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Editor’s Note: This is a valuable area of research. Until Distance Education courses can demonstrate comparable student retention rates compared to face-to-face it will be difficult to demonstrate parity in quality of instructional formats. The configuration of pressures on the distance learner may play a significant and critical role in retention.

Preparing and Retaining Students in Online Courses

Chris Brittan-Powell


This study evaluated the effect of a student instructional technology training program on college student retention in an online course.  Results showed that the training program had a significant impact on students’ successful completion in the course.  Furthermore, the training improved students’ academic performance.

Addressing Student Retention in Online Courses

A vast number and types of instructional technologies are now available to colleges and universities.  Therefore students are now often able to choose whether to take a course in either a traditional face to face (f2f) classroom setting or in a distance education (DE) learning context via the internet.  This change has led to many opportunities within the educational environment principally because it increases student access, but has also exposed some concerns as well, especially with the issue of student retention. 

While there are many positive features, DE courses have lower retention rates than f2f courses (Diaz, 2002; Parker 1995; Snyder, 2001).  Lynch (2001) reported that, in comparison to f2f courses, dropout rates in fully online courses are as high as 35 to 50%.  There may be many reasons to explain this phenomenon, including the need for greater formative student training in the instructional technology (IT) used (Ashby, 2004).  From this perspective, a key reason that many students fail to complete an online course is because they do not perceive themselves as being adequately competent in using the IT to engage in the learning process.  In such cases, rather than facilitating student learning, IT encumbers their learning.  My own DE students have told me of their struggles with and/or withdrew from one of my courses for this reason.  While anecdotal, this data supports the concerns regarding IT found in the literature (Ashby; Deka & McMurry, 2006; Diaz; Fozdar, Kumar, & Kannan, 2006). 

It seemed logical therefore to develop an intervention that could potentially mediate the impact of students’ actual and perceived efficacy in using the course specific IT.  Specifically, it appeared that an IT orientation and support program might positively impact student retention in a DE course.  The belief was if students felt more competent utilizing the IT involved in the learning process, then they might more fully engage in that process and thereby increase their learning.   Such a process might also help mediate the differences in student retention between f2f courses and DE courses.  Given this reasoning, the specific research questions guiding this study were:

  1. Does the implementation of a pre-semester student IT training program for academic coursework positively affect the percentage of DE students who complete the course as well their academic performance (grades)?

  2. Do students perceive the use of a pre-semester student IT training program as enhancing their performance in a DE course?



Participants and Procedures

This study was conducted at a moderately sized Historically Black College/University (HBCU) where the majority of students (approximately 79%) are women.  Data was obtained across three consecutive semesters.  In each respective semester, a different format of the same advanced undergraduate class (Psychological Research) was offered: 1st) traditional f2f seminar style, 2nd) via DE without a pre-semester training, and 3rd) via DE with training.  All semesters used the identical set of lecture materials, textbook, assignments, f2f office hours, and grading method.

The f2f course section was taught in a traditional classroom setting.  A Course Management System (CMS) (Blackboard®) was used to post relevant course information to students, but student usage of the CMS was not required.  The DE sections of the course were primarily delivered using Blackboard (Bb©) and a Lecture Capturing System (LCS) (Tegrity®).  The LCS allowed the instructor to create, and post for student viewing, audio-visual digital recordings of all PowerPoint based lecture materials.  Students had access to the online course 24 hours a day – seven days a week via the internet.  For all course delivery formats noted above, exams were delivered in a closed book/notes f2f setting.

Traditional f2f Students   The ages of the traditional f2f students ranged from 19 to 44 years (M = 23.22 years, SD = 1.57 years, n=34), 84 percent were women, and all participants self identified as Black.  Retention data from this group was included to provide a general comparison for the Fully Online format.

Fully Online (No-Training) Students  These students took the course in an online format but did not receive a pre-semester IT training program.  The average age of these students was 22.19 years (SD = 1.33 years, n=33).  All but three of these students were women, with two identifying themselves as White and the remainder designating themselves as Black.

Fully Online Pre-Semester Instructional Technology Training Program Students This group was required to participate in the pre-semester training program described below.  The mean age of this set of students was 22.81 years (SD = 2.46 years, n=37), the majority of this group’s participants were women (85%), and most participants identified themselves as Black (95%), with the remaining (5%) identifying as White. 

Pre-Semester Instructional Technology Training Program

This training program was implemented for the course in response to second semester students’ feedback regarding their perceived readiness to utilize the IT associated with the online course format.  Therefore, a mandatory training was established for all students in which they met with me to go over how to successfully utilize the IT.  The workshop was offered at various times and days and consisted of two key parts which lasted a total of approximately 90 to 100 minutes.  In the first half of the training, I modeled for students how to: a) log into and maneuver in the CMS in general and the manner that they should for this specific course, b) download and print PowerPoint lecture files, c) take online quizzes, d) post notes in discussion board areas, e) and view lectures using the LCS.  The second half of the training consisted of students performing these actions themselves.  I made sure to answer all questions and to have handouts for all necessary IT related course activities.


Training Effectiveness.  At the conclusion of the DE with training semester, this section of students was asked to rate on a seven point Likert scale (1 – not helpful at all to 7 – extremely helpful) the degree to which the pre-semester IT training program aided their ability to effectively function in the DE class.

