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Editor’s Note
: Distance learning expands access to education and training to persons who could not otherwise participate. To be effective, it must resolve the retention problem that faces all higher education programs. There are several approaches to this problem: courses that are interesting and informative, training and support for course designers and instructors, along with time and the necessary resources to adapt to online learning environments. A blended course may facilitate transition by providing some face-to-face contact.

Improving Retention
in Distance Learning Classes

Judy A. Serwatka


Much has been written about retention in distance learning courses. Authors have different ideas about what causes students to drop out of these courses. Some of the issues include lack of instructor training, poor course design, lack of student interaction, and personal commitments. Few actual studies have been done to provide evidence for these assumptions. This paper provides possible solutions to the problem of retention and offers suggestions for improvement in the entire field of distance education.

Keywords: distance learning, on-line learning, retention, MERLOT, instructional web sites, teaching modules, learning styles, faculty interaction, blended courses.


Retaining students is a number one priority in higher education. One way to improve overall retention is to reduce the withdrawal rate in on-line courses. The format of a course can have significant impact on student retention. Simply putting the same material that was used in an on-campus class on a web site and expecting the on-line students to learn at the same level as their on-campus counterparts is not logical. Distance learning requires a new pedagogy and alternative teaching tools to enable the learner to grasp material without the benefit of an instructor’s lecture.

On-line discussion boards are one way to provide interaction between instructor and students, and between students and students. Other forms of on-line learning can be used, however, to enhance the learning experience. Searching the Web for appropriate teaching materials and on-line simulations can be time-consuming and frustrating. The sheer volume of Web sites is overwhelming and a search that returns thousands of potential Web sites for a particular subject is enough to discourage anyone from trying to find Web-based materials for courses. Project MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) is an effort to try and minimize the number of Web sites searched and provide a way to find quality instructional materials in a minimum of time.

Background and Purpose of Project MERLOT

Project MERLOT was initiated by faculty and administrators at several universities across the United States. The leaders for the project are located at California State University. The project was originally implemented by continuing an NSF project titled “Authoring Tools and An Educational Object Economy” at the Center for Distributed Learning (CDL) of California State University. Because of the interest generated by the initial project, the CDL invited other institutions and higher education systems to participate in order to expand MERLOT. The project is currently sponsored by the NSF Digital Library Project and endorsed by NLII/EDUCAUSE.

The purpose of Project Merlot is to develop a place where faculty can share instructional materials for all forms of on-line teaching. Material on the MERLOT Web site can be reviewed and downloaded by anyone, at no cost. Downloads are not limited to university faculty. This unlimited access provides the opportunity for more faculty and instructors to become involved in on-line teaching without “reinventing the wheel” each time the same topic is taught. Of course, this means that contributors must agree to allow their material to be use by other faculty.

Currently, 12 disciplines are included in the MERLOT project including Biology, Business, Chemistry, Foreign Languages, Health Sciences, History, Information Technology, Mathematics, Music, Physics, Psychology, and Teacher Education. The sites listed in each discipline are reviewed and rated by a team of faculty reviewers for that discipline. The faculty who were chosen as reviewers have been identified as outstanding educators in their discipline and have demonstrated expertise in using the Internet as part of their courses.

The web site for Project MERLOT (www.merlot.org) encourages contributors to submit course modules on specific topics. The contributor chooses which discipline under which to list the module. For instance, an instructor teaching a course in Computer Information Systems might submit a tutorial module on token-ring networks. Such a module could consist of lecture materials and a self-study quiz. A module submitted in Physics, currently on the site, illustrates the concept of Thermodynamic Equilibrium, using a Java Applet to show how gas particles move based on their temperature. Projects such as these, which are modules limited to a single topic, are the most useful for the Project. Many different types of modules can be submitted, ranging from tutorials to simulations. Anything that an instructor would find useful is acceptable.

