Defeating the Kobayashi Maru: Supporting Student Retention by Balancing the Needs of the Many and the One

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Key Takeaways

  • Online courses and programs don't have to accept the Kobayashi Maru no-win solution by choosing between the needs of the many and the needs of the one.
  • Although participating in a supportive learning community can bolster online student engagement and retention, individualized one-on-one communication strategies also play an important role in an online student retention plan.
  • Low-tech communication strategies, such as the telephone and e-mail, can effectively enhance students' sense of connection with their professors and courses — an important part of the online retention equation.

In this article we share strategies for establishing personal, one-on-one relationships between online students and faculty, to attend to identity, individualization, and interpersonal interaction in support of student engagement and retention. Rather than focus on high-tech solutions, we focus on low-tech solutions — the telephone and e-mail — that all faculty and students have at their disposal. These strategies address the needs of the individual within a learning community by striving for balance between group and individual interactions — between the needs of the many and the one.

It All Started When…

…After spending months on the design and development of a new online course, applying theoretically and empirically sound instructional and community-building strategies to support student engagement and learning, Joni launched the course without a hitch. The projects were relevant, involving students in real-world activities. The instructional materials were well designed, and students were encouraged to participate in the bounded course community and the professional community of practice (PCoP). The course was a great success…or, so Joni thought. Midway through the semester, a student emailed the following: "Thank you for a great course. The materials are so useful, and the projects really have me applying what I've learned in the program. But, where are you?" What did that mean? Joni came to realize that — although appreciative of and engaged by the course materials, activities, and emphasis on community — students also craved a one-on-one, personalized relationship with her. And, that her new challenge of online course and programdesign was to balance the needs of the many with the needs of the one.

We always refer to this story when discussing effective online course and program design. In retrospect, it's not surprising students desire one-on-one, personalized relationships with their professors. For instance, one of Chickering and Gamson's Seven Principles of Good Practice in Education.1 is "encourages contact between students and faculty." Contact between students and faculty in and outside of class is critical for student engagement. When faculty stay in touch with students through formal and informal communication, students report that it helps them get through the rough times and keep on working. Students' intellectual commitment is enhanced when they know their professors.2 This is supported by student-retention models that highlight the importance of attending to the followiing interrelated considerations:3

  • Identity. Students have the opportunity to interact with university representatives (professors, advisors) on a one-to-one basis.
  • Individualization. Students have individualized interactions with university representatives, based on their specific needs and goals.
  • Interpersonal interaction. Students' interaction with university representatives is mutual and reciprocal, with the achievement of learning and performance goals as the focus.

The Telephone

A few years ago, a colleague shared her success holding brief telephone conversations with her online students. At first, we dismissed the strategy as impractical given the number of students in our online courses and their geographic locations. We also dismissed it because it was so — low-tech. We used online technologies to achieve all of our instructional goals because we believed so strongly in the power of technology to support engagement and retention — and ultimately, learning. However, her unwavering enthusiasm for the strategy's effectiveness eventually warmed us to the approach and we decided to try it. We've never looked back.

At the start of our online courses, we invite4 students to participate in a five-minute telephone conversation (see Figure 1).5 We typically receive RSVPs from two-thirds of the students. However, because we continue to extend the invitation throughout the first few weeks of the course,6 we end up talking with all but one or two students.

Dunlap and Lowenthal 1

Figure 1. Example of a Telephone Call Invitation.

We open each telephone conversation with a reminder of its purpose — to hear each other laugh — and then an open-ended question: "Is there anything you'd like to make sure we address during the conversation regarding the syllabus, projects, course structure, or anything else?" Although we do receive questions about the assignments, the majority of the conversation focuses on the big-picture goals of the course and how those goals fit into the student's personal and professional agendas — a very individualized discussion. In addition, we talk about work and families. Along the way we hear each other laugh without even trying. We conclude the five-minute conversations — which end up being more like 15–20 minutes — by sharing how invaluable the time has been in terms of getting to know the student a bit better and creating a foundation for trust and collaboration. We also give them our telephone numbers7 and encourage them to call us in the future to discuss the course. Most students indicate how pleasantly surprised they are at having a telephone conversation with their professors, and how much more connected they feel to us and the course because of our brief conversation over the phone. And, several of them do take us up on the offer for subsequent phone conversations.

