Dissertation Spotlight graphic
Dissertation Spotlight

Dissertation Spotlight: An Investigation of Online Orientation’s Effect on Graduate Student Retention

By The Room 241 Team January 15, 2019

One of the biggest concerns in higher education institutions is finding an effective way to increase student retention in an online environment. Lisa Fee, EdD, decided to examine this in her dissertation, “Online Orientation: An Investigation of Its Effect on Graduate Students’ First-Course Retention.” Fee earned her Doctorate of Education in Higher Education from Concordia University-Portland and is one of Concordia’s adjunct instructors as well as a student orientation lead.

Online student retention and the goal of online orientation

With online enrollment steadily increasing, many universities are noticing that a high percentage of the students who sign up for virtual classes do not complete them or their degree program. This dramatically affects each institutions’ numbers in terms of both enrollment and graduation. The dramatic drop in retention rates impacts a school’s success rate.

By providing an online orientation class, higher education institutions are hoping that students will make a more profound commitment to completing their coursework and their programs. The online orientation is similar to an in-class orientation but with the advantage of being completed remotely. The goal of an online orientation class is to help students prevent and address any issues they may encounter as a virtual student. By providing students with the information and guidance they need in the orientation process, the hope is that students continue their educational pursuits even though they may not have access to the same resources as students who attend classes on a college campus.

A close examination of online orientation

Fee used a private, religious-based institution in the United States as her primary research site. Students were actively engaged during a seven-week period using emails and short quizzes designed to determine their level of commitment to the program. The university in her study uses the Blackboard learning method and this was also utilized throughout the study. An online student forum was also used to allow participants to communicate with one another.

The initial results of Fee’s study indicate that completing an online orientation class has no significant impact on whether or not a student completes their first class with a high grade of either an A or B. 97% of students who completed the online orientation continued on to complete their first class. Of those who did not complete an online orientation program, 90% went on to complete their first class with a high grade.

During the study, several factors became apparent. One of the biggest influences on whether or not an adult student completed their online coursework was their schedule outside of the learning environment. This included family obligations, employment, and other variables that were outside the scope of the research study. The fact that the student had or had not completed the online orientation class had very little bearing on whether or not they were able to complete the assigned coursework. While the majority of students were successful, Fee used telephone interviews and emails to maintain contact with the participants and gauge their overall progress.

Key findings

Fee’s study does indicate that further research is needed. However, it was determined through communication with the participants that the online orientation classes offered by the school met the challenges that many of the online students faced during the first class. This offered them an opportunity to learn more about the platform prior to taking their first online class. It also gave them an opportunity to navigate the features they would be using and to practice the online skills they would need throughout the class. 

The online orientation proved effective in helping students understand how the system worked and how to seamlessly interact with other users. By being able to master these skills prior to taking their first class, there was a dramatic increase in their overall success rate in terms of completing future classwork with a grade of B or higher.

While these findings are positive, Fee’s final recommendation is to continue to research the impact of online orientation using a much larger number of students. This would allow for a wider sampling of students, whether they be college-age students or adults who are continuing their education while maintaining other employment. By performing further research, more information will also be gained in terms of post-graduate class completion as well as retaining students who are just beginning their college coursework.


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