A problem that has surfaced with on-line courses is the perception that they are not of the same quality as traditional courses because there has been no peer review process in place for the materials. Faculty who teach distance education courses have found that their institutions require peer review of their materials for promotion and tenure. Project MERLOT provides such peer review of the materials posted on its Web site. Before reviewing modules, the faculty reviewers scan the lists of submitted modules and determine which ones are eligible for review. This process is known a ‘triage’ and the team in each curriculum does this on a regular basis to ensure that the site has only good materials. The Merlot system also has a mechanism for updating out-dated links. The original contributor is contacted when an old or bad link is discovered and is asked to either update the link or eliminate it from the database.

Review Process in Project MERLOT

Each discipline team is made up of two team co-leaders and several faculty reviewers (the author is a member of the Information Technology team, made up of 12 faculty). Before the review process started, the teams are given the task to find Web-based modules and post them on the MERLOT Web site under the appropriate discipline. Because of this, the faculty reviewers have become contributors as well as reviewers. When the project first began, it was important to populate the site with as many modules as possible. The current focus is to find high quality sites and then post them for review.

After a sufficient number of modules have been identified and posted, the team members choose the sites they wish to review. In Information Technology, we divided our team into sub-teams, since there are so many different areas of expertise (programming, databases, networking, etc.). Each team then chooses sites from the MERLOT site to review, or the team leader chooses sites to review. An important aspect of the review process is the use of a single review form by all members of a review team. Project Merlot has developed an on-line review form that each discipline team now uses to ensure that the reviews are equivalent.

The formal review process consists of informal reviews by individual team members, sharing the review forms among the team members, then a walk-through of the site with all members involved in analyzing the merits and problems with a particular site. Prior to the formal review, a letter is sent to the author of the module, indicating that the site has been posted to MERLOT and asking permission to review the site and post the reviews for all faculty to see. If the author denies permission, then the review process ends, and the site will remain on MERLOT with no posted reviews. If the author agrees to the review, the final review is posted on the MERLOT web site, with a 1 to 5 star rating, similar to that used by the motion picture rating system. The author is also sent a letter that contains comments by the reviewers along with suggestions for improvement of the module, if needed. We have found that authors sometimes request that the reviewers postpone their review of a particular module until a later date because the site is undergoing upgrades. If this occurs then we respect the author’s request and delay the review.

The review process provides benefits to faculty in several ways. The author is provided with a peer review of the material by faculty from across several universities. The perspectives and teaching experiences of several people are incorporated into the review, giving it a better review than could be done by an individual reviewer. Evaluating a course module in this manner is very valuable. As accrediting bodies take a close look at distance learning programs and individual courses, obtaining peer review of the teaching materials will be an important benefit to those developing the materials. In addition, the promotion and tenure process often requires that non-tenured faculty provide evidence of teaching effectiveness and this process often requires peer review of teaching materials. The MERLOT review process and the letters sent to the author can provide evidence of such a review.

Another benefit to faculty of the MERLOT review process is the public posting of the reviews. By browsing the MERLOT Web site, an instructor can find materials for specific topics. When someone searches the site for a specific item, modules that meet the criteria are listed with the highest ratings first, giving the searcher the benefit of finding the highest quality modules very quickly. The reviews can provide an efficient way to determine if the materials are appropriate for a specific class or a specific group of students. The rating system also provides a quick review of the quality of the material in the module. Comments by reviewers are included in the posted review as well.

Future of MERLOT

The success of MERLOT depends both on the willingness of faculty to spend the time to review the modules, and the time taken by those who seek out and post modules to the site for review. Anyone can post a module on the site. Reviews can only be posted, however, by those who are designated as faculty reviewers. MERLOT is not a repository for the actual modules, but instead is a database of URLs with links to the actual modules. Thus, if a module changes, the MERLOT web site does not need to be changed. This keeps control of the module in the hands of the author.

The ultimate goal of this project is to hand over review of modules to professional organizations in the various discipline areas. The faculty chosen as reviewers have made a two year commitment to this process, so a permanent solution to the review process is needed. Since professional organizations are made up of faculty who are interested in the educational needs of their disciplines, it is logical that they should take over this review process. One way to achieve this is to introduce the organizations to the concept of Project MERLOT as often as possible. The discipline team members are encouraged to write about and make presentations at their institutions, professional conferences and other venues to introduce Project Merlot to as many faculty as possible.

