ETP - Helping Students Persist in Their Studies



Research shows that increasing intrinsic motivation and emphasizing the connection between effort and improved performance helps students persist in their studies (Dweck, 2006). 

Learning Objectives

To help students persist in their studies, we’ll discuss practices you can use to:

  • Offer choice when appropriate
  • Provide tools for targeted improvement (rubrics, checklists, writing samples)
  • Offer specific and timely feedback
  • Offer opportunities to use feedback for revision
  • Connect learning to career or other long-term goals
  • Foster a sense of belonging to an online course community
  • Communicate how increased effort leads to improved performance
  • Praise students for effort as opposed to natural ability
  • Offer specific praise connected to effort
  • Use grades to communicate progress
  • Use grades to diagnose what students know and what they need to work on
  • Provide time management strategies and regular reminders
  • Send messages of encouragement and support

Skeletal Outline

Download a skeletal outline to take notes on the key practices included in this module.

Course Demonstration

This video shows instructors effectively demonstrating the evidence-based practices presented in this module. Through this authentic classroom observation, you can begin to consider how you might implement these practices and techniques with your students.

The instructors featured in the video include Ece Karayalcin, MFA, from Miami Dade College; Emily Moss, DA, from California State University, Los Angeles; Pedro Garcia, from Miami Dade College; and Kristina Ruiz-Mesa, MA, from California State University.

Download the transcript for this video

Expert Insights

In this video, you’ll hear Jane Muhich, a scholar in teaching and learning, discuss the specific nuances of and the research support for the teaching techniques and practices presented in this module.

Download the transcript for this video

Common Challenges & Misconceptions

In this section, you’ll read about some common challenges and misconceptions associated with techniques designed to help students persist in their studies. Click on each statement to read research-based clarifications and suggestions aligned to each challenge or misconception.

MISCONCEPTION: Students like to hear “good job,” so general praise is most effective.


When people are trying to learn new skills, they need information that tells them whether or not they are on the right track. Learning in the classroom is no exception. Both the mastery of content and, more importantly, the mastery of how to think require trial-and-error learning (Cornell University, Center for Teaching Excellence, n.d.).


University of Auckland professors John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007) provide guidance in giving students effective praise:

  1. Be as specific as possible about what they are doing right or wrong. For example, feedback like “Great job!” or “Not quite right” doesn’t tell the learner what was done right or provide any insight into what was done wrong or how to improve it in the future. Researchers recommend taking the time to provide learners with exactly what they did well and what they may still need.
  2. Address the learner’s advancement toward a goal. Effective feedback is most often oriented around a specific goal that students are (or should be) working toward. When giving feedback, it should be clear to students how the information they are receiving will help them progress toward their final goal.

CHALLENGE: I understand the importance of choice and the positive impact of persistence. However, I have a syllabus to follow and content to cover, so it’s not possible to provide students with lots of choice in what and how they learn in my course.

Clarification :

When providing choice to students, think about areas where you can provide choice: the classmates they will work with on a project, the article they will use for research, or the topic they will select for their term paper. There will always be some nonnegotiables, but considering when and how you can provide students with choice can greatly impact their connection to the course content and their willingness to persist in their studies (Ryan & Deci, 2015; Wieman, 2013).

CHALLENGE: It takes too much time to grade using rubrics and checklists; grades are a much more efficient way to let students know how they did.

Clarification :

Well-constructed rubrics and checklists actually save time in grading and help instructors assess more consistently from student to student ( Cornell University, Center for Teaching Excellence, n.d.; Walvoord & Anderson, 2010 ). Rubrics and checklists also help students better understand assignment expectations and increase their awareness of their learning process (Cornell University, Center for Teaching Excellence, n.d.)

MISCONCEPTION: There are some students who just aren’t able to learn the material, so they give up and drop out.

Clarification :

For many students, the fear of their work not being “good enough” is paralyzing. Rather than earn a failing grade from a teacher, they give it to themselves by just not doing the work (Thompson, n.d.). There is considerable evidence to support the old bromide that “nothing succeeds like success.” In fact, one of the best predictors of first-year student persistence is the grades the student earned during the first year (Crissman & Upcraft, 2005).

