Improving Retention of Distance Learning Students

July 5, 2016

Online enrollment in higher education continues to grow, especially at the undergraduate level (Gravel, 2012). Enrollment of students taking at least one online course has increased from 1.6 million in 2002 to 7.1 million in 2012, now representing 33.5 percent of higher education students (Allen & Seaman, 2014). Students enrolled in degree-programs offered entirely online are estimated to be 3.4 million in 2014, representing 17-percent of all higher education students (Clinefelter & Aslanian, 2015). Online enrollment is expected to continue to rise (Allen & Seaman, 2014), with projections of close to 25 percent of all higher education students taking fully online programs in 2020 (Clinefelter & Aslanian, 2015).

Although student enrollment continues to increase in online courses, student retention in online programs are lower than traditional, on-campus programs (Herbert, 2006; Varney 2009) with some scholars (Ali & Leeds, 2009;Varney, 2009) reporting a 15- to 20- percent difference among online and traditional learners. The number of higher education institutions reporting that online education is an important component of their long-term planning continues to increase (Allen & Seaman, 2010), indicating that a successful online program is of the upmost importance.

Dr. Al Infande offers a dozen strategies for improving online student retention. Below are five tips taken from Infande and expanded upon specifically for instructors to improve student retention in their online courses.

  1. Make a good first impression. When students enter your course, include a welcome message that is both inviting and introduces you, as their instructor, to your students. The lack of face-to-face interaction means that students need to “hear your voice” in your introduction about yourself; consider using a conversational tone in your writing, or better yet, record a video of yourself welcoming students to the course! Starting an online class can be a bit confusing to some students so be sure to give students some information about how to get started in your class with some encouragement for moving forward.
  2. Establish an instructor presence in the course. As the instructor you should be a visible presence in the course. Discussion board assignments are an easy way for you to provide feedback and immerse yourself in the conversations happening in your course. Additionally, responding to students’ questions in a timely manner lets students know you are available and involved in the course.
  3. Use collaborative learning approaches with students. As mentioned above the discussion board is one way to get students sharing their ideas and knowledge about the content of your course. Consider other ways to allow students to work together. Resources such as Google Apps for Education (e.g. Drive, Slides, Docs) allow students to work together on projects and papers for your course. While some students prefer to work independently, offering collaborative assignments will bring students into the learning community of your course.
  4. Make students feel part of your course and online program. Most important you want students to feel as though they are part of their online program and you can foster their inclusion through your course. Acknowledge students’ absences or missed presence from your course when they return by letting students know that their contributions were missed.
  5. Provide constructive feedback. Feedback should be given regularly and in a timely manner, as well as, constructive and motivating. When students’ work does not meet your expectations, provide recommendations for improvement. Your feedback should be encouraging for students and not seen as overly critical. You want students to feel that they can be successful in your course and continue to improve.

Online courses should facilitate the same type of instruction that students would see if they were face-to-face in a classroom with a strong instructor presence and timely feedback. Additionally, by creating a welcoming environment and making students feel like they play an integral role in the course, students will feel included in this virtual environment and be more willing to put in the effort to be successful.



Ali, R., & Leeds, E. M. (2009). The impact of face-to-face orientation on online retention: A pilot study. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 7(4).

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2010). Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010. Retrieved from

Clinefelter, D. L. & Aslanian, C. B., (2015). Online college students 2015: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.

Gravel, C. A. (2012). Student-advisor interaction in undergraduate online degree programs: A factor in student retention. NACADA Journal, 32(2), 56-67.

Herbert, M. (2006). Staying the course: A study in online student satisfaction and retention. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 9(4). Retrieved from

Varney, J. (2009). Strategies for success in distance advising. Retrieved July 10, 2015 from




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