31 May 2022
Havit Higher Ed

How to Stem Online Student Attrition

The shift from traditional in-person instruction to digital online learning has seen unprecedented growth thanks to COVID-led digital transformation.

In the fall 2019 there were 7.3 million students enrolled in distance education courses through a post-secondary school[1]. By fall of 2020, that number had jumped to 10.6 million, a 45% increase over the prior year.[2]

However, despite the ease and advantages offered by online learning – the completion rates are dismal when compared to in person learning.  Since (or because) of COVID, attrition has become the leading issue for online education.[3]  Despite the uptick in online class registration, studies show that 40-80%[4] of those enrolled drop out.

The reasons are complex. Mental health issues regarding feelings of isolation, lack of motivation and financial pressures are some of the most frequent cited reasons to drop out.

Today’s online universities are expert at attracting new students and spend heavily on enrollment, but they may not focus enough on keeping students enrolled.

The Campus recently explored a range of options you can review here.

If you’re like most of us and short on time, here’s a quick snapshot of some of the best ways to keep online students engaged and enrolled.

Give them your warmest welcome


Creating a learning environment that is student-centered and care-rooted will have a positive effect on student well-being. Transitioning into the university environment, whether far from home or via laptop screen, is an exciting yet daunting time for many students.

Carefully crafted and interactive online pre-arrival resources can provide students with clear, useful information about the academic journey and university experience ahead, preparing them for their studies while allaying fears and doubts. Inform and engage students before they start the class with video content to 1) explain what to expect 2) get to know their professors and 3) understand what is expected of them.

Use online icebreakers, which come in a range of forms, from asking students to share their expectations for the course to grouping them into breakout rooms to discuss current news related to the session’s content.

The aim is to encourage students to engage with each other and the lecturer. This will dismantle any feelings of isolation right from the start and make the teacher seem more approachable.

Create connections between students


It is essential to promote learning environments where students feel connected, mitigating the social loss associated with off-campus learning.

Co-production of work fosters shared responsibility, a sense of community and self-confidence. So, stronger online connections can be achieved by introducing co-creation exercises in which students work remotely together and in partnership with the teacher, while contributing to the module and course curriculum.

For example, students could collaborate online to create tasks and role-play scenarios for the whole class or on the delivery of an online workshop.

Catch students before they fall


Online learning can be overwhelming when a lot of content and tasks are being posted in cyberspace. A certain level of self-motivation and discipline is needed to stay on track with learning.

One of the most common ways to help students is the use of knowledge checks such as quizzes and self-assessments. Mini quizzes on the content can be helpful for students to get an idea of whether they have grasped the concepts correctly. Self-assessments are similar but feedback is provided immediately without submission or grades.

Another method is to provide online merit-based awards that promote student achievement, recognition, and engagement in learning. Such awards can come in the form of badges or certificates. Badges are visual representations of a skill, progress of learning or experience (for example, completing a series of online learning tasks or achieving academic excellence).

Offer badges for actions that correspond to learning outcomes or skills – ideally, these should be meaningful to students (and their future employers) and design some badges to be unexpected and skills-based, rather than expected and awarded for the completion of a mandatory task.

A third method is the use of the intelligence tool on the LMS to send an automated email when instructor-defined criteria are met. For example, an automated personalized email can be sent as a gentle reminder when a student has missed a task or has not accessed the module in several days. On a more positive note, automated email can be sent to congratulate students for doing well, too, such as showing consistency by completing first two weeks of tasks.

There are also ways to identify students who are disengaged and falling behind.

Educators can make use of the tools mentioned above to monitor class progress. For example, they can identify students who are not doing well in self-assessments or have been missing tasks.  Look for students who have not visited the module site or course content for a period (for example, an entire week). There are tools on the LMS that can help us keep track of class progress.

Students are more motivated when they know that their instructor cares about them. It is fair to say that students who are disengaged or unmotivated often need more than automated personalized emails or badges.

By personally reaching out to these students, offering a chat to check in on progress or to understand their struggles, we can connect with these at-risk students. Students need to know that they are not just a number or student ID on the university record.

Provide instant feedback


One of the biggest challenges for students learning online is the lack of immediate instructor feedback. A South Korean professor shared his experience and learning.

In a regular [offline] class, a student can raise his/her hand at any time and ask a question. In an online class, they don’t have the same freedom. Even if the class is being conducted live on Zoom, it is hard to ask questions because only one person can speak at a time .

Although course-specific message boards can offer an efficient way to interact with students, research suggests that students are often hesitant to use them because doing so is essentially a public admission to not knowing something. This is often why many students prefer asking questions after class instead of during.

Another common concern is the lack of immediacy, with students often waiting days for queries to be resolved.

To help address these concerns, online instructors used instant messaging instead of message boards. All students on a course were put into a group chat with their instructor and explicitly told they could ask questions at any time through personal one-to-one messaging.

Student feedback showed a clear preference for real-time feedback — within an hour — as most beneficial for learning. Of course, trying to respond to all questions within an hour can be difficult and sometimes impossible.

Student participants were very understanding of these limitations, holding the preference for faster feedback despite knowing that they might sometimes have to wait until the next day to get an answer.

Several mentioned that they had changed their study time to an earlier hour when they knew the instructor was more responsive. This highlights the willingness of some students to coordinate with instructor availability to help facilitate more effective study.

Another advantage of instant messaging was the ability to share answers. Since many students often have similar questions, the group chat was used to repost answers to individual queries. These reposts were done anonymously so the original student asking the question was not revealed.

Post-learning feedback indicated that students greatly appreciated this constant repository of clarifications. Students who did not ask questions often said the reposts were the reason why, saving them the need to ask their own.

Continue the conversation with BKessel@havitad.com



[1] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics 2020Table 311.15https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80

[2] Number of college students enrolled in distance education US 2020, by Institution. Statista, Erin Duffin, May 19, 2022.  https://www.statista.com/statistics/987856/college-students-enrolled-distance-education-courses-institution-type/

[3] COVID-19 and Digital Transformation of information through innovation technologies. Persistence and Dropout in Higher Online Education (May 2022): Frontiers in Psychology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.902070/full

[4] Ruth Chen. Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions, How to cut dropout rates of online courses (march2018). eLearning Industry. https://elearningindustry.com/dropout-rates-of-online-courses-cut-high