Published on 2012/03/28

Retention In Online Courses: Surviving The First Week

Retention In Online Courses: Surviving The First Week
Above all else, online educators must bait and hook learners in their first week of classes or risk losing a student. Photo by Zetrules.

Online learning was once considered nontraditional by academia, but time has certainly changed all of that. This mode of learning has seen the most growth over the past few years among US institutions of higher learning, with a recent study showing only 250 of 2,500 colleges and universities without any online offerings (Allen & Seaman, 2010). Whether nonprofits are feeling the crunch from the for-profit universities, or learners are demanding online opportunities because of better learning outcomes (Allen & Seaman, 2010; U.S. Department of Education, 2009, p. 51), online learning is increasing and is no longer just another innovative instructional methodology (Clapper, 2010). Instead, online learning is very much recognized as a traditional mode of education. While some institutions are still sorting out whether they will adapt or be left behind, the institutions that have embraced this modality are addressing another issue: retention after the first week.

Understanding retention means understanding the learners and the issues that are involved in their decision to stay or go. For those of us that have been on the receiving end of online instruction, we may recall the feelings we felt upon entering the course room through the learning management system (LMS) and our initial impressions. These feelings would stay with us throughout our first week as we sampled a bit of what the course would offer to us. While volumes could be written about these feelings, what they mean, and how to address them, there are some consistent variables that a course developer and facilitator must consider that will affect retention. Some of these issues may include motivation factors, such as: (a) the learning environment, (b) self-efficacy, (c) positive outcome expectations, and (d) perceived value of learning; along with learner attributes that include ability, effort, and correctly applied learning strategies (Schunk, 2012, p. 20; Stipek, 1996, ch. 8).

Dupin-Bryant (2010) identified some pre-entry variables related to course completion and non-completion in online university courses and found that prior educational experience and computer training were factors in completion. Her study revealed the importance of teaching learners how to search for resources and ensuring that learners are familiar, or supported, with using computer and web-based programs that may be a part of the instruction. Familiarity and comfort may address LMS navigation and assist with addressing the self-efficacy issue, especially for adult learners.

Online learning is very convenient for adult learners, because “they have a lot going on” (Clapper, 2010, p. e9), and it allows them the flexibility they need to juggle multiple responsibilities in life including family, work, and social issues. Institutions must recognize and prepare for the new learner fresh out of high school, the adult learner who has been out of school for some time, and the learner who was not exposed to prior online learning. The learning environment must be easy to navigate, feel psychologically nonthreatening, and lead to the least amount of frustration as possible. This implies fewer LMS buttons and fewer choices at the beginning of the course so the learner does not feel overwhelmed and wondering where to start. A good suggestion would be to design the learning environment with progressing levels of activities and choices. Several discussion forums at the beginning of the course and an abundant menu of LMS tools can overwhelm and confuse the learner entering the course room for the first time. Some LMS programs allow the instructor or developer to turn off certain features, displays, and buttons in the tool panel. Many times additional buttons can be activated as the course progresses and introduced to the learner by the facilitator. While scanning and navigating through the LMS, the learner will also reflect on the value and usefulness of the contents of the course.

Few learners will spend any real time analyzing the course syllabus.  Poorly written, unorganized course syllabuses that inundate the learner with detailed information can cause confusion and stress. So here lies another missed opportunity to present a convenient and useful looking course with clear expectations and meaningful outcomes without the appearance of being overwhelming. While scanning through the syllabus, the lessons, and discussion areas, the learner will assess the value of the lesson material in terms of application and outcomes, how these constructs match their needs, and their ability to be successful. The course discussion questions, a significant component of online learning must be thought out carefully. Discussion questions should complement the objectives of the lesson and not be performed in isolation. Equally as important, they should not leave the learner in isolation.

As Lowes, Lin, and Wang (2007) observed, interactive discussion posts are often based on interacting with a previous learner’s post, and are not interactive in the sense that they lead to further interaction. Skilled facilitators, and the term “skilled” does not imply years of online teaching experience, will recognize and employ strategic interaction practices designed to inspire interaction. Arbaugh et al.’s (2010) review of online and blended learning ascertained the importance of social and intellectual integration into the college experience as key factors predicting college retention rates. Arbaugh et al. highlight the positive effect on retention that can be developed through learner involvement and the relationships with peers and professors. Too often, the sense of community is not established right at the beginning of the course because of a lack of social presence by the facilitator, or as Arbaugh et al.’s (2010) suggest, a loss of the “spontaneity of the classroom discussion” (p. 49). Leading by example, the facilitator should be perceived as always in the course room at the beginning of the course to lead and nurture in-depth communication in the discussion forums, while also serving as the immediate “go to” person concerning LMS navigation and other issues.

