Reducing Attrition for Online Learners

Despite the growth for online and asynchronous learning, there remains a very high attrition level as well. This can be attributed to a number of things, but the most commonly identified in research include low self-efficacy or self-regulation, as well as a lack of external or internal motivators. While researchers have been kind enough to identify the biggest obstacles educators have to overcome, the strategies to overcome such difficulties are not always so obvious. Hee Jun and Park (2009) developed an excellent quantitative study that sought to answer the questions of “Is there a difference of characteristics between dropouts and persistent online learners” and “What factors can we depend on for predicting a decision to drop out?”

The quantitative study that was developed to address these questions resulted in the interpretation that the decision to drop out of an online course strongly depends on support from the organization and environment, as well as the relevance of the content. The study found that online students without support from the physical environment, such as home, family, and work, need even more course support and the content relevance with their career and experience to stay enrolled, which is consistent with previous studies. While these external factors are out of the university’s control, curriculum designers and online faculty can develop strategies and techniques to identify and address ways to provide more support within the course. Faculty’s awareness of a particular student’s lack of support can ensure more motivational strategies directed to that student. Designers need to ensure that content relevance remains high within the curriculum to help lower attrition issues as well. The research presented in this article has a great positive influence on the study of motivational strategies for online learners to remain persistent in their studies. It was noted that relevance to the learner was a strong factor that retained students regardless of negative external factors, and could be achieved through the course design. Additionally, the online facilitator has responsibility to implement motivational strategies through social interaction to improve student satisfaction.

The question that remains for educators is, how? I am going to share a few strategies that I have found extremely beneficial to the attrition concerns of a small but incredibly growing university for the online programs. Our growth from 0-500 online students in five years with that number not counting who we have graduated is but a starting block for the explosive growth we have seem with cohorts starting between 80-120 students every other month. This growth does not equate to resting on laurels, but to raise faculty training and ensure that we have anti-attrition strategies. Below are a few methods to help reduce attrition from a program management perspective.

  • Have a clear channel communication channel between the registrar, recruiters, and online director (me). While all of us have people to inform, if these three positions are not in constant communication, large gaps will occur. To ensure that everybody follows a communication protocol, we developed a daily chart starting with -7 days (7 days before the course begins) with daily expectations of who would communicate what information so students are not overwhelmed with several people contacting them about the same thing, and having a clear chain of communication ownership. This strategy saved us dozens of students in the first installment.
  • Understand that students will not read the material. If it’s not instantly clear, they often drop off by the wayside as the unheard complainer. As such, it is critical to include a ‘walk through of the process’ and ‘who to contact’ somewhere in the communication chart.
  • Recruit faculty/trainers that are not just instructors, but are very much aware of the external motivating needs for new online learners. If an instructor goes by the letter, or just a little grace (I’ll give you 24 hours), he or she is not a good fit. The instructors for the first course should have an internal need to nurture and support students, willing to be on the phone, Skype, or whatever preference the student has to communicate.
  • If you don’t have a “first course” of a program, build an orientation course. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it reduces attrition unbelievably! If you have a “first course”, obviously the activities I’ll discuss in curriculum design strategies can be implemented and combined with the other course goals. However, if the courses are not sequenced, I strongly recommend even the most basic and shortest of orientations that include a person there to support them. Self-directed orientations do not work nearly as effectively. What this establishes is a contact with a human, something that each student needs to feel internally motivated.

Now let’s look at strategies that curriculum designers can implement. Schmidt and Werner (2007) present an excellent analysis on how a student’s motivation and self-regulation can be impacted by implementing future oriented components in the curriculum. Theories are presented concerning time perspective and how it impacts social learners, who are generally proactive, self-regulated and self-aware. There are several methods to infuse future orientation into curriculum, which include making the content relevant, focus on self-reflection, as well as goal-setting mechanism. These strategies improve self-awareness and self-regulation; two components essential to a success life-long learner. Studies were presented that students with low Future Time Perspective (FTP) possibly do not experience the learning processes effectively as they are not connecting tasks to their goals or finding the relevance. The article then discusses at great length the implications for curriculum designers with methods on applying FTP to lower attrition rates. While FTP is not the only educational psychology to influence improvement in the online learning environment, it has excellent potential that can be measured with further study.

What is it that we consistently see across these two articles that represent much more research in this field? Awareness! If students are not self-aware, their internal motivators are greatly reduced, and make it difficult if not impossible to combat any negative external motivators. While external motivators are somewhat out of the educator’s control, internal motivators can be strongly encouraged and naturally offset any negative external motivators. Below are a few methods to help reduce attrition from a curriculum design perspective in regards to awareness.

  • Provide an awareness of adult learning methods and have students discuss their own connection to that. We implemented a video that I created and required a discussion around it. The movement from the previously “word only” discussion about why they are committed to the video + how do you relate spiked the discussion activity dramatically.
  • Create a basic SWOT analysis exercise for students to become aware of their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for completing online education. Specify that the SWOT components must be in relation to their educational endeavors so that they can see directly what they need adjust for a successful experience. When the weaknesses and threats are identified, it is absolutely crucial for the instructor to provide supportive strategies to help the student combat them.
  • If the course is academic in nature, have their first academic paper be something that is incredibly motivating for them to write. While we want everything to relevant, writing about how they plan to manage the workload or their personal goals on certain topics is exciting for newcomers. However, it is important for the instructor to not just hammer on mechanics and presentation. There needs to be supportive feedback about their goals – getting that interaction from the facilitator simply elevates the student’s motivation to embrace the otherwise negative reinforcer of just what they did wrong. Present the negative feedback as opportunities for improvement.
  • As adult learning theorist Mezirow tells us through transformational learning, reflection is critical for adult learners. If there is no reflection that allows students to relate the new information to their own worlds, often that information is forever lost and the learning experience quickly forgotten.
  • Diversify the activities. You do not want a ridiculous amount of whistles and bells that overwhelm students. However, a simple quick (2 minutes or less!) video supporting their discussion or writing topic inspires students instead of instilling dread of completing an assignment. Send them out to websites to read and feel connected with the relevant world instead of relying solely on a textbook. Also, you do not want all writing or all discussions. There should be a good balance of creativity, sharing, and constructing knowledge.
  • Discussions in an asynchronous environment are essential, but a rubric to guide that discussion is even more imperative. This encourages critical thinking and forces them to return to the discussion over the week instead of getting everything done at once and experiencing no collaboration. Teams are also good, but require a strong introduction of how they work, the expectations, as well as a rubric to also encourage collaboration. If you are interested in more about this, please do not hesitate to contact me.

These are just a start to methodologies for both the program and curriculum design level to reduce attrition. I strongly encourage anybody interested in these matters to obtain the articles below for some valuable insights to what drives student satisfaction and strategies to reduce attrition.

Hee Jun, C., & Park, J. (2009). Factors influencing adult learners’ decision to drop out or persist in online learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 12(4), 207-217. Retrieved from

Schmidt, J., & Werner, C. (2007). Designing online instruction for success: Future oriented motivation and self-regulation. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 5(1), 69-78. Retrieved from

Tags: , , ,

Subscribe to get helpful learning tidbits

About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.