Guest Contributor Sande Johnson, Developmental Studies and College Success Specialist, Academic Services, Cengage Learning.

About this time in the term, students start to drop various courses. It may be due to loss of interest or it may be because the material is beyond their ability. What can you do to stimulate interest and keep your students actively engaged in your course?

Like our esteemed faculty in higher education, the Academic Services Consulting Group at Cengage Learning often has to address these very issues when launching into course development. We reach out to our instructional designers, editorial, and marketing partners who have a constant pulse on the trends in the field relative to students’ needs and educational trends to inform our curriculum development process. Though there is undoubtedly no “one size fits all” solution to retention challenges, there seem to be themes that underscore common difficulties, as well as common solutions.

Sample focus questions at the beginning of the term:

  • Are students being properly placed in courses for which there are prerequisite skills?
  • Is there adequate supplemental support for students who might find the content difficult, but might be afraid to ask for help?
  • Is your syllabus clear in terms of expectations for the student? Does it provide adequate information to help a student see the short and long-term benefits of taking your class?
  • Does the course highlight the connections between the academic course area and students’ everyday lives — connections that help them understand the relevance of the course content? The old WIFM (what’s in it for me) seems more appropriate to consider now than ever.
  • Acknowledging that this generation of traditional-aged students tends to communicate with their friends via handheld devices or social media sites, have you designed your course to include these tools?
  • Given all of the recent publicity about the perceived value, or lack thereof, of a college degree, does your course highlight skills that will help every student build a meaningful portfolio for post-graduation life?

Examples of strategies:

Many of the subject matter experts (SMEs) and authors with whom we work, anticipating the concerns listed above among others, have provided a variety of recommended solutions, including:

  • Writing applications that highlight WIFM for a student – why is this course important for me to master?
  • Integrating real world examples in the activities they provide for every course.
  • Focusing on critical thinking skills that students already engage when playing computer games like Angry Birds, calculating room measurements as you shop for furniture, calculating gas mileage, etc. Activities that are relevant to everyday planning.
  • Using tools like the College Success Factor Index (CSFI) to help students measure their own strengths and areas for improvement, as well as their progress throughout the term. The CSFI also will point students to materials to shore up those areas where they would benefit from assistance.
  • Highlighting skills that will help students to be successful in other college courses, as well as navigating the key content issues of current events. Our team may recommend, for example, pulling in current magazine articles and websites (Gale Library and other online resources), and having students analyze their authenticity and perspective.
  • Creating activities that encourage students to teach students. This type of activity helps students to broaden their perspective, seeking the ultimate benefit of the material to themselves and to others.

As perhaps a more global strategy, our SMEs, authors and instructional designers are keenly aware of the need to address students’ individual needs. The one size fits all industrial educational model no longer works and often causes students to feel disempowered – as though their specific needs are irrelevant. Technology advances can serve to identify personalized learning paths for students. Our instructional design philosophy is outcome driven and learner centered, which means that we recognize the need to identify individual student needs and address them through adaptable curriculum design. Students who have requisite skills upon entering a particular course should not have to repeat studying those skills to successfully pass the course. Diagnostic assessments can facilitate an accelerated path as appropriate for each unique student experience.

Bottom line, if students feel that their resources (time and money) are being wasted, if they do not see the connection between what they are learning and what opportunities await them upon graduation, or if they are not receiving adequate support in achieving success in a course, their likelihood of persisting is severely curtailed. These are certainly some of the guiding principles behind our development goals.

Sande Johnson, Developmental Studies and College Success Specialist, began her role as Academic Services Consultant at Cengage Learning in 2011 following a 25-year career at Pearson Education where she developed a wide spectrum of skills including sales, marketing, editorial and market research. After 12 years as the Executive Editor for Student Success and Career Development, Sande spent 2010 through late 2011 consulting on a number of educational publishing and technology projects.

What are your student retention strategies? What roadblocks to retaining learners do you encounter in your courses? Share your thoughts with us in the Comments section below.