In order to further the discussions about peer review of the online materials, the First International MERLOT Conference was held in August 2001 and was open to anyone interested in this topic. The conference, titled “Faculty Approaches to Instructional Technology: Content, Collaboration, and Community" was designed for those interested in learning about shared content, peer reviews, learning objects, standards, and online communities. The conference was a good way for all reviewers and others to come together to discuss issues relating to the peer review of on-line teaching materials. Subsequent conferences in 2002, 2003, and 2004 have continued the discussion of the peer review process in order to improve the quality of submissions on the Merlot Web site.

The Issue of Retention

Project Merlot is an excellent resource, as long as faculty make use of it, as well as any other technologies that are available to make an on-line course interactive and interesting. Faculty must also take into account the differences in students in an on-line class. When we teach a face-to-face class, after a few weeks the instructor can get a feel for which students are lagging behind and those who are keeping up with the material. We don’t have that luxury in an on-line course. And no instructor can design a class to meet all learning styles (Palloff and Pratt, 2003). Addressing learning styles is at the heart of retaining students in on-line courses.

The generation of students that we now have in college was brought up working with computers; they have them in their homes and in their elementary and high schools. As faculty, we have a different mindset, one that is not so technically oriented, and thus our teaching methods match our mindset. Modifying the presentation of course material to fit with today’s students is necessary to retain these students. Students today process information differently than we did, so we need to take advantage of that when creating on-line courses.

Faculty interaction with the students has also been cited as a reason that students drop out of on-line courses (Olgren, 2004). Specifically, it is not the type of interaction that is the problem, but rather the lack of interaction. The faculty that teach in this relatively new form of education should be given instruction in how to manage the class and the training should stress the importance of faculty interaction with the students. It is not unreasonable for a student to expect a response within 24 hours from a faculty member. The response may be to an e-mail or to a discussion posting. In order to set the stage for this interaction, it is very important for the faculty member to specify at the beginning of the course how responses will be handled. While it is important to respond quickly, it is also important to tell the students when responses cannot be expected (for instance, I always tell my students that I check e-mail at least once over weekends and holidays, just so that they don’t always expect a response within 24 hours during those times). If guidelines are set up early, and posted when students can check them, the students’ frustration level will be greatly reduced.

Student retention can also be addressed by the format of the course. A form of learning in which the students come to campus or to a learning center for a limited number of meetings during the course, called hybrid or blended courses, may be better than courses that are offered entirely on-line (Rovai and Jordan, 2004). Such a course can give the students the reassurance they need to see the instructor and ask questions in person, along with the convenience of not meeting on a bi-weekly or weekly basis. Such courses fit better into a student’s life when family or employment demands prevent the attendance in a regularly scheduled class.

One theory on distance learning says that discussion forums and debates are the main method that should be used to engage students and keep them interested in a course (Pallof and Pratt, 2003). However, this is only one form of interaction that can be used. One must also keep in mind that students may not be comfortable with such interaction. Most traditional students and adult students have spent the majority of their school years in environments in which lecture was the primary tool for disseminating information (Conrad and Donalson, 2004). Trying new techniques may be difficult at first. Using exercises that provide an ‘ice breaker’ may help students get used to interacting with their peers. One method of doing this is to provide an informal discussion area. The instructor can invite the students to share personal information about themselves or their careers. Most people like to talk about themselves. Such an exercise will give the students a chance to know more about each other and to practice writing to a discussion board and responding to others. Making the students feel comfortable in the learning environment is an important part of retaining them in the class. The instructor should strive to create a sense of community among the students so they care about one another and are interested in what others have to say.

