Within the field of higher education, one of the important metrics for gauging the effectiveness of programs is student retention. Retention measures the number of students a school has been able to keep in their programs and in contrast, attrition measures the number of students who have withdrawn – either voluntarily or involuntarily. Another important word for this field is persistence, which is a measurement of a student’s drive and determination.
While retention and persistence may seem to measure the same criteria, I have made a distinction based upon the actions taken. For example, a school may have retention programs in place; whereas, helping students succeed in their programs bolsters their ability to persist and continue to make progress.
The sector of higher education I have the most experience in is for-profit online schools, with roles ranging from online educator to faculty development manager. For this industry, the typical retention rate is 50% or less. Retention initiatives that have been implemented in many of the schools I’ve worked for included changing feedback requirements, grading requirements, and changing the curriculum itself to make it easier for students to pass their classes.
While these initiatives may provide some help for the bottom line, I have found it has little impact on the student experience. What matters most for students is their ability to persist and be successful in their attempt to engage in the learning process. Is there a secret to student success? In my experience, I learned there is and it involves the support and resources students receive from the schools and their instructors.
Growth of the Non-Traditional Student
When I entered the field of higher education over 18 years ago, the phrase “non-traditional student” was becoming popular and I watched it become prominent now – especially with regards to how courses and curriculum are designed for students. The essence of this phrase is meant to describe new types of students, other than those who are starting college right out of high school, who are enrolling in college level courses and programs.
This one of the important factors that drove the growth of the for-profit online college industry. It is not uncommon to see online programs being offered for what is called the “working adult” – with promises made that the degrees obtained will help them advance within their chosen career.
As a general rule, the non-traditional student can be someone who is older, part of a minority group, speaks English as a second language, attends school part-time, is employed, and has prior life experience. I have non-traditional students in my online classes with age ranges between their 30s and 60s, and many of them are working full time.
For these students, school work is not their only responsibility and this can create periodic time management challenges for them. In addition, by having life experience these students cannot be treated like blank slates, which is someone waiting to receive knowledge being dispensed by an instructor.
The Role of an Educator
Within traditional colleges and universities, the role of an educator has remained largely unchanged. This means they are at the front of the class and the center of attention during each scheduled session. It is a teacher-centered approach to instruction that is utilized in primary education.
This type of educator typically provides a lecture and students are expected to study for quizzes and exams. In contrast, an educator who is teaching online courses is finding their role to be evolving. The very nature of a virtual learning environment puts the primary responsibility for learning on students.
I have coached many traditional educators who have tried to make the transition to online teaching and found it to be difficult to adapt to as traditional teaching methods do not translate well. I can empathize with them as educators devote time and effort into developing their career and becoming a teaching expert – and then having to learn new methods may produce a lot of natural resistance.
Online teaching requires changing the focus from teacher-led to student-centered instruction. Does this have a direct impact on student success? The answer is yes, as an educator must be comfortable in their role and understand the needs of students they are charged with teaching.
Advisors and Mentors
The traditional responsibility for working with students has been part of the role of the academic advisor. An advisor is someone who may assist students with a wide range of tasks that includes registration, enrollment, course selection, and follow-up after being enrolled into a degree program.
Often this was a reactive role and that means an advisor could address a wide range of questions but only when initiated by the students. Within the for-profit online school industry, I have seen the advisor’s role evolve and include responsibility for conducting follow up for those students who were at risk for failing and/or dropping their courses.
There are also non-profit online schools that hired mentors, who are meant to take the place of faculty, or instructors who are on-call. For those schools, students are not assigned to classes and instead, they study to take assessments – usually with a low or minimal required passing score. It is like correspondence courses that preceded the online for-profit industry.
Discover The Top 5 Strategies That Support Student Success
Based upon my experience and work with educators, students need an instructor – and just as important, they need ongoing support. An educator serves as the point of contact for implementing retention strategies put into place by a school, while working with their students to help them persist and succeed. An instructor can develop a productive relationship with students because they are working with them through learning activities, feedback, and discussions – and these tasks prompt learning. In other words, learning is relational.
Below are strategies any educator can use to help support student success, regardless of the class or subject matter taught.
