Is neuroeducation the key to online retention?

“We are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain.” -Stephen Hawking

Two realities are converging in higher education in an unsettling way. First, college and universities are being increasingly confronted by the changing needs of the post-traditional student, causing more institutions to incorporate a variety of online offerings. Second, staggering drop-out rates continue to plague the higher education institution, as colleges and universities still lose around 40 percent of undergraduate students to attrition before those students can graduate.

These two truths collide in the statistic that “Online courses have a 10 percent to 20 percent higher failed retention rate than traditional classroom environments, [and] 40 percent to 80 percent of online students drop out of online classes.” Thus, a second retention dilemma arises.

Online student retention has become an emerging area of focus in higher ed, and discussions of this topic largely tend to steer toward the discussion of the makeup of the online student body. Many online students now fit the profile for the post-traditional student, a group largely characterized by their older age and increased professional and familial obligations. Similarly, there is a particular unwillingness to assign blame to the online modality itself for the lower retention rates it yields. Yet, something distinct to the online modality mustn’t be swept under the rug when it comes to assessing student retention: distractions.

It is scarcely news that the online format leaves a number of students vulnerable to a larger number of distractions than they would otherwise experience in the classroom. When over 3,600 high academic performers self-identified as struggling in their online courses and programs, 65 percent of these students cited family/personal obligations as the #1 barrier to success, according to a 2015 Eduventures report. Yet, while all online students are likely subject to a number of distractors, some are able to make it through and pass their courses while others are not.

Distractions and the Brain

To answer the question of why students are able or unable to persist in online courses, and who the most vulnerable students are, let us first acknowledge the ultimate driver of student behavior and learning: the brain.

Causality Orientations Theory

Neuroeducation, or more broadly Mind, Brain, and Education Science, is a nascent field that seeks to converge our knowledge of biological processes with the practices and pedagogies of education. Truth be told, the online format presents particular hurdles to learning from a neuroeducational standpoint—if students are distracted and not engaged, they don’t persist. The good news is that we can incorporate findings of neuroeducation to help students thrive in an online modality and ultimately persist through to graduation.

Housed within neuroeducation is a theory relating to student motivations called causality orientations theory. According to researchers Richard Koestner and Miron Zuckerman, this theory

“distinguishes among three broad classes of behavior and motivationally relevant psychological processes: autonomous, control-determined, and impersonal. Autonomous behaviors are initiated and regulated by choices that are based on an awareness of one’s needs and integrated goals. People who function autonomously are hypothesized to seek out choice and to experience their behavior as self-initiated. Control-determined behaviors are initiated and regulated by controls in the environment such as reward structures or by internally controlling imperatives indicating how one ‘should’ or ‘must’ behave. People who are oriented toward control are expected to seek out controls and to interpret their environment as controlling. Impersonal behaviors are those whose initiation and regulation are perceived to be beyond a person’s intentional control. People with an impersonal orientation are likely to believe that they cannot control their behavior and consequently cannot obtain desired outcomes.”

So how does this categorization help us when trying to figure out how to retain online students? As with any learning environment, students who function autonomously tend to establish themselves as high-achievers early in the educational process. However, it is also true that those with control-determined and impersonal orientations establish themselves early, and their orientation tends to manifest through a number of indicators. Since the online modality often includes less real-time structures and personal interactions, these students are at particular risk of falling prey to the distractions in their personal and familial lives.

Increase Metacognition

So what to do? While many seek to outwardly regulate students with structural elements like deadlines, deliverables, and log-ins, the answer likely lies in helping students regulate themselves—or, in neuroeducation terms, helping students increase their metacognition. The term metacognition simply speaks to the students’ awareness of, and ability to understand, their own thought processes. Or, put more succinctly by researcher and author Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa in the book Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science:  “Activities that stimulate metacognition do one of two things: they either enhance knowledge about cognition, or they enhance monitoring of cognition.

Rather than increasing a number of external motivators to encourage the retention of online students, institutions should move to increase metacognition. Doctoral student Charles Cadleasserted that, “Perseverance is not just a long-range and goal-oriented outcome, it is also a process operationalized by cognitive presence.”

The Answer?

Outreach is an answer to increase metacognition in online students, and thus increase their chances of retaining. The way we approach increasing student metacognition is through data-driven coaching.

While the indicators for a student with autonomous orientation are often glaringly obvious—for these students, the outcomes of performance exceed what they need to do and they do it consistently—the control-determined and impersonal types tend to reveal themselves through more nuanced indicators.

Through the three pillars of coaching—life, academic, and career—coaches use questions to help bring an awareness of thinking and behavioral patterns that might be getting in the students’ ways. These questions align with the strategies for developing metacognitive behaviors as described by Tokuhama-Espinosa, strategies such as:

  • Identifying what you know and what you don’t
  • Talking about thinking
  • Planning and self-regulation
  • Debriefing the thinking process
  • Self-evaluating

By first identifying who might need a little extra help, then by using data to inform and refine the coaching process, coaches can increase metacognition and hopefully help move the student to a more autonomous cognitive orientation.

More plainly, by helping students regulate their thinking and performance, institutions will be poised to mitigate the diminishing retention rates of online students.


*This article originally appeared in eCampus News.

Sarah Horn

As the VP of Retention at Helix Education, Sarah brings unique insight into student retention from more than a decade of experience in higher education, nearly all in operations. She has designed, scaled and managed a success coaching program for an online Associate's Degree, and has a tremendous amount of experience aligning and implementing relevant, practical retention strategies that drive results. Previously, she worked for Inside Track as Campus Director, implementing large-scale partnership. Sarah is a graduate of The University of Rochester and earned her Master's degree at John F. Kennedy University.