Tools to Structure, Nurture, and Retain Students in Rolling Registration Courses

Concurrent Session 6
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Rolling registration courses with adult learners present unique challenges for the online experience.  Come find out how Baylor University is using creative marketing, management, and orientation techniques to engage students and increase our retention rate in our Certificate of Christian Foundation program.  Demonstrations, examples, and audience discussion will be included. 


Dr. Parton received her PhD in Educational Computing (Technology) from the University of North Texas. She was a professor for 10 years prior to coming to Baylor and a programmer before that. She has taught face-to-face and on-line as well as in blended formats. Becky's research focused on using instructional technology, especially augmented reality, with Deaf students. She has served as the prinicple investigator on multiple projects including a US Department of Education Stepping Stones grant. She also has an M.S. in Deaf Ed and a B.B.A in Strategic Management. Becky was honored to receive the state-wide technology educator of the year in 2009 from the Louisiana Technology Council and the state-wide educator of the year in 2011 from the Louisiana Association of Computer Using Educators (LACUE). She loves creating multimedia and designing interactive courses. Becky enjoys animal rescue activities, movies, and traveling. She has supported mission work with Compassion International for over 20 years and has been blessed to meet several of her sponsored children.

Extended Abstract

When most of us think about an on-line course, we think of it as having a start and end date along with a set group of students that progress through the journey together.  At Baylor University, we have a unique plan of study in theology that leads to a Certificate of Christian Foundation.  There are a series of six courses, but a student may begin the program (and a particular class) at any time.  Each course could be considered self-paced, but they have been structured to encourage progress in one week modules.  These courses were historically correspondence based, but have been re-designed to capture a more interactive experience by using an online platform.  The courses now incorporate videos, readings, discussions, reflections, and quizzes which provide a richer experience for the students.  

The typical student that enrolls in our program is a working adult with many other responsibilities and limited time, thus keeping them motivated and connected to the class is often a challenge.  When the correspondence method was in place, the retention rate was below 20%, but by moving the course on-line that rate rose.  However, it was still not at an acceptable level so we began exploring ways to intentionally foster the relationship between students and both their professor and their peers.  In this ‘Education Session’ presentation we will share valuable insights and practical steps on how to address retention in these type courses by leveraging marketing and management tools plus structuring the course intentionally to support the needs of learners.

Marketing Tool

We are now using a “Drip Campaign” approach to interact with students in the courses.  The students receive targeted emails that are customized based on their progression in the class. From the student’s perspective, these appear to be crafted by the professor and then sent via cut/paste techniques; however, behind the process is actually automated since there can be several hundred students concurrently enrolled at various stages within one course.  By setting up triggers (i.e. student has completed week one’s quiz or student has not logged into the system for a certain number of days), it is possible to send the right message at the right time.  Creating manual emails of the same nature would be too time consuming, but by automating the process we can still help students feel connected and encouraged which ultimately increases the retention rate.  Perhaps seen more often in corporate American, these tools can serve a powerful purpose in higher education as well.  There are a variety of products available and we will demonstrate the one we use (direct mail mac) and others we have explored.  Attendees will see the features and how we setup the templates and variables along with an overview of the time involved for each step.  We will also share the feedback we have received from students and the impact the tool has had on the certification program.

