Vol. 18, Iss. 1
© 2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company
All rights reserved
Retain adult learners with structure, personalized approach
By Joan Hope, Ph.D., Editor
What factors contribute to persistence in an online,
noncredit, rolling admission program? J. David Tate
explained what strategies work for the Certificate of
Christian Foundation program at Baylor University’s
George W. Truett Theological Seminary at a session at
the Online Learning Consortium Accelerate conference.
The certificate program is designed for members
of Baptist churches. In Texas alone, there are 5,300
Baptist churches, with a median size of 65 members.
And the certificate program has students from 19 states.
The goal is to provide resources to those small church
communities, Tate said. The future of the church depends
on there being more bi-vocational ministers, he added.
Challenges of running the program and retaining
students include that the customers are diverse, Tate
said. They include church leaders and attendees. Some
have degrees and some do not. To meet their needs, the
program must be asynchronous. The program must
be 100 percent financially sustainable, and the course
cost must be kept low, at $200 to $300, Tate added.
The program was launched in 2004, and in 2015 it
was making $1,800 in revenue a month, on average.
That’s when Tate set out to make it sustainable. In the
first year, tuition revenue and new student enrollment
doubled. But retention was still too low, student progress
was often stagnant, and the revenue was insufficient.
But by the second year, the situation had improved.
An average month saw $9,200 in gross revenue, 23
new students, and 31 returning students. Student
retention was 72 percent, and a total of 174 students
enrolled for the year, Tate said.
Keys to success included:
➢ Efficiency. When Tate was in seminary, he was
taught to preach as if the people listening almost
didn’t come. In the certificate program, the goal is
to teach like they almost didn’t register. Specific
• Giving students weekly assignments. Even
though the program has rolling admission, each
student is on a week-by-week plan. Students are
given time estimates for every assignment. They
know how many pages of reading they will have,
how long quizzes should take, and how long videos
last. That helps them plan their time.
• Keeping reading to manageable amounts.
About 20 to 25 pages a week is what busy students
can handle. That influences the books officials choose
and the pace.
• Providing numeric feedback. Although grades
cannot be assigned, numeric feedback, from –1 to
3, lets students know how they are doing and gives
them a pat on the back for good work. Students
must correct work to move forward if they score –1.
• Setting an end date for each course. Students
have eight weeks to finish a course. If a student has
a family emergency or otherwise needs more time,
officials extend the time to completion. “If you take
away the end date, students drag it out for months
and months,” Tate said.
The staff must also be efficient for the program
to be sustainable. Tate works with two graduate
assistants, and they try to answer all questions
before the questions are asked.
➢ Connection. Students need to feel connected
to the course content, the professor, and other
students. Methods that work include:
• Incorporating experiential examples and
stories in the course content.
• Encouraging students to share their opinions
on noncontroversial topics in a forum where other
students can see their comments.
• Sending weekly emails. These are based on
the student’s start date. Although they are sent
through an automated system, they use the student’s
➢ Orientation. Students who have been out of
school for 10 to 20 years need help getting started.
• Providing information in the first course on
time management, finding a quiet place to study,
and reading even when you disagree.
• Connecting the education students will
receive to their calling and purpose. ■
Adopt three keys
for retention success
Three key strategies were needed to retain
students in an online, noncredit, rolling admission
certificate program at Baylor University. At a session
at the Online Learning Consortium Accelerate
conference, J. David Tate explained that they were:
• Efficiency. The curriculum helps busy adult
students understand how to use their time in the most
efficient way possible.
• Connection. Helping students feel connected
in an online, asynchronous environment is critical.
• Orientation. Adult students who have been out
of school for a long time need to be taught how to be