Date of Award

January 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching & Learning

First Advisor

Richard Van Eck

Second Advisor

Mary Baker


University student retention and success are high priorities for colleges and universities. With the expansion of online learning, retention of students in online courses has become particularly important in modern higher education. The purpose of this study was to examine factors that affect university student retention and success, with particular consideration for students who have taken online courses during their undergraduate career. The guiding research question for this qualitative study was: “How do demographic, internal, and external factors affect the retention and success of undergraduate students who take online courses?” Learning analytics (predictive analytics in educational settings) attempt to predict student retention rates, yet many studies have indicated that deeper analyses are required for investigating internal factors that affect retention and success.

Phenomenography was the qualitative methodology used, in order to investigate the qualitative variances among students’ perceptions of internal and external factors, while considering the broader culture of university students. The sample of participants included undergraduate students who had taken one or more online courses; 14 students completed interviews (10 current or graduated, 3 transferred, and 1 discontinuous enrollment) and 43 students completed open-ended surveys (4 dropped, 17 transferred, and 22 discontinuous enrollment). Thematic analysis was used to assess the qualitative data from the transcribed interviews and surveys, using the qualitative software, Atlas.ti.

Findings from this study supported the idea that demographic, internal, and external factors interact to affect university student retention and success (both in online and face-to-face settings). Across the 46 students (3 interviews and 43 surveys) who took online courses and subsequently dropped out or transferred away from the university, none of them reported online courses as reasons for their departures. While all of the participants in this study described the advantages and disadvantages of online education, it was clear that students’ unique life circumstances largely influenced their decisions to persist or leave the university (e.g., family obligations, work and financial issues, mental and physical health, social pressures, communication with instructors and other students, and course load).

Multiple implications for practice were offered for improving online learning and student retention and success, including: a) students conducting learning styles analyses before enrolling in online courses, b) students with mental health issues staying connected to support services, particularly during online courses, c) instructors thoughtfully and effectively implementing online interactivity tools, and d) instructors facilitating meaningful connections in online settings through all available methods (e.g., email, discussion boards, synchronous meetings).

In addition, several recommendations for future research were presented based on the findings of this study. The qualitative findings from this study and similar studies can be incorporated into quantitative survey instruments that attempt to gather information regarding student retention and success, allowing researchers to gather more detailed data from a broader sample more accurately. These qualitatively-enhanced surveys could be distributed to students; the findings might then be used in tandem with learning analytics data to better inform retention initiatives and policy decisions at colleges and universities. Ideally, institutions will be able to synthesize this information to more accurately recognize students at risk, contact them, and effectively implement early intervention techniques.