Student Retention in the COVID-19 Era: What to Know

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Online LearningStudent Success
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Janet Mizrahi is a continuing lecturer who teaches professional writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also an author at BizCommBuzz.


One of the most pressing problems facing colleges during the COVID-19 crisis is retaining students—especially at-risk, low-income or underrepresented students who attend institutions of higher learning to gain social mobility. While all students have experienced hardships during the global pandemic, these vulnerable learners have been hit particularly hard.

Some don’t have reliable internet access to join online classes; some have no home to return to; others, without campus jobs, have lost their only source of income. To add to these woes, studies show that online learning retention rates are 28% lower than students taking face-to-face classes. And, those who drop out are unlikely to return.

Much of what needs to be done to retain these students—issues such as dealing with financial concerns, moving student advising online and upgrading digital learning platforms—falls upon our institutions. But instructors can play a big part in student retention.

For one, we can abandon the sage-on-a-stage persona and put ourselves in our students’ shoes. Showing compassion and humanity go a long way to reassure students that professors care about their education, which in turn helps them feel more invested. Keep reading for actions you can incorporate into your classes to help students stick to their goals.

Be approachable.

It’s hard for vulnerable students to reach out. Many experience imposter syndrome and shy away from asking for help because they question whether they belong in college in the first place. So being approachable can help cross the professor-student divide.

Humanize yourself by posting videos of your life and include your pets or children in the videos. (I talk about my granddaughter and show pictures of her while my dog sleeps on the sofa in my office. The students seem to love it!) Talk about outings, challenges, books you are reading, TV shows you’ve watched.

Connect with students.

In your syllabus, lectures and assignments, tell students we are in this mess together and that the priority is to support one another. The “personal touch” is a tried-and-true method to engage with all students, vulnerable ones in particular.

Use students’ names; reach out when you see a student hasn’t come to class or turned in work, and when doing so, don’t chastise but instead ask how you can help them be successful. When I realized my online office hours went unattended, I started asking students to contact me when they needed help. I’d either phone them (they ALL have phones) or start a Zoom session so we could chat.

At the end of the course, about half mentioned they were not only grateful for this alternative but that it helped them get through the course. Yes, it made my life more hectic, but doing nothing would have been worse.

Create in-class support groups.

I’ve been insisting students form “learning pods” for years now. At the beginning of the semester, I ask students to find two or three other classmates and exchange contact information. The groups sit together during face-to-face classes and conduct all group work in the classroom together.

I’ve adapted this approach to an online format. During the first class, I send each student the roster of their peers’ campus email addresses. Then I divide them into groups of three or four, giving them time to contact one another during class to decide the best way to work together for group assignments, peer editing sessions and general support. At the end of the term, my spring students told me this was extremely beneficial to them on a number of levels, and it is a tactic I will use again in the fall.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Instructors (me included) think that if we say something once, students should hear it and get it. But just because we’ve written a well-designed assignment or sent an email, doesn’t mean students read or understand these communications.

We must use multiple forms of messaging to reach these vulnerable students. (I know, I know, it goes against the grain, but these are extraordinary times.) Remind them when an assignment is due and how to submit it. Make instructions clear—then say it again.

For some time, universities have made a commitment to enroll students who otherwise would not consider higher education. Institutions have created safety nets for these students, knowing they need extra help maneuvering the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the university.

However, the final piece in the puzzle comes down to the classroom, where we instructors are the face that represents higher education. Now more than ever, we need to extend ourselves to help our most vulnerable learners.


To retain students, you have to engage students. Access tips and best practices for boosting student engagement in our free handbook.