The Impact of a Cohort Model for Online Doctoral Student Retention and Success

The Impact of a Cohort Model for Online Doctoral Student Retention and Success

Debra Hoven (Athabasca University, Canada), Rima Al Tawil (Athabasca University, Canada), Kathryn Johnson (Athabasca University, Canada), Nikki Pawlitschek (Athabasca University, Canada) and Dan Wilton (Athabasca University, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-5074-8.ch006


Two critical decisions were made in the design of Canada's first fully online doctoral program discussed in this chapter: to create a professional Doctorate in Education rather than a PhD and to enroll students as cohorts each year. The first decision was based on the contemporary need within the field of online higher education for discipline specialists to have a solid background in online education principles and practice. The second decision was made on the basis of literature around benefits for graduate students. However, little sustained research has been carried out on what specific benefits may accrue for doctoral students participating in a cohort-based program in an online environment. This chapter presents and discusses the outcomes of two research studies on a cohort model, to provide insights into some of the personal and other factors identified as early warning indicators of student difficulties and how and when they arise.
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Increasing concern has been voiced over the years, in an expanding body of literature, about problems in doctoral programs relating to persistence and retention. Although standard measures of completion have only recently begun to be developed (Allum, Kent, & McCarthy, 2014), a broad study of U.S. and Canadian universities by the Council of Graduate Schools (2008) found a cross-discipline doctoral completion rate of 56.6% after 10 years, with a similar estimate of 50% reported for European schools (Cuthbert & Molla, 2015). The issue of persistence is of particular concern in online programs (Ivankova & Stick, 2007), where estimates have suggested attrition rates may be 10% to 20% higher than in residential programs (Terrell, Snyder, Dringus, & Maddrey, 2012).

Several studies have explored some of the reasons for this lack of persistence (Hart, 2012). Some of the generic (online and traditional) factors include poor supervision (Connell, 1985; DeClou, 2016; Fiore, 2018; Lee, 2008), lack of support structures and processes for both staff and students (Lake, Koper, Balayan, & Lynch, 2018; Malfroy, 2005), student isolation during the conduct of research projects (Berry, 2017; Denicolo, 2004; Knight & Zuber-Skerritt, 1986; Walker, Golde, Jones, Conklin Bueschel, & Hutchings, 2008), and inadequate preparation of students for the process of writing their dissertations (Kamler & Thomson, 2004; Krathwohl & Smith, 2005; Walker et al., 2008). As a result of these and other problems, a concomitant increase is being reported in the number of doctoral candidates either not completing their dissertations or dropping out of programs prior to commencement of, or early into their research projects (DeClou, 2016; Duckett, 2014; Fiore, 2018; Johnson, 2015).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Persistence: The description of successful academic progress in the doctoral program. This term is used interchangeably with retention, though persistence is usually more from the student perspective, while retention is used more from an institutional perspective.

Supervisor: The faculty member who oversees a doctoral student’s dissertation research project: principal advisor.

Orientation: The in-person week-long seminar required for each new cohort.

EdD: Professional doctorate degree aimed at mid-career professionals.

Cohort: A group of students who begin an educational program together and take courses in a prescribed order together.

Self-Study: A research methodology where a group of participant-researchers critically examine their own practices.

Completion: Graduation from the academic program.

Retention: The description of successful academic progress in the doctoral program. This term is often used interchangeably with persistence (see above).

Stop-Out: A student that leaves the program for any reason, but with the intention of returning in the future.

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