Math via online is utterly ridiculous!


September 30, 2010 5:35 PM

@Jamey: spot on! Thank you for sharing your valuable lessons.

I also believe it all comes down to student support and creating some momentum. Online students might feel incredibly isolated, with many having to balance work, family and their education. That is not an easy thing being left on your own. Because distance-learning doesn't involve much face-to-face time (some programs incorporate 1-5 weeks in their online programs) students have to be very disciplined. But with the right course structure, forums, chat rooms, skype, video discussions and being organized into teams etc. at least some sense of belonging and team motivation can be created. (As such I don't believe the retention strategies based on "controlling" such as phone calls or questioning will work). So, I think that the programs's syllabus has to incorporate such a structure and offer enough student support to reduce these drop-out rates.



January 17, 2011 9:10 AM

I earned my AS in Criminal Justice at a brick & motor CC. My BA in Organizational Management and MAOM were earned online. I enjoyed my online learning experience, although I did miss not seeing my fellow students and professor.

One of my professors had earned three PhDs. In the absence of a photo, I created a picture in my mind of scholarly gentlemen with a white beard. While researching a paper, a Google search produced a photo of this professor. He was nothing like I had imagined.

A video of the professor’s weekly lecture would have helped me feel more connected to the class. The video lecture would also allow the professor to discuss current events that are relevant to that week’s assignment. In addition, a profile picture of my fellow students (like Face Book) would have created a stronger connection to my fellow students. For me, photos and videos humanize the online experience.

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