This simple, old school strategy has made a world of difference in establishing social presence. Several benefits besides social presence and connection are:

  • Addressing specific course-related questions
  • Being alerted to student issues (such as a baby on the way, hectic travel schedule, family illness)
  • Helping students determine the personal relevance of the course content and specific projects
  • Establishing credibility as an expert in the content area and as a trustworthy source of feedback and support
  • Establishing ongoing, one-on-one communication throughout the semester that not only enhances student engagement and retention in the course, but allows us to address individual student needs and provide individualized formative feedback more efficiently than we could using an asynchronous tool (such as a threaded discussion)

Could we achieve these results as efficiently using online technologies such as a threaded discussion or traditional chat room?8 For us, after years of trying, the answer is no. Of course, we have been able — and continue — to use these conventional online technologies. However, when we use online technologies, our communications are nearly always part of a group-based environment.9 While this is efficient, online students need opportunities to be addressed as individuals. Although it takes time to have telephone conversations,10 this one-on-one communication can have a positive influence over engagement and retention issues.


"E-mail?!?! E-mail is dead; my students don't like e-mail. I don't like e-mail. It's more efficient to keep all communication in the learning management system (LMS), anyway..." This is what we were thinking after hearing an esteemed colleague describe her use of e-mail as a "best practice" in her online teaching. However, a year later in the midst of a research study examining students' reactions to social-presence instructional strategies (such as use of discussions, collaborative projects, storytelling, biographies), we discovered that students rate e-mail highly as a strategy that helped them feel connected to their peers and professors. Students in our study reported that e-mail supported their development of one-on-one relationships, something they crave — but only occasionally experience — in their online courses. As a result of our research,11 we started using e-mail more frequently in our courses, for announcements, feedback, teachable moment opportunities, contribution acknowledgment, reminders, and status checking.


Although announcements are posted in the LMS for archival purposes, we e-mail a weekly announcement to students at the start of each week (see Figure 2). The announcement typically starts with personal sharing about the events of the previous week or weekend, a reminder of what needs to be accomplished during the week (including what we as instructors need to accomplish, such as assessment of a project), and a debrief about the previous week's activities. To further humanize the announcement, we usually include photos of our families or a link to an inspirational video or music clip. The immediacy of the email communication aids in social presence and potentially enhances the sense of a one-on-one interaction with the professor.

Dunlap and Lowenthal Figure 2

Figure 2. Example of an E-mail Announcement


We believe it is important to balance public sharing with private, individualized consultation and assessment. To this end, even when we give feedback publicly, we also e-mail project feedback and grades to students. Besides the benefits of immediacy, it also establishes a line of communication, encouraging students to ask questions and clarify points related to the assessment. Although sharing the results of an assessment in a public forum allows students to vicariously learn from the experience even if their project contexts vary,12 it is important to balance the learning needs of the many with the learning needs of the individual.

Teachable Moment

We also provide feedback through what we refer to as "teachable moment" e-mails (see Figure 3) — unplanned responses to course activities and events. These e-mails are opportunities to provide additional instruction and direction to students, to improve the quality of their subsequent work. Although these e-mails are typically sent to the whole group, students more frequently respond because it is e-mail; this direct, one-on-one response allows us to individualize the feedback to each student's particular needs and situation.

Dunlap and Lowenthal Figure 3

Figure 3. Example of a "Teachable Moment" E-mail

Contribution Acknowledgment

We also send "thank you" e-mails acknowledging the contributions of students who have responded well to discussion questions, presented peers with above-average reviews of their work, or stepped in to help troubleshoot a peer's technical problem:

"I just wanted to compliment you on the quality of your feedback to <student name> and <student name>. You provided feedback that, if followed, will enhance the final presentations of your course colleagues. Thank you for putting in the effort to do such a good job."13

These e-mails also allow for corrective direction:

"I just wanted to send you a quick note about your feedback to <student name> and <student name>. Thank you for putting in the effort to do a good job. In the future, however, be sure to more closely follow the peer-review feedback regarding (a) providing at least one suggestion for improvement for each question, and (b) making sure your feedback is around 500 words (which it will be, by default, if you make at least one suggestion for improvement per question). I realize sometimes this is tough if you haven't been provided guiding questions that make it easy to provide recommendations, but it's important -- for the sake of the quality of the peer's final presentation -- to provide recommendations. Thanks!"

Students consistently respond positively, with us receiving our own "thank you for noticing" e-mails in return. We have also found that students who are acknowledged early on for their contributions continue to be engaged, actively participating in subsequent weekly activities.

