5 Visual Design Strategies that Promote Student Retention

In light of our focus on retention, we wanted to provide practical tips you can apply to the course building process and the visual design aspect of it.

Maintaining student retention can be challenging, and no one factor determines whether students complete or leave an online program. Even when identifiable, these factors might be beyond your control. As an online instructor, your best bet at combating attrition problems begins with your individual courses. Several aspects of course design can affect retention; however, one of the most overlooked is visual design. Looks matter. In fact, in e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, Richard Mayer and Ruth Clark have reported an average learning increase of 89% in courses that added relevant visuals to text. With this in mind, consider the five design strategies listed below that can help capture students’ eyes and interest throughout your course.

mosaic tile on stairs

via Wyoming_Jackrabbit on Flickr

Consistency, Consistency, Consistency

Part of establishing course expectations is giving students a reliable layout. Whether you organize your modules according to weeks or chapters, consistency is crucial. For instance, if you begin module one with learning objectives, then a lecture with reading assignments, followed by a discussion post and quiz, you should try to mirror this procession in subsequent modules. That’s not to say the entire course has to be absolutely uniform. Minor variation will keep the course from being too repetitious. Just remember that online learning is primarily visual, and the human brain learns best by sensing familiarities in patterns.

Cut the Clutter

A rule of thumb: apply visual additives judiciously. Every visual should serve a specific purpose and align with your objectives. If you muddle up your pages with too many graphics, videos, links, and other visual artifacts, you’ll distract students from core content. As graphic designers say, ‘less is more.’ Utilize negative space to your advantage, and it’ll keep students focused on what really counts.

Use Graphics Meaningfully

Before uploading graphics, consider the size, color, frequency of use, and purpose for posting. Peppering every page with dissimilar, oversized, fluorescent banners may promote your course as tacky and unprofessional; instead, keep the course’s palate modest and your graphical choices focused. Graphics should act as street signs that compliment content and guide students in the right direction, so keep your graphical layout sleek and minimal.

Make Multimedia Memorable

Most learning management systems are loaded with an awesome array of multimedia options. But just because you can doesn’t always mean you should. For example, you don’t no need to post a lecture of yourself covering material already exhausted in that week’s reading assignment. Make media memorable by ensuring that it clarifies, extends, or reinforces concepts.

Don’t Forget the Fonts

Use at most three font styles—header, body, and emphasis. Headers communicate a shift in ongoing subject matter or the beginning of a new topic. Body style indicates the ‘meat’ portion of the content, and emphasis styles (bold, italic, underline) highlight key concepts within the body and to imply tone.

Tip: Some instructors apply color to emphasize text. If you do, pick a single color and use it sparingly. Also, choose a bold color so students with visual impairments can identify the color variations. Again, exercise consistency in font size, context, and style to keep students on track.

Additional Resources

For more information that expand upon these visual design concepts, check out the following posts:

Your Turn! What visual design strategies could you add to this list? Has your keen eye for design helped with retention? Tell us about your experiences.

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