Student Attrition: Identify Causal Factors for Targeted Solutions.

June 6, 2022

By: Megan Larkin

Reading Time: 2.3

Everyone from educational institutions to students to society as a whole would like to see higher student retention rates. So how do we as educators actually go about making that happen? After getting crystal clear on what definition of student retention best suits your unique needs, it’s critical to figure out what exactly is causing student attrition at your educational institution in the first place.

Getting into the nitty-gritty with regard to causes of student attrition is key because different causes of student attrition have very different solutions.

Let’s take a common cause of student attrition in e-learning environments: lack of instructor immediacy. Instructors teaching online must be “seen” for students to perceive them as present in the learning environment (Picciano, 2002; Baker, 2010). “Set it and forget it” e-learning courses are effective only if students understand that the course is self-paced and self-managed. If the student expects to be able to form a connection with their instructor but instead finds only impersonal pre-fabricated lessons, the course will fail (potentially along with the students) without a significant instructor/facilitator presence (Arbaugh and Hwang, 2006).

There are many solutions that have been shown to improve student retention rates in e-learning including early identification and intervention targeting at-risk learners, at-all-times support for both students and instructors, supporting sound eLearning specific pedagogy, course design, and delivery, and offering institution-level programmatic or cultural adjustments. But, if lack of instructor immediacy is an acute problem for your institution and you roll out a student retention improvement effort that’s centered around an orientation program for incoming students, you’re not likely to see as much improvement as you would if you rolled out a targeted effort around creating instructor immediacy through professional development and support around pedagogy and course design for e-learning.

Taking the time to clearly identify the causes of student attrition at your institution allows stakeholders to work together to help learners not only survive but thrive.

Interested in learning more about drilling down on a customized, actionable definition of student retention for your institution? Check out our eLearning experts’ deep dive into Retention. Schedule a meeting with us or take advantage of our webinars. We’d love to help you harness the power of your data.


Arbaugh, J.B., and A. Hwang. “Does “teaching presence” exist in online MBA courses?” The Internet and Higher Education, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 9-21,

Baker, C. “The impact of instructor immediacy and presence for online student affective learning, cognition, and motivation.” Journal of Educators Online, vol. 7, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1-30,

Picciano, A.G. “Beyond student perceptions: Issues of interaction, presence, and performance in an online course.” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, vol. 6, no. 1, 2002, pp. 21-40. Semantic Scholar, DOI:10.24059/OLJ.V6I1.1870.

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Megan Larkin

Megan Larkin is an advocate and writer with a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and has extensive experience in the public education ecosystem. Her mission in life is creating tools so that all kids have access to high quality, easy to use EdTech and digital learning.


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