Suggestion :

As Thompson (n.d.) suggests, “Begin a unit of study with work that is easier than it will be near the end of the unit or assignment. Once students see that they can do the work, they will be less intimidated.” Use rubrics and offer feedback for improvement before a final grade is issued to communicate to students that you believe they can, and expect they will, complete the assignment or task satisfactorily (Cornell University, Center for Teaching Excellence, n.d.;  , Dweck, 2006).

Clarification :

Persistence problems in online courses are often related to feelings of isolation (Hart, 2012), feeling lost (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016), or feeling discouraged (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011).

Suggestion :

Instructors can address these persistence challenges by designing course activities and assignments that build community through paired and group work, providing organizational reminders and support, and checking in with students if they are starting to fall behind (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016, Nilson & Goodson, 2017).

MISCONCEPTION: Giving students the opportunity to improve their work based on feedback does not prepare students for the real world. If you give students too many “chances” to improve their work, they will never learn to do it right the first time. Grades are a “fact of life” and students should get used to it.

Clarification :

Research tells us that fostering a student’s intrinsic motivation is actually the best way to motivate them to persist in a course. Emphasizing external rewards, like grades, can negatively impact intrinsic motivation and students’ long-term interest in the content—even if they receive the “reward” of good grades (Pink, 2009). Often less persistent students believe that good students somehow are just smarter or find the work easier than they do. Learning that everyone needs to work hard at times can be an epiphany for some students.

Suggestion :

Help students see the connection between effort and success. Move students from “I don’t get it” to “I don’t get it yet.” This communicates that learning is matter of time and effort—they are on a continuum of understanding (Dweck, 2006).


In the Observe & Analyze (OA) section, you’ll view the video(s) depicting developing practice, where an instructor implements some of the module techniques effectively while other techniques may need slight adjustments or improvements. As you analyze the video(s), you will gain a deeper understanding of the module techniques and gain insight into some common pitfalls.


Download the transcript for this video.

Download the transcript for this video.


  • Instructional Practices

  • Online Instructional Practices

  • Additional Resources

This section includes resources and handouts to support your implementation of the techniques and practices presented in the module.

Download all of the implementation resources for this module

Implementation Resources

Download or print the following resources to practice our techniques for helping students persist in their studies:

The module learning objectives and aligned online practices are listed below. Each resource offers step-by-step instructions and examples of effective online teaching in text and/or video.

*Featured Technology Tool: Use Remind to send regular reminders

Increase intrinsic motivation

Foster a sense of belonging to an online course community

Research shows that feelings of isolation are a major contributor to student attrition in online courses (Hart, 2012). On the other hand, a sense of belonging contributes to students’ intrinsic motivation to learn (Ferreira, Cardoso, & Abrantes, 2011) and persist (Morrow & Ackermann, 2012) in educational endeavors. These feelings of belonging can be fostered with practices that help to build a strong course community, such as assignments that require students to get acquainted with, respond to, and work with fellow learners (Nilson & Goodson, 2018).

View or download activities that help build online community.

Demonstrate the connection between increased effort and improved performance

Provide time management strategies and regular reminders

Many online learners are juggling a seemingly endless set of responsibilities, which may make staying on track with online learning tasks more difficult. Some students may need to do coursework in short 15 to 20 minute time segments between other responsibilities. Below are strategies to help students stay organized and on track.

Module Roadmap: Provide students with a printable module roadmap that contains clear lists of module tasks, time estimates, due dates, and resources needed to complete the tasks. Include assignment directions with the appropriate grading rubric in the same location.

View or download an example of a module roadmap.

Weekly work plan. Help students to create customized and realistic work plans to accomplish weekly tasks.

View or to download a weekly schedule template for students to use in planning how they will successfully complete each week’s set of tasks.

Regular reminders. Send announcements or emails two to three times a week with encouraging and motivating reminders to help keep students on task. Many learning management system (LMS) platforms allow these announcements to be scheduled ahead of time and sent automatically on specific dates and times.