Once the students have become familiar with each other, various forms of discussion boards can be used. The teacher can post a case study with questions to be answered. This activity can be done as an entire class project, or the class can be divided into groups, with a group leader, and the discussion can take place among the smaller group of students. An instructor may use a real-life case scenario where a group of Computer Technology students are given a project, such as creating a Web-based business, and they must use all the talents in their group to decide on a business model, design the site, and possibly even program it. Another activity could be virtual field trips, using on-line resources available for a specific discipline. Some examples include China Virtual tours, Virtual Tour of the Ear, and Historical Tour of the White House (Conrad and Donaldson, 2004).

When planning alternative activities for an on-line course, Project Merlot is a good place to start. Materials found at Merlot may be the foundation to use to start the discussion on a topic, or to be used as background material for a discussion on some other topic. While creating on-line courses does require much research up-front on the part of the instructor, the value to the student is immeasurable. And, making the material fun and informative can engage the student and give them an incentive to complete the course and go on to others toward the completion of a degree.


Solving the retention problem in higher education is of primary interest to faculty and administrators alike. Providing on-line courses that are interesting and informative is one way to help retain students.

Project MERLOT is a concept that is desperately needed in the world of distance learning. Anyone who has faced the possibility of developing an on-line course from scratch will appreciate the help that such a Web site provides. The support the faculty members receive from their individual institutions in this project will determine the ultimate success of failure of the project.

One problem that has been identified is the additional work that this has put on the faculty reviewers. One reviewer indicated that she had been given what she called “virtual release time” to work on the project. Even though on paper she had a release for Project MERLOT, in fact she had been asked to teach an extra class during the same semester so the release time was really non-existent. Support for this project is needed in order to have quality reviews. The only way this will happen is if the faculty involved in the project have time to work on it. Those who are involved in this project are dedicated to improving the materials available for distance learning instructors. The importance of this form of teaching is evident in the number of commercial ventures that have been developed. The success of MERLOT will be measured by how well it helps faculty develop and improve their distance learning courses.

Better training for instructors may also be a key to improving student retention. A teacher that is well-suited to the classroom environment may or may not be a good on-line instructor. In addition, the format of the on-line courses should be studied. A blended course may serve the students needs and provide some face-to-face contact to give the students the instructor contact they want.


Conrad, R.M., and Donaldson, J.A., Engaging the Online Learner, Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Hanley, G. L., and Thomas, C. (December, 2000). MERLOT: Peer Review of Instructional Technology. Syllabus [On-line], 14(3) Available: http://www.syllabus.com/syllabusmagazine/oct00_fea.html.

Olgren, C. (December, 2004). “Reasons for Attrition”, Distance Education Certificate Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison, http://uwmad.courses.wisconsin.edu/d2l/tools/files/accessFile.asp?file-6847687&code=641915067.

Palloff, R.M., and Pratt, K. The Virtual Student: A Profile and Guide to Working with Online Learners, Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Rovai, A. P. and Jordan, H. M. (August, 2004). “Blended Learning and Sense of Community: A Comparative Analysis with Traditional and Fully Online Graduate Courses”. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning [On-line], ISSN: 1492-3831. Available: http://www.irrodl.org/content/v5.2/rovai-jordan.html.

Young, J. R. (June 1, 2000). Merlot Project Brings Peer Review to Web Materials for Teaching. The Chronicle of Higher Education, [On-line], Available: http://chronicle.com/free/2000/06/2000060101u.htm.

About the Author

Judy A. Serwatka Ed.D, CDP

Judy A Serwatka Ed.D, CDP received her A.S. and B.S. in Computer Technology from Purdue University Calumet. She received an M.S. in Management from Purdue University Calumet and completed her EdD in Business Education at Northern Illinois University. Dr. Serwatka has taught courses in Computer Technology for 20 years at Purdue and held several positions in the computer industry for 13 years prior to her teaching career. She has taught on-line courses since 1996 and was Distance Education Coordinator at Purdue University Calumet. Dr. Serwatka is also the author of a textbook, Business Data Communications, Introductory Concepts and Techniques. The fourth edition of this text was published in December, 2003.

Dr. Judy A. Serwatka
Associate Professor of Computer Technology
Purdue University North Central
1401 S. US 421, Westville, IN 46391
219-785-5445 jserwatka@pnc.edu



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