Reminders and Status Checking

Our adult students have demanding lives, often with conflicting commitments and mounting distractions. We send e-mail reminders to students who have missed assignments.14 Typically, students immediately respond with a thank you for the reminder, an apology for missing the deadline, and a commitment to getting the missing work submitted within 24 hours. Occasionally, students share something that is affecting their ability to fulfill course commitments. Knowing a student's unique situation, and responding to it, can help that student continue to be successful in the course even under dire circumstances. In our experience the one-on-one connection with the professor can encourage retention when the student might otherwise drop out and disappear.

Since strategically adding e-mail into our online courses, we have experienced a noticeable change in when and why students contact us for help, clarification, resources, and encouragement. As an instructional strategy in our online courses, e-mail has helped us develop and strengthen our one-on-one connections with students.

Concluding Remarks and Recommendations

Student retention is a critical goal of online postsecondary education. To encourage student engagement and retention and curb attrition, effective online educators use any and all strategies and technologies. With an emphasis on learning community-based strategies and technologies in the current "best practices" literature, we recommend considering the importance of one-on-one, individualized interactions that attend to identity, individualization, and interpersonal interaction. This doesn't mean that the creation of a supportive learning community isn't an important part of a successful online course/program retention plan. Instead, the emphasis should be on striving for balance — a balance between the needs of the many and the needs of the one. Although Spock was usually correct, his many vs. one assertion falls short here. With a heightened awareness of the need for balance between instructional strategies that support the whole group and those that support individual students, we have added low-tech strategies — specifically the telephone and e-mail — into the mix with positive results. According to feedback from students and the results of our research, our pursuit of one-on-one relationships and the immediate delivery of individualized feedback have enhanced students' sense of connection, engagement, and persistence — turning this version of the Kobayashi Maru into a win-win scenario.

  1. Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education," AAHE Bulletin, vol. 40 (March 1987), pp. 3–7.
  2. Arthur W. Chickering and Stephen C. Ehrmann, "Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever," AAHE Bulletin, Vol. 49, 1996, pp 3–6.
  3. Stacey Ludwig-Hardman and Joanna C. Dunlap, "Learner Support Services for Online Students: Scaffolding for Success," International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, vol. 4, no. 1 (2003).
  4. We "invite" as opposed to "require" participation because we are more comfortable with our students choosing the level of connection they want to have with us.
  5. The invitation is an important step in this strategy. Initially, Patrick included his home phone number in his syllabus, but students would rarely call him. In fact, from time to time when students were struggling, Patrick asked why they didn't call him, and the students said they didn't think it was appropriate to call a professor at home.
  6. While there is a time and place for biography activities at the beginning of courses, we also believe in the importance of continuing these types of activities throughout the semester.
  7. We make most of the calls in the evening and on weekends because that is most convenient for our students. If you are uncomfortable with students having your home number, you can use Google Voice to establish a course-specific phone number that you can set to ring through to any other number.
  8. You can use video-enhanced tools like Adobe Connect to accomplish some of this, but in our experience the technology can end up being a distraction. The phone doesn't require logging in, setting up a web cam, or configuring your audio settings. With a phone, you just pick it up, dial, and start communicating with the individual immediately. Finally, the phone is familiar and easy to use. Especially when working with students who are new to online learning, it can help them feel more confident and secure when interpersonal connections are simplified and familiar.
  9. See Patrick R. Lowenthal and David Thomas, "Death to the Digital Dropbox: Rethinking Student Privacy and Public Performance," EDUCAUSE Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3 (July–September 2010) for a list of the benefits of doing more things publicly and group-based when teaching online.
  10. Some students request Skype sessions instead of phone calls. These have worked equally well, with the added benefit of no long-distance charges when connecting with students who live far away, and using webcams for visual connections.
  11. Joanna C. Dunlap and Patrick R. Lowenthal, "Investigating Twitter's Ability to Enhance Social Presence," paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, April 30, 2010, Denver, CO.
  12. Lowenthal and Thomas, "Death to the Digital Dropbox."
  13. We keep track of who has received a "thank you" e-mail to make sure that all students receive at least one during the first half of the semester.
  14. We teach graduate courses in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver. Because we focus on the achievement of professional competencies in our online courses, we allow our students additional time to complete course activities if need be. Therefore, we send reminder e-mails, allowing students additional time to complete activities instead of downgrading their work.