22 November 2007

Coaching for retention

"I have an intermediate ESL class in a community based adult ed setting. Although the class is offered twice a week, most can only come once or they start off with regular attendance and then disappear. I have heard of this in all kinds of settings, materials, teachers, languages, public and private instruction. Does the number of students have anything to do with it ? I will only offer once a week next semester but I'm also thinking of more practice to be done at home. Does anyone have any advice?"

You're right, this is a problem in lots of schools and training centers where the student is required to attend for some certificate or degree. But in those cases, the student may not be attending out of interest but just out of paper necessity. I think in a long-term corporate training program that it is easy to have a drop out rate of about 50%.

There are a lot of reason for this. They can range from the teacher's skills and relationship with the students, the students perception concerning the effectiveness of the course, students' personal problems and many others.

While we are beginning to see the limits of traditional classroom teaching we are presented with opportunities to make use of technologies to solve these problems, and the technology may be as simple as a telephone.

Sometimes, by benchmarking ourselves to other industries, we can adopt their solutions to similar problems. We could get some ideas from the Open University and fitness centers.

Open University has done a lot of research into this. Nearly all their training is distance and it is easy for students to drop out. They found that regular phone calls and feedback from the instructor reduced drop out significantly. [below I'll put some links]

There are many other areas where drop out or attrition is an issue. About a year ago I saw a 60-Minutes program once where a company boss was trying to help his employees get healthier to the company's reduce insurance premiums. The employees agreed to a fitness program. We all know how easy it is to NOT exercise, so he had someone calling employees as a friendly reminder and to check up on them on how they were doing on the program.

I have always wondered how that worked and if it would work for our kind of teaching. I've been researching the subject for about a year and have come across a couple helpful things.

There is a company called "Fitness By Phone" which coaches people by phone. If you are interested in the possibilities of such a method, I suggest you go to the website below and explore all the news articles written about this company. From the articles you can piece together the technique.


It seemed one of the main ways they coached their clients was by working out an exercise plan and then checking up on them if they followed the plan and talking through any issues involved in following the plan and hitting targets.

Supposedly, Stanford University has researched this sort of coaching as a way to reduce hospital visits by patients who have a difficult time to go to the hospital. This is a research paper by Stanford although I find it curious that I'm unable to locate this paper anywhere but the websites of several fitness centers. Nonetheless, it provides many useful ideas.


Of course, these ideas are not going to help every case. Our target, as teachers, will have to be to reduce attrition even if we can't eliminate it.

1. Proactive contact from the Institution: retention issues: Recent research within the Open University and elsewhere has demonstrated the importance of telephone contact in student induction, retention and performance on course. Read all about it: http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2004/Gaskell_Mills.htm

2. Here is a paper called: Persistence in Distance Education. It covers "Studies of students' reasons for dropout", "Student profile studies" and "Implications for institutional intervention". Find it at: http://www1.worldbank.org/disted/Teaching/Design/kn-01.html

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