Instructor influence on online student retention

Instructor Influence on Online Student Retention

Now more than ever, the issue of online student retention merits attention from post-secondary institutions. Trends indicate online enrollments are increasing, yet the issue remains less well understood when compared to retention in the on-campus context—especially for instructors teaching online. Our article identifies actions instructors can take to enable students to persist in their online courses. 


As academic support staff working in a Centre for Teaching and Learning, we offer professional development opportunities to instructors who facilitate learning online. Inspired by the discussions concerning student retention at our institution, we have been turning our focus to retention in the context of online course delivery over the past two years. Through our research, we’ve learned the issue of retention is equally problematic for online learners, though is less well understood when compared to the face-to-face context (Park and Choi 2009; Hart 2012). Our inquiry, therefore, has centered around the need to clarify what information we should be communicating to instructors as they prepare to design and facilitate learning online.  

In the context of the pandemic, where instructors find themselves engaging in “emergency remote teaching” (Hodges et al. 2020), we have taken to heart the call to action by Grajek and Brooks (2020), which characterizes student successencompassing student persistence, retention, completion, engagement and outcomes—as one of the five “Grand Challenges” confronting higher education.  

We believe review of enrollment trends provides further impetus to give attention to the important issue of online student retention. Consider that prior to the pandemic, online enrollments were growing in both Canada and the U.S. The 2017 National Survey of Online Learning in Canada, for instance, indicated that of the 38 college respondents, not including Quebec, “there has been a consistent and strong increase in online course enrollments, up by 60% over the period 2011-2015” (Bates 2017, 31). The 2018 survey further indicated that in 2016-2017 about 8% of all credit course enrollments were fully online—representing 1,357,000 online course registrations (Bates 2019). Likewise, in the U.S., Schaffhauser (2018), has noted that despite a small decrease in overall enrollments, the proportion of students enrolling in online courses increased from 31% to 33% of the total in the fall of 2017. One year later, Lederman (2019) observed the proportion increased slightly to 34.7%.

Consider that as of fall 2020, an even greater proportion of students are engaged in online learning due to the pandemic and an even greater proportion of instructors are preparing their courses for online delivery. Many of these individuals are engaging in online learning and online teaching—many for their first time, and many without convenient access to academic support staff that play an important role in their success. 

Thus far our efforts to learn more about the issue of online student retention have been fruitful. We have found the literature to affirm the importance of providing instructors with training and support in familiar areas such as online course design and use of technology (Aragon & Johnson 2008; Gray & DiLoreto 2016). At the same time, our understanding of what it means to be a knowledgeable online facilitator has been broadened. The work of Kuo et al. (2013), for instance, indicates that technology may influence student satisfaction, a variable related to persistence, retention, course quality and student success. Furthermore, as the primary connection between the institution and students enrolled in online courses, we’ve become convinced that instructors need to be knowledgeable about the many services and supports (e.g., technology help desks, learning strategists, mental health) across our institution that are available to students so they can direct them as needed. These insights are now finding their way into the training we offer to our instructors.  


In this article, we share five additional observations we have deduced based on careful review of ten articles concerning the issue of online student retention and we present an infographic that depicts our current understanding of the relationship between instructors, students and retention.

Observation 1

There are varied conceptions of retention in the literature. Academic support staff and instructors need to understand how retention is conceptualized within their respective institutions and be aware of retention issues in their program so they can determine how they might best enable students to persist in their studies. 

Our review reveals varying definitions and conceptions of retention. Foundational literature on student retention, such as Tinto’s 1975 study, acknowledged that definitions for retention, persistence, completion, drop out, success and engagement are difficult to distinguish. Tinto indicated this ambiguity results in research that “lumps together” “forms of leaving behavior that are very different in character,” ultimately resulting in research findings “contradictory in character and/or misleading in implication” (89-90). The examples, below, illustrate such varied definitions. 

In the context of post-secondary education, Tresman (2002) asserts that non-completion can be viewed as a positive outcome for students who have brief interruptions in their studies due to external factors, establishing that drops should not be assumed as synonymous with academic non-success. Aragon and Johnson (2008) define course completers as those who completed an online course with a grade of A, B, C or D, while non-completers had grades of F (Fail), Dr (Drop), W (Withdraw) or I (Incomplete). Park and Choi (2009) associate persistence with students who complete courses, without explicitly differentiating between those that complete successfully or unsuccessfully and describe non-completers as dropouts. Hart (2012) describes persistence as “a multi-faced phenomenon that leads to completion of an on-line program of study” (29). It is also important to acknowledge that due to increasingly versatile course and program designs, such as MOOCs (Koller and Ng 2013), while the intent behind a course or program design may be for students to complete it in entirety, this may not be the true intention of the student 

Observation 2

Learner-instructor interaction is a strong predictor of student satisfaction. Instructors must actively engage with course activities in the online platform, recognizing that ongoing communication between instructor and student impacts the perception among students.