Establishing social presence also requires that the facilitator grade student work immediately during the first weeks of the course. Those facilitating multiple courses with a pattern of grading the following week may wish to modify their practice the first couple of weeks where feedback is so important to nurture self-efficacy concepts. In addition, a good grading process is also supportive of efficacy and retention. A wise director at one prominent online university suggested to us that we should “comment heavy and grade lightly during the first couple of weeks” (personal communication, Oct 2011). This advice is very important as learners stumble and err in the pursuit of mastering online learning and development of course expectations. The assignments and lessons at the beginning of the course should be viewed by the learner as achievable and learners should be encouraged to complete them as expeditiously as possible. When learners can view their grade book and see their points adding up, and feel supported in the tasks, they may begin to develop a level of comfort that can lead to success in increasingly difficult lessons.

Retention in any course should be a concern of all facilitators, course developers, and administrators. A learner’s decision to continue past the first course is an entirely new topic in itself worth addressing, but certainly, if researched, we will find that it was a lack of understanding of the concepts addressed in this manuscript that also led the learner to decide whether to continue a degree program. While many can argue that certain online teaching principles are more important than others, one that is often neglected is the need to bait and hook the learner early in the course. When this overlying principle is abandoned, so is the course by some learners.


Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2010). Class differences: Online education in the United States. Eighth annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education. Babson Survey Research Group.

Arbaugh, J. B., Desai, A., Rau, B., & Sridhar, B. S. (2010). A review of research on online and blended learning in the management disciplines: 1994–2009. Organization Management Journal, 7, 39–55.

Clapper, T. C. (2010). Beyond Knowles: What those conducting simulation need to know about adult learning theory. Clinical Simulation in Nursing, 6(1), e7-e14. doi:10.1016/j.ecns.2009.07.003

Dupin-Bryant, P. A. (2010). Pre-entry variables related to retention in online distance learning. American Journal of Distance Education, 18(4), 199-206. doi:10.1207/s15389286ajde1804_2

Lowes, S., Lin, P., & Wang, Y. (2007). Studying the effectiveness of the discussion forum in online professional development courses. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6(3), 181-210.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Stipek, D. J. (1996). Motivation and instruction. In D. C. Berlinger & R. C. Calfee (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (pp. 85-113). New York, NY: Macmillan.

U.S. Department of Education (2009). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

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Readers Comments

Tyrese Banner 2012/03/28 at 2:17 pm

A wise director at one prominent online university suggested to us that we should “comment heavy and grade lightly during the first couple of weeks” (personal communication, Oct 2011)

This seems like bad advice to me. It may get students giddy about the prospect of being in your class but it gives them a false sense of their abilities and capabilites.

Tim Clapper 2012/03/28 at 4:31 pm

Tyrese, respectfully, I would have to disagree. I would love to see the evidence that supports your position that providing a great deal of useful feedback provides a learner with “a false sense of abilities and capabilities” or is less advantageous than other forms of grading techniques. After all, learning occurs through the process of reflection, application, and feedback.

Tyrese Banner 2012/03/28 at 4:47 pm

I don’t have evidence but it seems like a commonsense critique – if an educator/assessor tells their students that they’re doing better than they are, would they not think they’re at a higher level than they truly are?

If you were starting a new job and your boss told you that your work was fine when it wasn’t, won’t that negatively impact both parties in the long run? You’ll keep producing sub-par work and your boss will keep having to either protect your feelings or drop you. Nobody wins.

Tim Clapper 2012/03/28 at 5:34 pm

I think that you are missing the point. As stated in the article, the suggestion to “Comment heavy and grade lightly during the first couple of weeks” was “ very important as learners stumble and err in the pursuit of mastering online learning and development of course expectations.” It does not imply that a learner is told that their work is fine when it isn’t. Instead, the suggestion is that we should comment heavily on ways that the learner may improve. The feedback component is much more valuable than providing poor grades. Hope this helps. Thanks for reading the article, Tyrese.

Destini Copp 2012/03/30 at 7:08 am

Hi, Tim, this was my favorite quote in the article. A wise director at one prominent online university suggested to us that we should “comment heavy and grade lightly during the first couple of weeks” (personal communication, Oct 2011).

It is very true in the first 1-2 weeks in the course that the goal is to set expectations, guide, coach, and facilitate learning. This is particularly important for students who are in the first few courses of their program and online learning is new to them. During this time period, the instructor can tell them, “now in week 2 or week 3, points will be deducted in this area if improvement is not made….” I lead a group of around 450 online faculty members and many of them elect to use this approach when teaching the entry level courses. It helps the students acclimate to the online environment and their classrom.

    Tim Clapper 2012/04/01 at 9:01 pm

    Your post lends support for important first week(s) retention strategies. As you noted, many learners will make an attempt to transition to online learning and when they do, we must scaffold the process. Constructive feedback and clear guidance can lead the learners to a certain level of user-comfort and the higher standards that we expect them to conform to. We know that frustration can lead to poor outcomes, including withdrawal from the course or program.
    Thank you for reading the article.

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