Retention and the affective domain

I hate emotions. Yes, I know that’s an emotional thing to say, but they get in the way of learning more than any other thing.

I struggle to understand why students drop online classes. I’m not getting much help from the research. Compared to the traditional classroom, we know that online students get lower marks (Fonolahi 2014). But we’re also thinking that they need greater social interaction (Boston et al 2009), want more direct instruction and feedback (Gaytan 2015), and apparently do not need to experience a locus of control (Cui 2015).

Couple this with the article in the Atlantic on Starbucks helping baristas go to college. What’s working to keep students enrolled, the article points out, isn’t just the money for tuition. Contracting university ASU has in turn contracted with a company to provide personalized monitoring. Students are called and encouraged to stay on track. Most need assistance with their confidence as much as working their way through bureaucracy.

The undercurrent here is emotions, the affective domain. I suspect a great deal depends on how students feel. If you feel comfortable in a class, you stay in the class.

On-campus classes often have a built-in comfort/affective boost, because students have been in that environment for 12 years of school. We remove that when we go online – I understand that. And we assume that because students communicate with each other and with parts of society on cell phones and computers, that the environment is familiar, but we know that for learning it really isn’t.

So we worry about the social online environment. Will students feel isolated? Will they feel they aren’t really in a class?

But now I have to add: will they feel it’s too much work? will they feel they don’t have time to do this class? will they feel that other classes are easier than mine so they’ll drop mine?

My classes are friendly, I’m friendly, I reach out, I email when people are struggling. I use their names. I track all these students. I contact them. I do not phone them or go to their house, though (I’ve had an admin suggest that, but there are many reasons students take online classes, and one is privacy).

Since this post in 2009, my drop-out rate has increased. I have done surveys on why they drop, and asked them. In response I’ve reduced the workload, especially the number of writing assignments. I’ve considered publisher cartridges and programs. I’ve even considered switching from Moodle to Blackboard or Canvas, but if I switch, then my very best pedagogy (the History Lab) won’t work because the LMS won’t let me batch grade posts.

And then I start to wonder, why is all the pressure about retention put on faculty? Some newer studies suggest that retention in courses students take for online breadth-requirement classes (like mine) is 64%, about 10% lower than on-site (Wladis et al 2015). If I had more history majors, it would be closer to 81%. All the studies acknowledge “external factors” (reading level, GPA, online class experience, jobs, family support, etc.) and yet all the advice is that faculty should do things to make the classes more inviting, more engaging, more relevant to their current lives regardless of the subject (Park and Choi 2009)

Could the institution help? Yes, I think so, but how they could help would be controversial:

1. Create a barrier. Students attempting to enroll in an online class would have to do something to force understanding of the self-direction and commitment required. Perhaps this would be an interactive tutorial, but it should be something that keeps popping up throughout the semester as a reminder. This might help students feel like this will be hard, this will be a challenge, this will require effort.

2. Have the college contact them. Not the teacher, the college. According to this article, at the University of West Georgia, retention increased when faculty reporting students they couldn’t reach to academic advisers who tracked them down and offered cheerleading services.

I have more research to do, of course (I’m stashing all my Diigo bookmarks here). Many of the studies are based on student surveys, and I know from faculty evaluations that these seemingly “objective” surveys are usually based on how students feel when they respond to them. Some of the research (Croxton 2014) is tying together student satisfaction and retention in terms of theory. In a world where some students want trigger warnings and controls on free speech in order to protect their feelings, any focus on how students feel, and how their feelings affect their decision to drop the class, would be helpful.

5 thoughts on “Retention and the affective domain

  1. SUCH AN IMPORTANT TOPIC. My institutional thing about be this: instead of a 3-hour course, call it an 8-hour course. YES. REALLY. And that way it will be clear why 15 hours is considered being a full-time student… because it is really 5 8-hour classes, not 5 3-hour classes.

    Now, I only ask for 6 hours from my students, but I phrase that as 6-8 hours. And I really DO expect 6 hours (no scheduled class meeting time since we’re online, but 6 hours of work time each week). Some students are truly shocked by that. These are college seniors, but, yes, there are some of them who really do assume that 3 hours is all that is needed. Plus cramming for tests and staying up all night to write a paper or maybe two. Other than those special occasions, if you go to class and stay awake 3 hours a week, that should be enough to scrape by… or so they assume.

    Well, obviously, that is not correct. We know that more time is required. But when we call it a “3-hour” class, we are making things less than clear for the students who most need us to be very very very clear about the time required.

    I see 99% of the problems students have in my classes being caused by lack of time. And that’s something I really cannot help them with. I try… but the students have painted themselves into a corner by being seriously overcommitted in unrealistic ways with their time. And the university is at least partly to blame IMO.

    So, I propose: call the classes “8-hour classes” and let’s see what happens.

    Meanwhile: a curse upon the contact hour and the Holy Carnegie Unit!


    1. Exactly! For us it is 9 hours, as we are supposed to assign 2 “out of class” hours for each “in class” hour. And yes, I have told them that the class will take 9 hours a week. They simply don’t believe me, because they don’t have 9 hours a week, so it must take less.


  2. Create a barrier. Students attempting to enroll in an online class would have to do something to force understanding of the self-direction and commitment required. Perhaps this would be an interactive tutorial…

    We did just that a few years ago as part of our QEP. We have a prerequisite for all online classes that is a non-credit, tuition-free automated tutorial using the official LMS. It can be completed in a few hours, so students who want to register but haven’t taken it can get it out of the way and sign up for classes with minimal delay.

    I don’t have specific data handy, but the retention rate in the sampled online sections was initially 15—20% lower than for face-to-face sections of the same class. To the best of my recollection, after implementing the prerequisite, the difference was substantially smaller.


    1. That makes me curious, Ted, as to whether it’s the content of the tutorial, or just the dedication required to complete it, that does the trick.


  3. I’m not aware that we’ve done research to answer that question. I suspect that the content itself isn’t what helps people succeed, but rather the little bit of extra effort required is enough to act as a gatekeeper and shift less-motivated students out of online sections and into f2f ones. It does seem to have an effect, though.


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