A Layered Recipe for Improving Student Retention in E-Learning Courses: from the Online Learning Consortium’s (formerly Sloan-C) Annual Conference

E-Learning courses at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) leverage the strengths of multiple learning modalities and employ a variety of constructivist teaching techniques, combined with layered student retention interventions in order to maximize student persistence and learning outcomes.  A primary goal of BMCC’s E-Learning program is to expand access to educational opportunities for students while increasing student retention and academic success as indicated by improved course completion and pass rates in online and hybrid courses.  Secondly, by improving access and success, the college aims to increase academic momentum and persistence toward degree completion by providing more flexibility through time and space, while creating a virtual community of inquiry for students.

Student retention in online courses typically lags by 10-20 percentage points behind the equivalent face-to-face course.  By implementing student supports through a team-based approach involving faculty and staff, our opportunities to intervene at the right time are greatly increased.  At the Online Learning Consortium’s annual conference this year, I attended two sessions focusing entirely on student retention in online learning.  I’m writing in this post about some of BMCC’s approaches, combined with three key takeaways from these sessions.

1-Engaged Faculty
Engaged faculty are critical in order to engage students.  New faculty professional development options, such as faculty peer retention coaching, will focus on improving student learning outcomes and course retention, and overall persistence toward degree completion.  Incentives in the form of technology tools, and a respect for faculty time are additional ways to attract faculty to online learning. Ideally faculty will be free from time constraints so they are able to fully develop and enrich the class. Online students perform best when their professor logs-in and engages with students on a daily basis, preferably seven days a week.  Further, there is a direct correlation between the amount of time a faculty member spends online and how much time his/her student spends in the online classroom. Since online courses are now free from time and space constraints, policies regarding campus attendance now take on new meaning for the online professor.

2-Academic Quality
Attention to academic quality will improve student retention. This includes well-designed courses, a reliable technology infrastructure and communication mechanisms to support students who are truly at a distance. Online faculty at BMCC have several routes to online teaching certification depending on their prior experience.  New online faculty participate in 10 weeks of pedagogical and course design facilitation with instructional designers and peer mentors.  The course is offered in a blended format and models effective practices in online and blended teaching. Faculty explore pedagogical methods and learning theories applicable to e-learning, new digital innovations, as well as strategies to improve overall student performance and retention.  For example, faculty discuss how to identify the behaviors of at-risk students and how to re-engage students who are not attending or underperforming.

3-Engaged Student Experience
In addition to academic quality, learning communities, layer student services, adaptive learning tools, and learning analytics for support, are all strategies being tried at various colleges and universities represented at OLC in order to improve student retention. Learning analytics is a hot topic and could be helpful with student retention; however, it needs to be carefully and ethically implemented to ensure student privacy and faculty academic freedom are not violated.

Online staff will ideally provide online and hybrid students with regular follow-up about their progress in the course to ensure they log-in on a regular basis, participate in online class activities, as well as receive proper connections to online tutoring, counseling, and writing center services when needed.  Intervention support for online and hybrid students is provided via Blackboard Collaborate, e-mail, phone or by conducting workshops or classroom visits (in hybrid courses) to assist with faculty with technical and logistical aspects of teaching online.

Part of the retention discussion led to the question, “who owns the responsibility of student retention?” Groups discussed varying nuances of support roles, but ultimately faculty, staff, and administrators all bear responsibility. Layered support works best, for example, when the instructor is coaching students on discipline specific and content matters, an academic advisor is helping students with choices regarding courses and degrees, and a student success coach or facilitator makes sure students are logging in on a regular basis, participating, and turning in assignments.  Each person on the team has a different role and may intervene at a different time through coordinated efforts.  This takes some of the retention workload off of faculty, so they can focus on engaging students with the content of the course.

Finally, a good way to measure student success and satisfaction with online learning beyond course completion rates may be looking at other metrics for student persistence, for example, how many students enroll in second or third online courses, and how many return to the college for any enrollment (even face-to-face). As we increase online course offerings, we carefully monitor retention in each course as well as pass rates and grades earned, to see how students are performing on online and hybrid courses compared to the face-to-face counterpart.  We expect the interventions discussed in these presentations will yield improvements in retention and pass rates; however, more information on learning outcomes and e-learning student persistence is needed.

Submitted by Janey Flanagan,

Director of E-Learning, Borough of Manhattan Community College
Urban Education PhD Student, CUNY Graduate Center


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309