Seven Simple Ways To Lower Attrition Rates in Online Courses.

Someone is finally saying in print what those of us who teach online for community colleges have known for some time.

Attrition rates for online courses are high--very high.

In our culture's frenzied love affair with all things digital and mediated--some things really are pleasant to do while at home on the couch in our PJ's--it is worth noting that face-to-face presence exerts a kind of social pressure.
  • When a student shows up to class, he may well feel (quite rightly) that he should kind of do the homework, as the professor might call on him. Call it fear. Call it a stressor. But it's real.
Thus the simple fact of needing to show up at a given place and time, together with the fear of embarrassment, produce a beneficial effect: a student does some work.

Absent this pressure, it's quite easy to forget about the class entirely.

Okay: admittedly some face-to-face students are quite capable of forgetting about those classes entirely, too. But that's another story.

Those of us who teach online--as I have for the last five years--develop strategies, and institutions do the same. Here are seven simple ways to lower the attrition rates in online courses.

  1. Enroll all DL students in an orientation towards the learning management system--and towards DL itself.
  2. The first week of class, orient students clearly towards tasks and deadlines.
  3. The instructor should contact students individually during the first two weeks of the course to make them feel involved and recognized. Say something individual to each student to make a connection and to show you recognize her experiences and contributions. "Mary--Just a quick note to say how much I enjoyed reading your Discussion post. I haven't had that kind of experience, and I know your peers will get a lot out of your participation in this class. Thanks for sharing your thoughts."
  4. Re-orient students each week with motivating, substantive emails about the week's course content. "Have you ever wished on a falling star? What causes falling stars? This week you'll learn where falling stars come from...."
  5. Advise students quickly and honestly about progress. Be firm and clear without being mean or negative.
  6. In formative assessment, give specific Next Steps students can take to improve. "The sentences you write are on the topic. But I would like next time for you to group them together in one paragraph: so don't hit 'Return' after every sentence."
  7. Direct at-risk students towards resources which are also available at a distance. "My friend Mona Simpson in the Learning Center looks at student drafts Tuesday's and Thursday's--in person or by email. Why don't you drop by? She's very nice. Ask her about the Celtics."

In short: englobe the student in a social network, help her know you care; make sure she knows what the next steps are--and that they are do-able.

--Edward R. O'Neill


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