What is the secret to student success? Within higher education, one of the important metrics for gauging the effectiveness of programs is student retention. Retention measures the number of students that a school has been able to keep in its programs. In contrast, attrition measures the number of students who have withdrawn – either voluntarily or involuntarily.

Another important word for this field is persistence, and that is meant as a student measurement. While retention and persistence may seem to measure the same criteria, I have made a distinction based upon the actions taken. For example, a school may have retention programs in place; whereas, helping students succeed in their programs bolsters their ability to persist and continue to make progress.

The sector of higher education that I have the most experience in is the for-profit online college, with roles ranging from online educator to faculty development specialist, Chief Academic Officer, and Dean. For this industry, the typical retention rate is 50% or less. Retention initiatives that have been implemented in many of the schools I’ve worked with include changing feedback requirements, grading requirements, and the curriculum itself to make it easier for students to pass their classes.

While these initiatives may provide some help for the bottom line, I have found little impact on the student experience. What matters most for students is their ability to persist and be successful in their attempt to be involved in the learning process. Is there a secret to student success? In my experience, I have learned there is, and it has to do with, the support and resources students receive from the school and their instructors.

Growth of the Non-Traditional Student

When I entered the field of higher education over ten years ago, the phrase “non-traditional student” was becoming popular, and I have watched it become prominent now – especially with regards to how courses and curriculum are designed for students. The essence of this phrase is meant to describe new types of students, other than those who are starting college right out of high school, who are enrolling in college-level courses and programs.

This one of the important factors that drove the growth of the for-profit online college industry. It is not uncommon to see online programs being offered for the “working adult” – with promises made that the degrees obtained will help them advance within their chosen careers.

As a general rule, the non-traditional student can mix someone older, part of a minority group, speaks English as a second language, attends school part-time, is employed, and has prior life experience. I have had non-traditional students in my online classes with a range of ages from their 30s to 60s, with many working full time.

This means that their school work is not solely responsible for these students, creating periodic time management challenges for them. In addition, by having life experience, these students cannot be treated like blank slates, which is someone waiting to receive knowledge being dispensed.

The Role of an Educator

Within traditional colleges and universities, the role of the educator has remained essentially unchanged. This means they are at the front of the class and the center of attention during each scheduled session. It is a teacher-centered approach to instruction that is utilized in primary education.

This educator typically provides a lecture, and students are expected to study for quizzes and exams. In contrast, an educator who is teaching online courses is finding that their role is evolving. The very nature of a virtual learning environment puts the primary responsibility for learning on the students.

I have coached many traditional educators who have tried to transition to online teaching and found it challenging to adapt to as traditional teaching methods do not translate well. I can empathize with them as educators devote time and effort to developing their careers and becoming a teaching experts – and then having to learn new methods may produce a lot of natural resistance.

Online teaching requires changing the focus from teacher-led to student-centered instruction. Does this have a direct impact on student success? The answer is absolute yes, as an educator must be comfortable in their role and understand the needs of the students they are charged with teaching.

Advisor vs. Success Initiatives

The traditional responsibility for working with students has been part of the role of the academic advisor. The advisor may assist students with a wide range of tasks that include registration, enrollment, course selection, and the list continues. This was often a reactive role, which means an advisor could address a wide range of questions but only when initiated by the students.

Within the for-profit online college industry, I have seen the advisor’s role evolve and include responsibility for conducting follow-up for students at risk of failing and dropping their courses.

There have been other initiatives taken by online schools to help students persist, and one that I was part of was a success coach program. I was responsible for conducting a periodic check-in with students, and these were students outside of the classes I was assigned to teach. Unfortunately, the project was short-lived, and to this day, I am not sure why it was disbanded.

I have also watched an increase in the number of resources that are made available to students as a means of helping them succeed, and one of the most common resources provided is through the use of a writing center.

There is a newer non-profit online school that has been hiring mentors who are meant to take faculty. Students do not have regular classes, and instead, they study to take an assessment – usually with a very low or minimal required passing score. It is similar to correspondence courses that preceded the online for-profit industry.

There isn’t clear evidence yet to support that someone calling students every week without having system-specific knowledge, subject matter expertise, or higher education experience impacts student persistence rates.

