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Student Retention Toolkit

We’ve known for a while that teaching and the classroom experience impacts retention. When administrators at 947 colleges and universities were asked “What makes students stay?” the top two responses were “caring faculty and staff” and “high-quality teaching” (Beal & Noel, 1980). The classroom should be the starting point for retention initiatives because this is the primary place for students to engage with peers and faculty. This is particularly applicable for non‐residential students and students working part‐time or full‐timewhile earning their degree, who may not engage in other campus activities, events, or organizations (Hanover, 2014).

What we do in the classroom from assessment to the syllabus impacts the student experience, and therefore impacts student retention. Here we outline some easy and more in-depth things you can do in the classroom to positively impact retention.

Listen to Students

What do UNC Students Say?

It’s helpful to hear from students about their experiences in UNC classrooms. You can get started by watching recorded student panels of UNC students:

Get Student Feedback

If you want to really know how students are experiencing your classes and how you can make changes in the moment to improve student engagement and motivation, consider checking-in with students monthly. These can be very quick check-ins done on paper or as an ungraded Canvas quiz that ask simple questions, such as:

  • When are you most engaged during class? Please provide specific activity/assignment examples.
  • Do you feel comfortable approaching me with questions/concerns about the course? If not, how can I improve this?
  • List 1-2 goals that you have for this course and discuss what you are doing to meet those goals. What can I do to better support your goals?

If you want to start small, implement a mid-semester feedback about 6-7 weeks into the semester. This feedback will provide you with practical and actionable insights about what is working in a course as well as recommendations for improving learning and teaching. You can adapt these mid-semester check-in forms for use in your courses. These can be used in both online or face-to-face courses; for any course delivery model you can use Qualtrics or a Canvas quiz to administer the check-in.

You can find more information on student feedback through the Teaching Evaluation Toolkit.

Review Course Materials

Syllabus Revamp

A good syllabus revision isn’t quick, but it’s an easy place to start to begin thinking about how you interact with students and build an inclusive community. To get started, watch the 2021 webinar Supporting Students with an Equity Minded Syllabus. There’s also more information and templates in the Syllabus Toolkit.

Curriculum Review

It's always a good idea to review your curriculum and considering who is represented through your course materials, readings, and images. It's important that students can bring their own experiences into the classroom - consider how you do provide that opportunity. Also consider how students interact and engage with you and each other.  Get started by watching the 2021 webinar Deconstructing Dominant Cultures in the Classroom.

Consider adopting Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which focuses on building equitable and inclusive classrooms. Here are some webinars to get you started:

If you want some one-on-one support with UDL contact Kelly Langley-Cook, the CETL Teaching Coach for Inclusive Classrooms.

Department chairs should check out the webinar Department-Level Strategies for Improving Student Retention https://digscholarship.unco.edu/tla/53

Support & Professional Development

Research indicates that coordinated, systemic professional development efforts at the post secondary level are related to improved student outcomes, including higher retention and graduation rates, as well as greater faculty satisfaction, engagement, and sense of belonging  (Alfano, 1993; Fulton, Noonan, & Dorris, 2004; Gansemer-Topf, Saunders, Schuh, & Shelley, 2004; Gansemer-Topf & Schuh, 2004; Killion, 2000; Murray, 2002; Outcalt, 2002; Sherer, Shea, & Kristensen, 2003).

There are lots of ways to engage in professional development. You can visit the CETL Webinar Library to watch recordings. You can also attend live webinars. The AY 22-23 webinar series is on equity-minded grading. You can also join a learning community in AY 22-23. You can join a one-semester learning community focused on how students learn or a year-long learning community on Teaching for Inclusion & Equity. You can also get personalized support through a CETL consultation with staff and teaching coaches.

Ideas for Department Chairs

Department chairs play a vital role in student retention. Consider reviewing department policies around attendance and discussing pedagogy during faculty meetings. Review DFW rate data with faculty and brainstorm solutions. You can reach out to CETL for department-specific professional development. Also, check out the webinar Department-Level Strategies for Improving Student Retention presented by a current UNC department chair.


Alfano, K. (1993). Recent strategies for faculty development. Community College Review, 21(1), 68–77.

Beal, P. E., & Noel, L. (1980). What works in student retention? Iowa City, IA: The American College Testing Program and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

Fulton, R. W., Noonan, P. E., & Dorris, J. M. (2004). Web-mediated faculty professional development: Improving learning, building community, and assessing outcomes. Retrieved from https://www.league.org/occasional-papers/web-mediated-faculty-professional -development-improving-learning-building

Gansemer-Topf, A., & Schuh, J. (2004). Instruction and academic support expenditures: An investment in retention and graduation. Journal of College Student Retention, 5, 135– 145.

Hanover Research. (2014). Strategies for Improving Student Retention. Retrieved from https://www.hanoverresearch.com/media/Strategies-for-Improving-Student-Retention.pdf

Killion, J. (2000). Online staff development: Promise or peril? NASSP Bulletin, 84(618), 38–46.

Murray, J. P. (2002). The current state of faculty development in two-year colleges. New Directions for Community Colleges, 118, 89–97.

Outcalt, C. L. (2002). Toward a professional community college professoriate. New Directions for Community Colleges, 118, 109–115.

Sherer, P., Shea, P., & Kristensen, E. (2003). Online communities of practice: A catalyst for faculty development. Innovative Higher Education, 27, 183–194.