The ideas and strategies offered by Flegle (2009) and Herbert (2006) have proven to be effective strategies for student retention over the past few years parallel to the development of Learning Management Systems.
What we have learned more recently is that there appears to be a relation between student retention and class length that might put more students at risk. Students who take short courses (5 weeks or less) are at a greater risk of dropping out than students who take semester long courses (Ferguson & DeFelice, 2010). This would support the theory that what happens in the first few weeks of an online course might have a significant impact on student retention.
Developing an online community or establishing professional relationships with students takes time. Over the course of a semester, student-faculty interactions tend to grow and strengthen the possibility that students will remain in the course. This can be even more true if the course content and expectations are introduced gradually, giving the student time to adjust to the online environment.
One successful strategy that as helped to improve student retention has been incorporated into this training course; having a discussion board or chat room available for students throughout the semester allows them to discuss non-course related content (and gives them another reason to return the course site). However, one cannot expect any online student engagement strategy to work if not nurtured. Simply creating a "Student Lounge" does not ensure that it will have an impact on student retention. The level of engagement and participation needs to be nurtured by the Instructor.
Another strategy is to present students with "practice" sessions for each of the major components of any LMS (i.e., discussions, submitting assignments, using external technology tools, etc.) before introducing graded content for the course. This can be done before the course begins or during the first week.
In my online courses, I have discovered a correlation between the frequency of communication at the beginning of a course and student retention. The more actively I engage in communication with students at the beginning of the course the less likely I am to have students drop the course. One way I have increased communication is to conduct one-to-one chats at the beginning of the course to learn what I can about each student. I repeat this strategy throughout the semester to learn how students are perceiving the course.
Finally, consider using students to moderate discussions. By placing the responsibility for moderation with the student, I have found that they nearly always step up to the challenge and later report that it was one of the most rewarding experiences they have had in the course. Perhaps this contributes to retention as well.
Ferguson, J.M. & DeFelice, A.E. (2010). Length of Online Course and Student Satisfaction, Perceived Learning, and Academic Performance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 11/2.
Flegle, L.V. (2009). The Instructor's Role in Retention: Teaching students to stay in school. Retrieved on October 2, 2011 from: http://voices.merlot.org/forum/topics/the-instructors-role-in
Herbert, M. (2006). Staying the Course: A study in online student satisfaction and retention. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 9/4.