Student Perceptions of Support Services and the Influence of Targeted Interventions on Retention in Distance Education

Mark Nichols


To improve student retention in distance education, Simpson suggested in 2003 that institutions analyse their own retention characteristics and ‘spot the leaks.’ In 2008 the Centre for Distance Learning at Laidlaw College, New Zealand, employed two part-time academic support coordinators in an effort to improve student retention and success. This study compares the retention statistics for first-time student outcomes across two semesters, one without and one with specific course retention interventions. Results are benchmarked across national data. Interviews with students who were retained revealed that students frequently attribute their success to their own efforts. Student support services in distance education might therefore be perceived by its beneficiaries as a ‘hygiene’ factor (Herzberg, 1968, 2008) in that their presence is not generally appreciated by students. However, their absence is noticed.


Distance education, Student retention, Student support, Student persistence


● In early 2008, the position of academic support coordinator was established. The new role, based in the main office of the CDL in Auckland, is currently shared by two people. The objective of the role is to provide dedicated, proactive, and targeted support for students studying at a distance.
● Student support survey. Students were required to complete a readiness for distance study questionnaire with their course selection forms. The survey questioned students about various factors relating to their ability to study well at a distance.
● ● Study @ Laidlaw College orientation. All new students were given the option to participate in an orientation course, designed as a 1-week distance learning primer. While all first-time students were sent the materials, participation was optional. During the orientation students had the opportunity to develop the online skills required for study and received helpful tips relating to time management and study technique
● General messages of support. The academic support coordinators generated a schedule for sending out general messages of support and advice, relating to such matters as essay writing and exam technique. These messages, sent by email, were timed to coincide with assignment due dates.
● Personal contact. From their analysis of student support surveys, experience with students during the orientation, tutor advice, and contact from individual students seeking assistance, the academic support coordinators developed a list of those students they would specifically contact over the phone. Frequently, personal contact was associated with a specific difficulty the student had, the academic support coordinator ensured that the difficulty was addressed or else noted.
● Each intervention was designed to complement the already satisfactory academic direction given by course tutors.
● This study compares retention results across two distinct semesters
● Semester 1, 2008 In semester 1 of 2008, student support systems in the CDL were in a period of transition. Regional representative roles had been disestablished, and new academic support coordinators were in the early stages of setting up systems for their role. Table 1 compares semester 1 SDR results for the CDL with the 2008 national SDR. The results indicate that new CDL students found it difficult to embark on distance study, and that the transition from level 5 to level 6 study (first-year to second-year papers) proves especially difficult. All students who withdrew from or did not complete (WDN and DNC) at least one paper in semester 1 of 2008 were surveyed (n = 51) to learn of their reasons and to ascertain whether any action from the CDL might have helped them to persevere. Twenty-eight surveys were returned, a 55% response rate.
● Semester 1, 2009 By semester 1 of 2009, support interventions were ready. Students were required to complete a readiness for distance study questionnaire with their course selection forms, and an orientation course introducing new students to study skills and online interaction was put in place. The academic support coordinators also determined the timing of general messages of support. The number of EFTS (equivalent full time students) was consistent across the two semesters under comparison, the average number of courses taken per student was likewise similar
● Comparison with Laidlaw College’s on-campus retention rates from the same period suggests that about 4% of the improvement in student success might be attributable to institution-wide factors such as the reduction of teaching weeks from 15 to 12, the shift to 15-credit papers, the adoption of hybrid courses, and the change of name to Laidlaw College
● The four main contributors to persistence were as follows: ● Contact with my course tutor(s) encouraged me to continue (1.91 average, SD of 0.87). ● The course itself helped me to persist with my studies (1.81 average, SD of 0.75). ● Not completing the course never occurred to me (1.5 average, SD of 0.74). ● I was determined to complete and pass (1.45 average, SD of 0.74).

APA Citation

Nichols, M. (2010). Student perceptions of support services and the influence of targeted interventions on retention in distance education. Distance Education, 31(1), 93-113.

About the Study

Links to Article
Mode Online
Publication Type Journal Article
In Publication Distance Education
Type of Research Qualitative
Research Design Interviews
Intervention/Areas of Study Tutoring or academic support
Level of Analysis Student-level
Specific Populations Examined
Peer-Reviewed Yes
Specific Institutional Characteristics of Interest
Specific Course or Program Characteristics
Outcome Variables of Interest Persistence
Student Sample Size
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