How to Support Student Success as an Educator

Based on my experience and work with hundreds of educators, I can state with certainty that students need an instructor – and just as important, they need ongoing support. I realize this statement goes against the foundational concept of a massive open online course or MOOC; however, I know that an educator serves as the front line for helping to implement retention strategies put into place by the school and being able to work with students to help them persist or succeed.

This is where the secret to student success can be found, and it is within the relationship established with students. An instructor can develop a relationship with students because they are working with them through learning activities, feedback, and discussions – and all of these tasks prompt learning. In other words, learning is relational. Below are strategies that any educator can use to help support student success, regardless of the class or subject matter being taught.

Provide Ongoing Support

Are you keeping track of the progress of your students? Every student has developmental needs, even those who are doing exceptionally well in your class. When you are familiar with their needs, you will know what resources to recommend – whether the school or supplemental resources provide them.

Even recommending additional materials to review and subject matter-related videos can help enhance the learning experience and encourage engagement in the course. Why? The more interested a student is in the course, and the more they can develop their areas of weakness, the more they will persist.

Provide Engaging Feedback

I have heard many instructors state that students do not read the feedback provided, and if they do, those students never seem to implement the suggestions provided. What I have discovered is that students develop a perception of feedback based upon their experiences. As an instructor, I have tried to provide engaging feedback by taking time to insert comments directly into student papers, ask questions, offer insight, share my expertise, and relate the topics to the real world.

Again, if students find that you have taken time to do more than provide a grade, they will take time to at least consider what you have written. The more engaging your feedback becomes, the more likely they will maintain an interest in performing their best.

Develop a High Level of Responsiveness

For some students, the thought of asking a question or making a request for help can be intimidating – especially at the beginning of a class when there isn’t a relationship established with their instructor. When students approach you and seek your assistance, your ability to demonstrate responsiveness will make a difference for them.

If you can demonstrate a genuine concern for their request and make it a point to help them in a meaningful manner, they will develop a perception that you care and become more willing to work with you in the future. They will also be more receptive to your coaching and feedback.

Always Be Aware of Your Disposition and Tone

As an educator, you must be mindful of how you feel and the emotions you are experiencing as you work with students. This will directly impact your disposition. It will extend further into the tone of your communication, and for an online class, you are represented by the words you use, and you must consider how those words will be interpreted.

While you need to remain professional, it will be helpful to add some warmth to your messages to help develop a connection with your students. For example, consider the difference between the following two options for responding to a student’s email:

  1. “Student: This is my response to your email,”
  2. “Hello Student: It is good to hear from you. Here is a suggestion to help answer your question.”

Do you see how the second option communicates professionalism, warmth, and a genuine concern for helping?

Provide Follow-Up and Follow-Through

This is probably one of the essential elements for student success, which involves going beyond answering questions or providing feedback. It means you are paying attention to your students, all of your students, and you make it a point to maintain coaching and mentoring attempts at all times. If a student asks a question via email and involves something complex or may not be quickly resolved, a simple follow-up email or call can support their success.

When a student is struggling, has performed poorly, or is not active in a class discussion – don’t wait to see if they improve. Contact that student right away and offer assistance. In addition, consider the value of a phone call and how a personal touch could influence their well-being. As another example, if you tell students you don’t answer a question, be sure you find an answer and then follow up with them.

With all of these strategies, you are working to bring out the best in your students and nurture their ability to succeed. This leads to another question: If learning is relational, can someone other than an educator working with students to help them succeed? From my experience, the answer is yes.

Suppose some individuals are tasked with assisting students in succeeding and are trained to do more than ask “how are you doing” types of questions. In that case, they can also develop a productive working relationship. It then becomes a matter of training those individuals to understand the many factors that makeup student success and persistence, including self-motivation, grit, determination, and resilience – along with academic habits such as time management and study habits.


The role of someone who serves as a success coach needs to support both the students and instructors. For example, an instructor can utilize an early alert system and notify the success coach when a student is at risk. The coach can also support the students by devoting time and attention to all of them, checking in with them- even when they seem to be doing well in their classes.

While adding a role like this to online degree programs requires a financial investment, the ultimate goal is to improve student success or persistence. This, in turn, can have a positive impact on student retention overall. Student success is not a one-time event or something that occurs because a school changes its courses or curriculum. The secret to student success is the relationships that are established, nurtured, and maintained at all times with students.

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