Student Attrition in On-Line Courses

by Evelyn Beck

ATTRITION RATES FOR most distance education programs are worse than for traditional college courses, with dropout rates as high as 80 percent at some colleges. At Piedmont Technical College, in Greenwood, SC, overall attrition rates for traditional classes average 25 percent, while attrition rates for online courses average 45 percent.

Many of the reasons-such as students’ inexperience with technology or insufficient student support services-are beyond faculty control.

But faculty can have a tremendous impact on retaining students simply by the way they communicate. The form, frequency, promptness, and tone of written and oral interaction with students are very important. The trick is to create a sense of classroom community in the impersonal environment of the Internet. If students feel connected, if they believe that the instructor has a personal interest in them, they might be less likely to drop out.

The explosion of online courses at colleges and universities-and the problem of hanging on to students unprepared for this new way of learning-is leading to some research efforts. “Quality on the Line: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-Based Distance Education,” a new study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, recommends that contact between faculty and students be “facilitated through a variety of ways, including voice-mail and/or e-mail” and that “Feedback to student assignments and questions is constructive and provided in a timely manner.” Communication, the study concludes, is key.

Here are some simple ideas for fostering good communication in online courses:

  • Give frequent and encouraging feedback. Dale Smoak, who teaches two biology Internet courses at Piedmont Technical College, has office hours for online students. And, he adds, “I always respond to e-mail within 24 hours, usually much sooner than that. I give a range of dates for an exam to be completed, and respond to the students individually with their grades and where they stand in the course. Given that they do weekly labs, they get frequent feedback on that. So there’s lots of interaction.”
  • Call students on the phone. This is a simple and overlooked “low-tech” tool that can be very effective early in the term, especially for students who haven’t gotten started yet. It’s a way to show you’re interested and to answer questions-usually technical-that may have them stymied.
  • Build a learning community. Have students post written introductions (and photographs if possible) on the bulletin board-and post one yourself. Encourage students to interact with discussions about course material, either through a space on your site or, as Smoak does, with temporary Yahoo chat rooms. Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt, authors of Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom (Jossey-Bass 1999), also suggest creating an area for socializing.
  • Personalize e-mail. When responding to students’ questions, use their names.
  • Maximize the use of the bulletin board to encourage group interaction. “Minimize the use of e-mail for communication and keep communication on the discussion board as much as possible,” say Palloff and Pratt.
  • Check in daily to answer questions and redirect discussions if they get off track. Students need to sense your presence, though of course you don’t want to intrude. I’ve found that writing my own weekly posting which comments directly on what they’ve had to say during the week is enough-even if a problem seems to be developing. Once a student in an online world literature course made some anti-male remarks that elicited several angry responses, but then more measured responses followed, so it was better that the students resolved that conflict on their own.
  • Avoid online lecturing. “Instead,” say Palloff and Pratt, “encourage and empower students to take charge of the learning process through the use of collaborative assignments, research that is fed back to the group, and facilitation of the discussion.” You might assign a different student to facilitate each week’s discussion; he or she can post a question at the beginning of the week and then post a summary of comments at the end of the week.
  • Be encouraging, understanding, and flexible. Congratulate students on a good grade. Ask what happened when a grade was low. Allow them time flexibility in completing assignments. Share a little of yourself to reach out across cyberspace. I remember one student who responded to a simple “Is everything OK? I haven’t heard from you in a while” by writing about a year’s worth of difficulties that included a family member’s death and her own illness. When I responded that I’d encountered my own bad patch of admittedly lesser problems-mostly involving a troublesome teenage daughter-she replied with immense gratitude that someone had actually taken an interest in her, and she even found some comfort in consoling me.
  • Have a sense of humor. I needed that recently when I discovered that my school’s new WebCT software contained a bug, rendering every single test my students had taken online unreadable.

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