4 Tips For Retaining Your Top Performers In Online Courses

Better engagement leads to better retention. This is not a new concept. Students who are engaged in their classes, programs, and with their schools are more likely to persist through to graduation than their classmates who don’t.

Luckily, it’s easy to engage your students when courses are taking place in person. Students are making frequent contact with their instructors and classmates thanks to attendance requirements and students have increased chances of building camaraderie with their classmates thanks to cohort modeling. Plus, when a student starts showing signs of being at-risk, like missing their required course hours, that’s easily observable so your registrars and career services staff members can intervene quickly.

So What Changes When You Move Your On Ground Programs Online?

Students lose face time with their instructors and their classmates. Class discussions become more difficult, it’s hard for instructors to ask for students to answer questions in class, there is no longer a chance for socializing before and after class to build social bonds, and, overall, students are more likely to feel like they’re going it alone instead of being part of a cohort.

Students are also losing the sense of control they have over their education. The education they’re receiving online, while it is from the school they signed up for, is no longer the on ground, hands dirty, practical education they signed up for. 

Add this loss of control and loss of meaningful interactions with their instructors and classmates to whatever personal shifts they might be experiencing in regards to health and income, and it’s easy to understand how without strong engagement strategies in place, retention is about to become a much bigger beast.

In fact, your school might even start to see a shift in which students present as at-risk. You might start seeing improved attendance in online courses from the students who didn’t want to drive to campus, whereas your top performers might be the ones doing an ROI calculation to decide whether to take a leave of absence until classes resume on ground.

When programs are on ground, most of the strategy behind intervening with at-risk students focuses on who is coming to campus and completing their hours. Now that classes are online, the barriers to coming to class fall down. Students can still log on if their car is out of gas, if they don’t have money for lunch, if their child is sick. While attendance will always be a large component of predicting who is at-risk and who is not, online programs need to focus more heavily on which students are engaging regularly than you did when classes were in person. 

To prevent students from feeling disengaged and becoming at-risk, your school needs to build and implement a strong strategy for engaging and communicating with your students to recreate as many interaction opportunities in the online environment from the on ground learning experience as possible.

4 Key Tips

Build a strategy at the program or school level

Your instructors naturally engage students in on ground classes because they’re physically present, communicating, asking and answering questions, and having conversations about the content, the career path, and about life. These things are lost when you move online, and replicating them online won’t be the same for every instructor. Don’t just rely on your instructors to know best for how and when to communicate with students unless you want student engagement to be dictated by which instructors opt to put in the most effort in communicating outside of content delivery.

Use the right course format

While the Department of Ed has left some wiggle room to run asynchronous courses if you can prove opportunity for interaction, asynchronous courses are not engaging. In asynchronous courses, instructors and students are delivering and consuming content on their own time with the least amount of interaction possible. Synchronous courses, on the other hand, will require your instructors and students to be online at the same time, which increases opportunity for engagement during class time instead of solely communicating outside of class through text or email.

Use a data driven platform for engagement & communication

Some online teaching platforms, like CourseKey, can provide institutions with data on engagement to see not just who is missing attendance hours online, but also understand things like which students are actively communicating with their instructors or who is missing pop quizzes or tests, all without having to wait for instructors to manually track and report on those items. When your registrars and career services staff can monitor which students are disengaged, they can put intervention strategies into motion to reach out to those students at the school level. Similarly, it will give your school staff the chance to identify trends in engagement, like if an individual professor has a high ratio of unengaged students, to investigate whether they are following your school’s standard for engaging with students online.

Email alone is not enough

Meaningful and consistent communication is hard to cultivate through email alone for a few reasons. One, because messages can easily slip through the cracks. Email inboxes receive an influx of messages from a variety of sources, like students from multiple courses, administration, colleagues, and more. And for instructors using personal email addresses as the point of contact for their students, their inboxes are hit with external personal and promotional emails on top of those related to school. Two, if students want to communicate with each other, it’s awkward to ask for contact information from people you’re not very close with. There is a chance that the shy, more introverted students might not be accessing classmates as resources and support groups as often as the social butterflies and extroverts in your programs.

Taking The First Step

The stereotypical online course involves the instructor posting content online, assigning a discussion board, and sometimes giving lectures over a video platform. That, however, is not what your star students feel they signed up for. To keep them retained while your programs are online, you need to build and execute an engagement strategy so they feel the online experience is comparable with what they signed up for when courses were on ground. To see how you can easily execute engagement strategies using CourseKey, request a demo below.

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