The literature identifies the value of communication between students and instructors in the delivery of online courses. Hart (2012) indicates that incomplete or ineffective communication from instructors as a strong barrier to student persistence (37). Aragon and Johnson (2008) call for instructors to “set the parameters of when communication is to occur and then abide by those times” (155) and call for embedded communication within the class as well as online office hours. Conceptualizing feedback as one form of communication, Kuo et al. (2013) and Hart (2012) articulate the importance of positive, encouraging, quality feedback in a timely fashion. Gray and DiLoreto (2016) state that there are positive implications for student satisfaction and ultimately online student retention when instructors establish a presence in their courses. Herbert (2006) also asserts that interaction and support is an expectation among online students and that it is a significant variable in the student’s sense of potential for completion. 

Observation 3

Course design, especially learner-content interaction is among the strongest predictors of student satisfaction. Effective course structure and organization of materials are considered key variables that can positively influence student perceptions. 

Kuo et al. (2013) found that learner-content and learner-instructor interaction are the first and second strongest predictors of student satisfaction with internet self-efficacy having significant influence. They stated “the design of online content may be the most important contributor to student satisfaction” (30) and noted that learner-content interaction has a greater influence on learning outcomes in asynchronous settings” (31). The authors further emphasized that the organization and accessibility of course content may influence the learner’s interaction with course content and assert that “learner-content interaction substantially contributes to student satisfaction” (31). Gray and DiLoreto (2016) similarly noted that course structure has a significant direct effect on student satisfaction, citing several sources that identify course structure and organization as a “critical variable” influencing student perceptions and satisfaction. 

Furthermore, online students are motivated by course designs that include live interactions (Bawa, 2016), require active participation and interaction or collaborative learning activities (Park & Choi 2009; Kuo et al. 2013), establish classroom camaraderie/social interaction (Hart 2012; Aragon & Johnson 2008; Gray & DilLoreto 2016), have real-life context (Aragon & Johnson 2008; Park & Choi 2009), address individual differences, and incorporate hands-on learning activities and encourage student reflection (Aragon & Johnson 2008). 

Observation 4

Online students are vulnerable to leaving behaviours based on the influence of competing demands of school, family and work. This is exacerbated if they do not receive support from their families. Instructors need to be aware of the influence of external factors on student success, and become conversant with the available institutional supports and resources, particularly those related to technology that is available to students.

Tresman (2002), highlighted the importance of family as well as the support provided by peers and employers, in addition to the students’ initial educational objectives. Park and Choi (2009) noted that students were more likely to drop out if they did not receive family and organizational support, “regardless of academic preparation and aspiration” (215). Noting that student persistence is a “complex phenomenon” (38), Hart (2012) concluded that instructor communication, motivation, and peer and family support are key factors that can facilitate student success in online courses, noting that a chief differences between online and face to face students is the degree to which external factors influence online student retention. Aragon & Johnson (2008) call upon course designers to “examine their traditional perspectives and adopt a philosophy of teaching and learning that is appropriate for online learning”

Observation 5

A mismatch between the perceived versus actual demands of online learning, particularly related to time, impacts student persistence. Instructors need to help students establish a foundation for online learning at the outset of online courses and programs, making course expectations explicit.

Kuo et al. (2013) noted that affective factors (e.g., student perception of learning experiences and perceived course value) offer valuable insights in “explaining and predicting student learning in online settings” (17). Looking specifically at information that can inform instructor teaching practice in online courses, Bawa (2016), noted that student misconceptions related to volume and time may be exacerbated when students fail to recognize that learning online has key differences when compared to face-to-face learning, notably a need for more learner self-direction.

Discussion and Conclusion

Our research draws attention to the influential role instructors have on student satisfaction and suggests that when students are satisfied with their courses they persist in their learning, ultimately completing their online courses. We have also shared five observations, derived from our rapid review of literature on the topic of online student retention, which can be understood as areas of focus that merit attention by instructors teaching online and/or those providing training online instructors with an interest in addressing the issue of online student retention. As depicted in the infographic, below, the four areas include being knowledgeable and skilled in online course design and communication and engagement strategies and taking into consideration the influence of external factors and student expectations on students’ ability to persist in their online courses. 

We conclude in noting that as post-secondary institutions continue gravitating towards online and blended course deliveries, whether in response to enrollment trends or the pandemic, it is important to become aware of the many factors under the instructors’ control that influence student satisfaction and persistence in online courses. With this in mind, academic support staff and instructors are encouraged to reflect on the attributes of skilled online facilitators who can positively influence student satisfaction and persistence. 


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