Supporting Student Success in Online Classes

12 September 2017 Written by   Todd Ruecker and Beth Brunk-Chavez

A few years back, we saw prominent figures such as New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman sing the praises of massive online open courses (MOOCs) and their promise to democratize the education system through providing a free or low-cost education at high-status institutions to everyone who wanted it. Recently, MOOCs have largely fallen out of favor, in part because of their low completion rates. For instance, Inside Higher Ed reported on a study that found completion rates to be less than 7 percent. Despite the misplaced hype surrounding MOOCs and subsequent disappointment, online education is a growing field. Many traditional universities embrace distance learning, which enables students to attend college virtually when they are unable to attend face-to-face classes due to distance, work schedules, or other factors. One of the most prominent institutions offering online learning is Arizona State University, which offers over 140 online degree programs and serves over 30,000 students. Our institutions—University of Texas at El Paso and University of New Mexico—have also worked to develop online learning programs. For instance, UTEP centralized its online programming to offer fully online undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificates in 2015. Because the students in these courses pay tuition and the sizes of the courses are more in line with face-to-face courses, student success rates are much higher than in the MOOCs mentioned above; however, student success is still a concern as online learning is different than face-to-face learning.

As evident by a collection we recently coedited with Dawn Shepherd and Heidi Estrem, Retention, Persistence, and Writing Instruction, the issue of student retention and persistence is at the forefront of our work supporting and administering both face-to-face and online programs. Briefly, we defined those two terms as follows:

Retention is an institutional approach—and one that perhaps too often loses sight of student learning, interests, and motivations while focusing on the statistical and financial importance of each retained student. Student persistence, though, is in many ways the mirror opposite of retention. This term is most often identified with Vincent Tinto’s work; it situates agency differently than does retention and assumes that students have a variety of reasons for continuing in higher education, or not.1  

There is a long history of work on retention led by scholars such as Vincent Tinto, Alexander Astin, and others. A central tenet of this work is the idea that students who feel more connected to the college community, through practices such as participation in extracurricular activities, making friends on campus, or informal interactions with professors, are more likely to stick around and complete their studies. This work has come under some critique for being primarily focused on a traditional (e.g., on-campus living) college-going population, thus raising questions about its ability to model the success of students who attend commuter campuses or online programs.

Some of the concerns about retention in online learning include students’ previous experiences with technology and access issues, such as convenient access to broadband. In regard to the former, Kuo and Belland note, “Adults who are less confident in utilizing the Internet are more likely to have fewer chances to interact with their classmates, the instructor, and the content, which leads to low level of satisfaction with online learning."2 Disparities among races/ethnicities raise concerns in regard to the latter, with a Pew Report showing that Latinx home broadband service stayed steady around 45 percent from 2010 to 2015 while White access increased from 64 percent to 73 percent. According to, 24 percent of the New Mexico population is underserved in broadband access in areas predominantly rural and often largely Native American. The access issue can be especially problematic when learning management systems such as Blackboard focus on helping the instructor quantify “students’ use of the class Web site: number of messages posted, number of messages read, and how many times various pages or sections are accessed."3  

With these concerns in mind, we have some suggestions for administrators of online learning programs as well as teachers within them.


For Administrators

Work to establish or understand both the institutional and programmatic goals for the online program. These goals could be to provide access for students who can’t attend on-campus programs, to increase enrollment, or to generate alternative revenue funds. Often it’s a combination of these and other goals. Understanding what those goals are and how online learning is (or is not) a part of the institutional mission and strategic plan is vital to the success of the programs.

Create networks across campus offices that support students: admissions, transcript evaluation, financial aid, the bookstore, center for accommodations, and so on. Without the support of these offices, online students will fall through the cracks.

Develop a system to help prospective students understand what online learning is before they enroll in a program. Although many online programs market themselves to working professionals because of the flexibility, these students are occasionally shocked to find out how much work they are expected to do. An honest conversation about the expectations on the front end will help to avoid stressful conversations—and course drops—later.


For Faculty

Participate in curriculum mapping. Putting a course or a program online provides the opportunity to rethink a course’s goals or a program’s curriculum. Bringing the faculty together will give them the chance to make sure learning goals are achieved throughout the program and that duplication of learning is productive rather than merely repetitive. Students should be able to understand how their learning in one course is complemented in another.  

Work closely with an instructional designer.4 Many faculty believe they can design an online course on their own. While they are experts with the curriculum, they may not be experts in designing a course online. Working collaboratively with an instructional designer helps to ensure that learning goals and objectives are clearly articulated, that students will be able to navigate the course easily, and that the course is ADA-compliant and follows copyright and fair-use regulations.

Engage and respond. One of the biggest complaints that students have with online classes is their feeling of being disconnected from their instructor and their classmates. Many unsatisfied students articulate that they don’t think their professor paid attention to their work. An online course in which the instructor sends out regular announcements, responds to emails, comments on discussion boards, and is otherwise present in the course can be just as engaging as a face-to-face course. Students want to feel that their instructor cares about their learning and wants to see them be successful. It is also helpful to get to know your students and their lives so that you can better understand the factors supporting and hindering their success, such as the quality of their access to the Internet.

While administrators and faculty can’t do everything to ensure that students persist in online courses and programs, these guidelines help to provide a support system and learning environment that allows students to focus on learning and achieving their educational goals.


1. T. Ruecker et al., Retention, Persistence, and Writing Programs (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2017), 4.   Return to text.

2. Y. C. Kuo and B. R. Belland, "An Exploratory Study of Adult Learners’ Perceptions of Online Learning: Minority Students in Continuing Education," Educational Technology Research and Development 64, no. 4 (2016): 661–80.   Return to text.

3. S. J. Coopman, "A Critical Examination of Blackboard’s e-Learning Environment," First Monday 14, no. 6 (2009).   Return to text.

4. Resources include the evoLLLution, Educause, the Online Learning Consortium, and the United States Distance Learning Association.   Return to text.

Todd Ruecker is assistant professor of English at the University of New Mexico and the assessment coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of Transiciones: Pathways of Latinas and Latinos Writing in High School and College and a coeditor of Linguistically Diverse Immigrant and Resident Writers: Transitions from High School to College and has published in a variety of venues such as TESOL QuarterlyCollege Composition and Communication, and Writing Program Administration.

Beth Brunk-Chavez is professor of rhetoric and writing studies at the University of Texas at El Paso and the dean of Extended University. She is a 2009 recipient of the University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award. Her publications have appeared in WPA: Writing Program AdministrationWritten CommunicationComposition Studies, and numerous edited collections. She served as the writing program administrator for the first-year composition program for five years, during which time the program was awarded a Conference on College Composition and Communication Writing Program Certificate of Excellence.

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