View or download an example of scheduled reminders.

Featured Technology Tool: Watch a video demonstration showing how to use Remind to schedule and send regular reminders.

View or download written instructions for using Remind.

Send messages of encouragement and support

Feelings of discouragement can set in as early as the second week of a course as the assignment requirements and due dates start to feel overwhelming and beyond the student’s time available for learning (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011). Students who are getting behind or are struggling in the course may be encouraged by a personal and supportive email from the instructor (Stavredes, 2011).

View or download examples of ways to offer encouragement and support.


Judith V. Boettcher, PhD
Online Learning Consultant and Author
Designing for Learning

Flower Darby
Senior Instructional Designer
Northern Arizona University

Mar-Elise Hill
Associate Clinical Professor
Northern Arizona University

Andrea Hogan
Associate Professor
Grand Canyon University

Lisa Palladino Kim
Director of Capstone / Lecturer, Biopharma Educational Initiative
Rutgers, Newark

Below are additional resources to further explore the module topics.

Video Resource

Resources for Further Reading

  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. How we can learn to fulfill our potential. New York, NY: Random House.
  • Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Consult a comprehensive list of references for this module.

Community Connections


Kristina Ruiz-Mesa
Assistant Professor and Basic Course Director, Department of Communication Studies
California State University,  Los Angeles

Emily Moss, DA
Assistant Professor and Director of Bands and Instrumental Music Education
California State University, Los Angeles

Ece Karayalcin, MFA
Professor of Film
Miami Dade College

Jane M. Muhich, MEd
Math Faculty and Productive Persistence Lead
Seattle Central College

Lindsey Davis, PhD Candidate
Lecturer, Psychology

Pedro Garcia
Professor of Chemistry
Miami Dade College

Allen, D. (2015)
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2016)
The online teaching survival Guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Braxton, J. M. (Ed.). (2008).
The role of the classroom in college student persistence. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chase, B., Germundsen, R., Cady Brownstein, J., & Schaak Distad, L. (2001)
 Making the connection between increased student learning and reflective practice. Educational Horizons, 79, 143–147.

Conrad, R.-M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011).
Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cornell University, Center for Teaching Innovation. (n.d.). Using rubrics. Retrieved from

Crissman Ishler, J. L., & Upcraft, M. L. (2005).
The keys to first-year student persistence. In M. L. Upcraft, J. N. Gardner, & B. O. Barefoot (Eds.), Challenging and supporting the first-year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college (pp. 27–46). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. S. (2006)
Teaching unprepared students: Strategies for promoting success and retention in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Ferreira, M., Cardoso, A. P., & Abrantes, J. L. (2011)
Motivation and relationship of the student with the school as factors involved in the perceived learning. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 29, 1707–1714.

Friedman, J. (2017, April 4)
The average online bachelor’s student. Retrieved from 

Hart, C. (2012).
Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11, 19-42.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007)
The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81-112. 

Morrow, J., & Ackermann, M. (2012).
Intention to persist and retention of first-year students: The importance of motivation and sense of belonging. College Student Journal, 46(3), 483-491..

Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2018).
Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Pink, D. H. (2009)
Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2016).
 2015-16 National online learners’ satisfaction and priorities report. Cedar Rapids, IA: Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2009).
Promoting self-determined school engagement: Motivation, learning, and well-being. In K. R. Wenzel & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Educational psychology handbook series. Handbook of motivation at school (pp. 171-195). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Stavredes, T. (2011)
 Effective online teaching: Foundations and strategies for student success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass..

Thompson, J. G. (2011, March 26).
 28 ways to build persistent & confident students. Retrieved from

Tinto, V. (1993)
 Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

University of Michigan, Center for Research on Learning & Teaching [CRLTeach]. (2014, February 26)
Eric Mazur, Harvard University. Peer instruction [Video file]. Retrieved from 

Walvoord, B. E. F., & Anderson, V. J. (2010)
Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in collete (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wieman, C. (2010).
Basic instructor habits to keep students engaged. Retrieved from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia website:

Wieman, C. (2013).
Motivating learning. Retrieved from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia website: