How to retain online students

Strategies you can follow to keep your online students on course

Clock 4 min read Calendar Published: 17 Jan 2023
Author Lawrie Jones
How to retain online students

Online and hybrid learning is here to stay at college, which presents opportunities and challenges for educators and institutions. While remote education benefits some, others feel they're missing out and, as a result, are dropping out.

Retaining students remains the biggest challenge, and simply transferring analog approaches to the digital world won't work. In this guide on how to retain online students, we explain what student retention is and why it matters. We finish with five proven strategies for student retention. 

Redefining retention

One poll of students over 18 found that almost half (41%) found the online learning experience better than in-person lessons, while 38% felt no real difference. 

While it's positive that almost 80% of students are engaged in the online learning process, nearly a quarter (21%) still find online-only college education worse than in-person – and they’re at risk of dropping out. 

Could the shift to online-only education be responsible for the relatively high rates of college dropouts we saw last year? It’s hard to say, but what we do know is that student retention should be a core priority for institutions. 

Student retention is about more than ensuring students feel engaged and involved in their studies. It's about identifying their motivation to succeed and delivering a package of support. As more and more college education occurs online, it’s about delivering retention activities at arm’s length, using new tools and technologies to help.

Student retention is about ensuring college is a rewarding experience that delivers positive outcomes. That aspiration is as true online as it is in person. 

Here are five evidence-based ways every institution can engage and retain students in 2023.

5 tips for better retention of online students

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Students can withdraw from the education process for several reasons, including academic issues, course incompatibility, adaptation, and personal issues. There is no single solution to retention. Instead, you must develop an organization-wide retention strategy. Be sure to include these five things:

Provide end-to-end support for students

Student support doesn't start and end in the (online) lecture theater or seminar session; it's about providing end-to-end support. That includes offering all students opportunities to engage with staff and access necessary support. This may consist of academic help, support with accommodations, financial pressures, or access to counseling and care. 

Student support services are available, but most online students won't know about them unless they’re signposted. Spotting the warning signs and identifying opportunities for support is critical for student retention.

Staff play a key role in identifying at-risk students and developing interventions to support them. A UK research study found that “interventions are most successful when ongoing, and part of a program of measures featuring the monitoring and follow-up of engagement by individual students". Tutors and staff are ideally placed to identify students at risk of dropping out. 

Some common warning signs are a fall in attendance, a drop in academic achievement, and a lack of enthusiasm and engagement. All faculty members should be able to spot the signs and deliver the support needed.

Create online communities

Research has demonstrated that online courses can lead to social isolation among students and academic staff. Creating online communities can deliver the connections students want and need.

College course leaders are making huge strides to improve the online learning experience, but student retention is also about the social side. One successful student retention strategy is to use social media and online platforms where students can socialize. After all, Facebook – the world’s largest social media platform – began at college.

A 2022 study found that students who engaged on social media with fellow students were more engaged than those who continued to communicate with previous friends. Successful social engagement strategies include creating and managing blogs, wikis, chatrooms, and forums.

Colleges can use social media to create college communities. Students can be encouraged to share social profiles and engage and collaborate online. Institutions can engage in social media, promoting online communities. They can contribute and curate conversations to increase engagement and create connections.

Embrace diversity

It’s a reality that those from under-represented backgrounds are more likely to disengage and drop out. So institutions must understand that some groups are more likely than others to drop out – and develop plans to support them.

The University of Washington, for example, performs this at an institutional and individual level. At the department level, there are targeted advising, tutoring services, scholarship support, and appropriate referrals to academic support services. Faculty, too, plays a critical role in “individual advising, classroom instruction, and undergraduate research mentoring,” they say. 

This activity aims to improve the integration of underrepresented groups within the college, with the result that they're more likely to stay.

Ask for feedback

One of the essential student retention strategies is to listen to students, learn from them, and implement a process of continual improvement. 

Students should be encouraged to share their experiences through informal discussions at the end of each lecture or seminar and formal student surveys.

The data provides institutions with critical insights into the challenges faced by students. Alongside the annual survey, institutions can dig deeper, conducting targeted surveys, focus groups, and interviews with individuals and groups from underrepresented or potentially marginalized communities. 

Use this information to derive insights that can help you improve.

Embrace technology (but break down barriers)

Technology can dramatically improve the student experience, says McKinsey. A 2022 survey found that students are excited about new technologies. Students have embraced virtual study groups and discussion platforms, but AR/VR and more could transform what's possible. While offering exciting opportunities for students, McKinsey warns that academics and support staff will need additional support.

While online education offers enormous opportunities, it is stressful, say college US students. That's the headline finding from the 2022 Students and Technology Report: Rebalancing the Student Experience report. Alongside the academic, emotional, and financial issues affecting students, there are clear technological barriers for many – including those with special educational needs.

Institutions must work to ensure all students have equitable access to learning to ensure the best outcomes. This can include providing access to adaptive technologies such as Glean to increase engagement and retention.

Why student retention + engagement = success

Student engagement is about improving the student learning experience. Student retention is about ensuring students have the support they need to flourish. Organizations and institutions must develop strategies to improve retention and engagement, understanding that they work together to ensure that students achieve their potential and that nobody gets left behind. 


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