Strategy #1. Provide Ongoing Support: Are you keeping track of the progress of your students? Every student has developmental needs, even those who are doing exceptionally well in your class. When you are familiar with their needs you will know what resources to recommend – whether those are sources provided by the school or supplemental resources.
Even recommending additional materials to review, along with subject matter related videos, those resources can help to enhance the learning experience and encourage engagement in the course. Why? The more interested a student is in the course, and the more they can develop their areas of weakness, the more they are going to be able to persist.
Strategy #2. Provide Engaging Feedback: I have heard many instructors state that students do not read the feedback provided and if they do, those students never seem to implement the suggestions provided. What I have discovered is that students develop a perception about feedback based upon their experiences.
As an instructor, I provide engaging feedback by taking time to insert comments directly into student papers and ask questions, offer insight, share my expertise, and relate topics to the real world. Again, if students find you have taken time to do more than provide a grade, they are going to consider what you have written. The more engaging your feedback becomes, the more likely they are going to maintain an interest in performing their best.
Strategy #3. Develop a High Level of Responsiveness: For some students, the thought of asking a question or making a request for help can be intimidating – especially at the beginning of a class when there isn’t a relationship established with their instructor.
When students approach you, and seek your assistance, your ability to demonstrate responsiveness is going to make a difference for them. If you can demonstrate a genuine concern for their request, and make it a point to help them in a meaningful manner, they will develop a perception you care and become more willing to work with you in the future. When you show you are responsive, students will also be more receptive to your coaching and feedback.
Strategy #4. Always Be Aware of Your Disposition and Tone: As an educator, you must be mindful of how you feel and the emotions you are experiencing as you work with students, as this will have a direct impact on your disposition. It will extend further into the tone of your communication and for an online class, you are represented by the words you use and you must consider how those words will be interpreted.
While you need to remain professional, it will be helpful to add some warmth to your messages to help develop a connection with your students. For example, consider the difference between the following two options for responding to a student’s email:
#1) “Student: This is my response to your email,” or,
#2) “Hello Student: It is good to hear from you. Here is a suggestion to help answer your question.”
Do you see how the second option communicates professionalism, warmth, and a genuine concern for providing assistance?
Strategy #5. Provide Follow-Up and Follow-Through: This probably one of the most important elements for student success and it involves going beyond answering questions or providing feedback. It means you pay attention to your students, all students, and you make it a point to maintain coaching and mentoring attempts. If a student asks a question by email, and it involves something complex, or may not be easily resolved, a simple follow-up email or call can support their success.
When a student is struggling, has performed poorly, or is not active in a class discussion – don’t wait to see if they improve. Contact that student right away and offer assistance. In addition, consider the value of a phone call and how a personal touch could influence their well-being. As another example, if you tell your students that you don’t have an answer to a question, be sure you find an answer and then follow up with them.
Will You Invest the Time Necessary?
The secret to student success involves the relationships which are established, nurtured, and maintained with them. It is an instructor who interacts directly with students, and knows firsthand how they are performing, which means they understand their needs and areas of development. More importantly, when an instructor is responsive to the needs of their students, they will likely have a greater chance of success.
An instructor who invests the time necessary to support the ongoing progress of their students is accomplishing something even greater; they are reinforcing a sense of persistence within them. Each hurdle a student experiences now becomes a building block, because they are being shown someone cares and wants to help them. All you need to do is to maintain a student-centered focus, in all interactions and instructional tasks, and you will find that supporting the success of your students becomes a natural process.
About Dr. Johnson
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has 35 years of experience teaching and training adults. The first half of his career was spent in the field of Corporate Training and Development, with his last role as Manager of Training and Development.
Then in 2005, he made a transition into the field of distance learning. Over the past 18 years, he has been an online instructor, Faculty Development Specialist, Faculty Director, Faculty Development Manager, and Dissertation Chair.
Dr. Johnson is also an inspirational author, writer, and educator. His life mission is to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others. He has earned a PhD in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement (TPI), a Master’s in Adult Education, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).
As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal, and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference, along with presenting at three faculty conferences. He has also published over 230 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and mindset development. Dr. J has published three books related to higher education, including two about online teaching.
- Getting Down to Business: A Handbook for Faculty Who Teach Business.
- Transform Adult Education: Expert Teaching Strategies for Educators.
- Transform Online Teaching: Expert Strategies and Essential Resources Every Educator Needs.
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