Management Tool

Rolling enrollment courses are unique in many ways but also benefit from the use of learning techniques prevalent in more traditional on-line courses.  For example, discussion posts are integrated into most on-line courses to facilitate reflection, debate among peers, and demonstration of the concepts being presented.  When there is a set number of students in a course those discussions can be with all the participants or with a pre-determined sub-set by using groups.  With rolling enrollment we were faced with a situation whereby there were so many students, at such different places in the course that the discussions lost some of their effectiveness.  The students had over a 100 replies available to read and thus ended up not reading any which meant they were not getting that sense of community and social presence that is so beneficial.  Our solution was to use the groups feature of the learning platform (in our case, Canvas) to manage those relationships.  We began setting up a new group twice a month and adding anyone who had joined the class within that time period to the group.  By doing so, the students essentially have a small cohort with a few individuals that they can get to know.  It becomes easier then to read the posts and respond to just those in that cohort and to notice when someone is falling behind and needs encouragement to continue.  For a 12 week course, the students end up being together for a majority of the time before members of the cohort begin to finish.  We will share with attendees our strategy during the conversion time when we were transitioning to groups, the information we distributed to students to prepare them for entry and participation in a group, and the administrative issues related to special situations such as all the group members finishing except one who lags behind. We will also touch on other management techniques that have proven useful in our situation.

Orientation Techniques

The way the course is structured to orient adult learners to the process of learning is a key element in our improved retention rate.  Each week introduces a concept that helps adult learners acclimate to the role of a student again.  We establish routines and patterns from the beginning so that as the courses become more rigorous, the learner has habits in place to keep the workload manageable.  The students are asked to identify times in their schedule to devote to reading and grappling with the content, to gain the support of their loved ones, and to clearly identify their purpose for participating in the program.  They are also given resources and practice for using the learning management system (LMS).  We share the time expectations for the chapter readings, the quiz reflections, and the soul training exercises that help prepare our students physically, mentally, and spiritually for this journey.  Our topics include: Calling and Purpose, Growth Mindset, Time Management, Value of Study, Balance in Life, Reading Skills, and Accountability.  These materials will be shared with the attendees and may spark a dialogue on additional techniques that others have found useful in terms of orientation practices.

Outcomes / Goals:

  • Attendees will explore the applications for drip campaigns for higher education in terms of rolling registration courses.
  • Attendees will identify tools that can be used for drip campaigns and their related functions.
  • Attendees will recognize the benefits of managing students through the use of groups that are formed at set intervals within a continuous enrollment scenario.
  • Attendees will be exposed to the social presence aspect of creating connections between peers through the formation of ad hoc cohorts.
  • Attendees will accumulate a set of orientation topics and approaches for adult learners.
  • Attendees will add techniques for retention of adult learners to their skillset.
  • Attendees will share their own experiences and best practices for administering rolling registration courses.

Effective Practice Criteria:

  • Innovation – Using automated marketing tools in higher education, especially for rolling enrollment theology courses that attract adult learners is not a common approach. 
  • Replicability – All of the ideas that we will present can be easily duplicated at other universities and for a variety of settings.  The orientation topics we share can be modified and imported into most programs of study.  Likewise the other tools are transferable as well.
  • Impact – The techniques that we will discuss, along with other approaches, has increased retention at our university and has the potential to do likewise in other situations.
  • Evidence – We will show documentation of the materials we use along with the resulting increase in retention.  And as importantly, we will present a sample of testimonials from students that speak to the course design’s impact on their studies.
  • Scope – Although we focus on theology classes for adults, the ideas that we share are applicable in a wide range of settings.


  • We will have a power point presentation to highlight key points.
  • We will have a live demo to show Canvas and the Direct Mail tools.
  • We will also provide a web link for attendees to have as reference later:
    • The website will include sample orientation topic guides.
    • The website will include a screencast of the demonstration content we showed.
    • The website will also have the power point available for download and contact info.

Target Audience:

  • Higher Education faculty and program administrators will find the session most useful.
  • All levels of experience may benefit from this session.

Audience Active Engagement:

  • To open the session, we will have a TexttheMob style poll displayed and audience members will text their response to the question ‘how many hours of sleep do you typically get’.  It will serve to get them talking but also lead into one of our orientation topics of being physically prepared.
  • Audience members will be asked to contribute to the conversation on retention especially in regards to orientation techniques that they have found successful.
  • Questions and Answers will be encouraged throughout the session, but we will also leave 5 minutes at the end specifically for this purpose.
  • We will share a QR code with attendees whereby the can add our website to their mobile device.