Academic Performance.  The final course numerical grade served as the measure of academic performance and could range between 0 and 100.  All students, across all three conditions, received identical midterm and final exams in a f2f setting.  In addition, all students received an identical set of 10 quizzes during the semester and were taken through the CMS under identical conditions while test security was maintained throughout the study. 

Student Retention.   This variable was operationalized as the percentage of students who completed the course to those who were enrolled.


This study sought to address several questions about the effectiveness of IT.  From an IT perspective, the most important question was whether the implementation of a f2f pre-semester student instructional technology training program influenced the percentage of students who completed the course.  The respective retention rates for the various course delivery modalities were found to be: f2f 73% (which approximately is the same as this HBCU’s institutional average), DE (No-Training) 76%, and DE (Training) 87%.  This showed that the IT training had a positive impact on student retention.  Furthermore, the IT training program was found to have a positive impact on student academic performance (grades) between the two DE courses, with the group that received IT training doing better (t (68) = 7.08, p < .01 (two-tailed)).  The respective mean average course grade for the DE (No-Training) course was = 82.43 (SD = 4.54, n = 33), and for the DE (Training) course was 86.62 (SD = 3.92, n = 37). 

The last research question investigated whether DE students who received the pre-semester training perceived it as beneficial to their performance in the course.  For this question, students were asked a single seven-point Likert question to this effect.  Students’ average rating of this question was 6.21 (SD = .82, n = 35).  Students perceived the training to be helpful (t (33) = 8.43, p < .001 (two-tailed)). 


This study principally sought to evaluate one strategy for advancing students’ success in DE courses.  Prior to the study being initiated, substantial numbers of students had made requests to me that a required advanced undergraduate course be offered in a DE format to offset otherwise competing demands and scheduling conflicts that made it difficult for them to regularly attend the course and matriculate through the departmental program. These are common retention issues at many HBCUs.   Furthermore, student retention in the f2f modality of this advanced undergraduate course had historically been problematic and therefore their suggestion to change the course format to DE was heeded.  However, review of the exigent literature shows that retention has historically been a problem area in DE courses (Ashby, 2004; Deka & McMurry, 2006; Diaz, 2002; Fozdar et al., 2006, Lynch 2001; Parker 1995; Snyder, 2001).  In the case of this study, the retention of students who had taken the course in a f2f format (73%) was roughly equal to when the DE format was offered without training (76%).  This finding is notable and different than prior research that showed that the retention in DE courses tends to be lower than f2f courses, and may be at least partially due to the use of the LCS.  LCS are not currently used in the typical DE course and students have told me make it much more dynamic in nature.  Further research on the impact of LCS on retention and grades is currently being conducted.

A common theme in students’ concerns during the first semester that the course was offered via DE was that students had difficulty effectively using the IT.  They stated that by the time they might have adequately mastered the IT, they had fallen too far behind in the coursework and were at a higher risk for dropping the course.  Therefore, in the subsequent semester, IT pre-semester training intervention was incorporated into the course.  There was substantial change in the retention rate for this semester (86%), suggesting that prior IT training had a positive impact on student retention in fully online courses.  Furthermore, grades improved when they had taken the pre-semester IT training.  As a group, online students who had such training had statistically significant higher grades than those who did not.  These data suggest that not only does the IT training help online students remain in the course, but they learn more from this modality.  This interpretation is supported by the online (IT trained) students themselves reporting that the training had a significantly positive impact on their course performance.  Given these findings, it is reasonable to conclude that the inclusion of pre-semester IT training into an online course may be beneficial to student retention and academic performance.

These findings should be understood within the context of limitations of this study.  One limitation was that the analysis of one of the retention variables was restricted to use of descriptive statistics due to the sample size issues and based on the sections of a single instructor.  A much larger study, potentially consisting of close to 100 academic course sections, would be needed to meet the assumptions of an inferential analysis. Replications across courses and instructors would be beneficial and are ongoing.

In summary, this investigation provides strong support for incorporating pre-semester IT training programs into DE courses.  This study found such training to be positively associated with students’ retention, grades, and IT self-efficacy.  With the great rise in DE courses offered in higher education, the implementation of such course IT training may soon become an ethical imperative.  Furthermore, while replication of these findings is merited before larger action is taken, the call for serving our students more effectively should be heard not only by instructors but by departments, schools, and universities as a whole, so that institutionally coordinated programs are offered and the onus is not left simply upon individual instructors.


Ashby, A. (2004).  Monitoring student retention in the open university: Detritions, measurement, interpretation and action.  Open Learning, 19(1), 65-78.

Deka, T. S., & McMurry, P. (2006).  Student success in face-to-face and distance teleclass environments: A matter of contact?  International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 7(1), 92-115. 

Diaz, D. P. (2002).  Carving a new path for distance education research.  The Technology Source. Retrieved, January 29, 2008, from

Fozdar, B. I., Kumar, L. S., & Kannan, S. (2006).  A survey of a study on the reasons responsible for student dropout from the bachelor of science programme at Indira Gandhi National Open University.  International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 7(3), 221-238.

Lynch, M. M. (2001).  Effective student preparation for online learning.  Retrieved January 29, 2008, from

Parker, A. (1995). Distance education attrition.  International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1(4), 89-106.

Snyder, T. (2001). Digest of education statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

About the Author

Chris Brittan-Powell, PhD is from the Department of Applied Psychology and Rehabilitation Psychology at Coppin State University in Baltimore, MD.


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