top of page

Best Practices for Learner Retention with Melanie Davis

Our focus is: if enrollments are declining or learners are shifting, then how do we retain the students that we have in a really thoughtful and meaningful way and improve these retention and graduation rates? There's been so much stigma about online students not retaining well, that they don't persist well. It's so interesting that these come out because there is no prevalent data out there that can say, well, this is bad. - Melanie Davis, Senior Director of Retention at Wiley University Services

Although, as Melanie points out, when it comes to retention and graduation rates for online learners, there isn’t much prevalent data at all. When it comes to considering online learner success, “there is no industry standard in online programs and what success looks like.”

That’s why Melanie and her team are working to create industry best practices and standard benchmarks. “We want to set the tone in an academic way for what looks good, but we really hope that our peers in the industry will also be producing results. At this point, I believe, it's important to be as transparent as possible because we do need to set that benchmark.”

Melanie’s diverse background in online learner education and support grounds her practice and understanding of learner success. Now the Senior Director of Retention at Wiley University Services, she discovered her passion for education after beginning her career in online education as an application advocate and then working in enrollment, student success and management. She holds a Master’s in Organization Development and Leadership and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Education Leadership, focusing on how to support adult learners through online programs.

We had the opportunity, alongside members of our Learner Success Guild, to sit down with Melanie and discuss some of the best practices her team has discovered when it comes to improving—and scaling—online learner retention and engagement. Read our recap of the conversation below.

Learner Retention and Data

When you think about learner success in terms of data, what retention and graduation rate numbers would you consider successful?

It’s such a good question, because there is no industry standard on online programs and what success looks like. All the data is for undergrad. So for us, we want to set the tone in an academic way for what looks good, but we really hope that our peers in the industry will also be producing results. At this point, I believe, it's important to be as transparent as possible because we do need to set that benchmark.

Learner Success Guild Purpose

I think in our industry and in this movement, we can be more transparent about what these rates look like so we can start establishing industry benchmarks. If we’re not publishing those results, how else do we know what “good” looks like and how do we improve those rates?

What tools does your team use to visualize and parse through data on a high level?

Outside of Excel, Tableau for sure. Power BI is a big one, using it to crunch large swaths of learning management system data has been helpful. We’re lucky in that we have data teams to help us but tying this large volume of data to action has been a challenge.

An article in EdSurge came out recently that talked about the volume of LMS data in predictive analytics but there remains a gap in taking action on those insights. But that’s what I’m focused on for my team - how do we take more proactive measures to support our learners.

What have you seen in learner success data across universities, or across programs? Do the retention numbers look similar across universities or is there a lot of variance between them?

Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of variance. Programmatically, we see similarities. For example, education programs perform phenomenally. It's educators that are in there, so their retention is usually in the high 90s, with grad rates are in the high 70s. They're phenomenal.

Business programs tend to perform the same, RN-BS programs tend to perform the same. Usually if there is a disparity across partnerships, it's likely because of how the partnership is operating. Maybe they're not offering a ton of courses, or maybe they have lower enrollments. There’s so many things that factor into a student's journey.

Best Practices for Student Success

How have you been able to create student success best practices based on retention metrics or data?

For one example, we believed that advisor or auto-registration was a best practice. So, the student doesn’t register themselves—either we do or it just automatically happens at the beginning of the program. I was trying to find research or peer-reviewed articles to support this, but to be honest, there just wasn’t anyone who had studied auto-registration.

So we took a look at our schools—the ones who used auto-registration vs. the ones that didn’t—and we found that the schools who used auto-registration or let our advisors own it actually had a positive term-over-term retention.

Have you found the same best practices tend to work to support online programs at any university, or has it been more effective to respond to the universities’ own needs?

When I first started, we were aligned just to partner schools and you would just improve that school as things came up. Now, we’ve centralized all of retention so we can look holistically across the entire programmatic fleet and see what we need to do to improve retention across all of our partnerships. Instead of just fixing one school, we’re asking, “what is working holistically, what is not working holistically, and how can we make big holistic changes to support all student advisors and all universities across the board?”

As for the best practices we’ve found, we’ve found four things that really help scale student success across our university partners:

  • Auto-registration to ensure students are fully ready first day of class

  • Academic services to help build courses with the type of learner in mind

  • New student orientation (you’d be surprised how many universities don’t have this!). Good onboarding makes a huge difference and sets the tone for the rest of the course.

  • A course waterfall, i.e. a plan for how you want to run courses now and in the future

What best practices have you found in terms of effective interventions for students who are at risk of not completing?

For us, a lot of this is creating opportunities for students to raise their hand. How can I use LMS effectively to capture students who are not raising their hand, or proactively reaching out to a student advisor when they need support?

We have a communication plan that will guide a lot of our work with this. But a big thing is creating those proactive outreach communications, en masse—technology helps us do that. Ideally, that creates the opportunity for students to raise their hand, but if they don't, then we're gonna go into the LMS and see how they're behaving and connect with instructors to see if they need additional support.

Our online learning advising models are built on shame resilience theory, intrusive advising, and appreciative advising. So those three tenants guide us. We give our advisors the tools for asking these questions and creating a space for students to tell us what’s going on, and then we also want to come up with a plan that works for them to support them through the program.

Scaling Teams

How is your team set up internally, within your own org chart? And what are some of the challenges of that, and your solutions?

My team oversees our partner universities from when a student starts their classes all the way through graduation. We’re actually tied with our enrollment division, so it's a seamless process of recruitment and prospects all the way to handing students off over to our team.

The one thing that we definitely do is build strong team relationships. And at the end of the day, we're just looking at what's in the best interest of the student.That's what we keep going back to with everyone, and that's our forward looking framework.

As your team has grown, what are some strategies that have helped you scale and then what are some remaining challenges that you have?

Well, technology can’t be the only solution, but technology for sure. When you've got large volumes of students, how do you utilize technology to communicate with them en masse?

But a lot of what we do is working with institutions and working within their systems. So with that, we try to go in and avoid setting up processes that are not scalable.

So, for example— if we're partnering with an institution, and they ask us to manually enroll the students into Canvas Blackboard. We can do that for now, but we also need to come up with a solution that's scalable. A lot of our work in scaling our team is improving institutional and higher-ed practices.

It’s either: how can we help them with our technology, or how can we help them come up with a process within their technology that still improves processes.

We also try to keep the foundation of the job similar across the board, so our online learning advising model, the workflow, tracking retention and so on can be applicable across any school. But then we look at each institution uniquely as well, and that’s why our student-facing folks are dedicated to those schools.

The Future of Online Education

Having been in this space for more than a decade, what do you see when you look forward? How do you see this space changing in the next five to ten years?

I don’t think online is going anywhere—it’s going to continue to be huge and prevalent. And I think there’s still going to be universities who need support and onboarding. Obviously, the cost of tuition is going to be a continued conversation as well. So then, what does upskilling and those tech stacks and micro-credentialing look like with that? How do they work and how can we continue to deliver good content?

When it comes to, what does that actually mean, and what does it look like and who provides it? I think we’re still trying to imagine a solution for all of those questions.

My focus and I think our focus collectively that hopefully will continue is: if enrollments are declining or learners are shifting, then how do we retain the students that we have in a really thoughtful and meaningful way and improve retention and graduation rates?

Do you have any resources or books you can recommend for other online adult education leaders?

Thanks for joining us, Melanie!


Members of our Learner Success Guild can participate in these fireside chats with industry experts live—if you’re a leader working to improve and scale student success for adult learners, join the Guild along with 100+ members to share resources, ask questions and listen in on exclusive interviews and panel discussions.


bottom of page