There is plenty for higher education leaders and professors to fear in the fall. Will students come back? Will in-person classes lead to a spike in Covid-19 cases? Will faculty be ready to teach whatever kind of hybrid, hyflex, at a podium behind plexiglass—or yet-to-be-determined mode we are forced into by the circumstances of the moment?
But if students and faculty return to classes that are entirely online, there is a looming crisis that few are giving serious consideration: retention.
Retention means students are actually passing the classes they enroll in. We were able to muddle through the latter part of the pandemic spring semester, but will students be able to successfully complete an entire fall semester of fully online classes? There are legitimate reasons, supported by empirical data, to expect that a significant number of students will fail or drop out when faced with a full load of online classes.
Retention in online classes is consistently lower than retention in face-to-face classes—anywhere from 5 to 35 percent lower. So students are statistically more likely to fail and drop out of online classes. Although it may be tempting to blame the students who enroll in online classes, robust statistical analyses have demonstrated that online classes have lower retention rates even when we control for student demographic and academic characteristics.
My intent is not to disparage online education. I have been teaching online at a public university for more than a decade. I have seen access to online education change the lives of my students— some of whom wouldn’t be able to go to college any other way. But I am also a social scientist, and I can’t ignore what the data tell me.
My own research indicates that the more online classes students take in a given semester, the less likely they are to stay enrolled in college. Adding one or two online classes to a student’s course load can actually help—online classes provide flexibility, helping students balance school, work, and family. But beyond a certain tipping point, around 40 percent of course load, more online classes lead to less successful students.
We were able to dodge the low retention bullet in the spring semester thanks to two key factors. First, the pandemic hit in mid-March, which meant the switch to emergency remote teaching constituted only about a third of a semester for many institutions. That meant the bulk of the semester was spent in the classroom, where professors and students were able to build connections with one another in person. That rapport then carried over into the online environment, making retention more likely.
Second, many universities and professors adjusted their grading policies to allow for pass/fail or other options that otherwise wouldn’t have been available. This move not only allowed students who may have otherwise thrown in the towel to finish out a class, but it also sent a signal to students that faculty were understanding and compassionate during trying circumstances.
It’s still unclear what the fall semester will look like. But it looks like many students will be starting the semester with a fully online load, without having the opportunity to meet their professors in person. And it seems that most colleges will return to normal grading practices as well.
How can we prepare now to avert a retention crisis in the fall when some students will have 100 percent of their courses held online—including many students and faculty who would not have chosen online courses outside the context of a pandemic?
Human Connections are Key
Experimental and survey research I’ve conducted on this issue over the past 10 years demonstrates that faculty are key to reducing the retention gap between online and face-to-face classes. In fact, when instructors prioritize building rapport with their students—making real human connections with them and creating relationships grounded in trust and communication—they can eliminate the retention gap entirely.
In order to avoid a worst-case scenario where many of our students fail or drop out, we need to prioritize pedagogical training and give professors the tools they need to connect with the students in their online classes. Teaching online is hard. Online students want professors who communicate and engage with them. More than learning how to use the latest Blackboard widget, faculty need to learn how to build rapport in an online environment.
My research leads me to recommend three key strategies: humanize yourself, leave personal feedback and reach out to students. Whether in short videos, lecture notes, or just a profile picture on Canvas, let students see you as a real human being. It’s okay if your cat jumps on your lap or your toddler asks for a cookie during a Zoom call. Students may have cats and toddlers, too! Humanizing our teaching can help us connect with students and show them that we care about their success.
Leaving personal feedback for every student may sound time consuming, but something as simple as calling students by name when you respond to their posts in discussion boards can signal that you see them as real people and care about their individual contributions. Consider audio or video feedback to make the human connection even stronger.
One of the most powerful ways to build rapport with students is to proactively reach out to them through email. A personal email updating them on grades, checking in on them or reminding them about an assignment deadline can dramatically impact whether students feel motivated and connected. You can start before the semester even begins by reaching out to welcome students to the class. Technology makes these kinds of personal contacts easier with tools like mail merge.
It is not going to be an easy semester for any of us. As faculty, we don’t have a lot of control over whether the virus is going to resurge or whether our institutions are going to move fully online. But we can be incredibly influential when it comes to averting the looming retention crisis.
When we connect with our students and demonstrate that we care about them, they are far more likely to be successful.