Student Retention Begins With You


By Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

When you hear the phrase student retention, what comes to mind? Is it a set of numbers that the school hopes to achieve? Is it something to be addressed from a school-wide perspective, which is beyond your control? Or do you consider the impact that you have upon student retention for the school? It is easy to view student retention, student satisfaction, and student persistence as a responsibility of the school that should be addressed through initiatives, proper course development, student support, and other relative issues. While it is important for any school to be concerned about the rate of retention and the policies that support student satisfaction, it is just as important to remember that instructors represent the school through their classroom interactions with students.

Students interact with a learning environment that is created by the instructor and supported by the school. If students do not have a positive experience or meaningful classroom interactions they are likely to develop a negative perception about the school, which can also have a direct bearing on their decision to continue with their degree program. Student retention begins with the initial instructor that is assigned for the very first course and continues with each subsequent instructor, one class at a time. It is more than a student feeling happy about their decision to attend the school; it is about relationships that are developed, expectations that are addressed, and developmental needs being met. Students make the initial decision and instructors reaffirm or negate that choice through their classroom instruction.

Students Make the First Choice
When a student decides to attend a particular school is often because they are interested in a specific degree program and they have personal or professional needs that need to be met. As a means of attracting new students, schools will promote resources, services, features, and other benefits offered. Students often make an initial decision based upon their expectations of what they hope to receive, achieve, and learn by attaining their degree. Learning about the reality of these expectations occurs when students begin their classes.

Instructors Reaffirm or Negate that Choice
An instructor help students confirm, discard, or adapt their expectations about the process of learning through the environment they create. This includes all aspects of classroom facilitation, including discussions, working relationships, and the feedback provided. When an instructor is responsive to the need of their students, students are likely to believe their developmental needs can be met. Instructors that successfully create a meaningful learning environment encourage students to maintain continued progress, which results in retention. The goal is not just to keep students in their degree program but to improve educational outcomes, where students create knowledge and develop skill sets through their active participation in the process of learning. Student retention further becomes an issue of persistence because they may face challenges throughout their academic journey, including such issues as time management, self-motivation, and skill set development.

Retention is More than Numbers

There are many components to student retention and from a developmental perspective one of the most important issues is sustained growth, which includes the development of skill sets and the acquisition of knowledge on the part of each student. From the student’s perspective, there is a perception of rewards that are received, whether tangible or intangible, and an expected return on investment once their degree is completed. Student retention involves a culmination of experiences, which means they are motivated to continue and they are having positive experiences and interactions with their instructors and the learning environment.

Negative interactions with instructors may have a direct impact on the perception students develop about the school overall. Students will either persist, because of the commitment made to complete their degree program, or they will leave out of frustration and resentment. While an instructor may not be able to predict how students will react to their particular method of classroom facilitation; their attitude towards students and the conditions they create in the classroom will often determine if students continue their program. Student retention is not exclusively about numbers, it is the essence of interactions developed throughout the duration of the class. It all begins with the instructor.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a Ph.D. in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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  1. When it comes to retention. I myself know all too well how it seemed difficult to remember anything they were trying to teach me in school. Obviously it has to do with interest. Why would we retain something we did not see a use for or interest in. So I thought I had a learning disability, but that was only the limits they tried to put on me. Years later I now work in a law firm. Now there is an endless supply of things that I enjoy retaining, but its what I was most interested in. Thanks

  2. Hello Sharon: Thank you for the comment. I certainly understand your frustration and the challenge of engaging students in the process of learning. It seems that you are very pro-active in your class facilitation and this would have a positive impact on their classroom experience. Are you facilitating an entry-point class? I’ve noticed that the drop rate is highest for entry-point classes as those students are facing the reality of being in school now and their expectations meet the expectations of the school. I’m certain that your students appreciate the time and effort you put into your class. Wishing you the best, Dr. J

  3. I agree to some degree, but my biggest frustration is sometimes the students who only come to 2 classes and then drop out or come so infrequently that it’s difficult to build a report with them. I call them and e-mail them to let them know that I’m still available, but I can’t make some students show up for class. And if it all comes down to the “first” impression on the first day of class, that’s an extremely tall order to fulfill. I try to be as engaging as I can on the first day, but some still decide to drop. In fact, the drop rate is still about 40% overall. The student’s lives at the CC college are very complicated. I couldn’t attempt to do all of the things they are trying to juggle.

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