Student retention in times of crisis

by Steve Tulk in Blog

Student retention in times of crisis

The need for language schools to maintain student numbers is very real.  In this blogpost, we look at why it is more important than ever to consider how students make the decision to either re-enroll or stop studying.  We’ll be looking at classic thinking around buyer behaviour and customer retention, and adapting it to language schools in the ‘new normal’.  Towards the end, we will look at a framework, bringing all of this ‘thinking’ together with a practical solution.

In this weird shutdown world, I spend my days checking in with ELT colleagues at language schools to see how they are doing.  From what I hear, online teaching is going well for most people, and the majority of schools have started to settle into a routine and have found their rhythm. 

But – and it’s a big but – student numbers aren’t what they used to be.  Finding new students for online courses is undeniably hard and sometimes feels impossible.  So it goes without saying that we can’t afford to lose the students that we already have.

With this in mind, I have one thing to say – it’s time we talked about student retention.

Retention = education.

Retention is different from loyalty.  Loyalty is a supermarket having a points card to make you go back the next time you need milk.  This is not retention.  Retention isn’t about being the first choice for the NEXT time a student wants a class.  It’s about keeping our student in class NOW – making sure they re-enroll, and making sure they don’t go elsewhere. 

Retention brings us stability.  When a school is good at retention, they are automatically more financially secure than one that leaves it to chance.  Greater financial security means improved job security for all.  But in these trying times it may simply mean survival.

Luckily, retention is all about education – and we are good at education, right?  It’s about educating the student to understand the value of staying in class (and why that class should be YOUR class). 

But before we look at convincing them to stay, let’s think of their alternatives to re-enrolling.

What about the competition?

Most of us think of our competition as the language school down the road.  That may be the case when we are looking for new students, but it’s less important for student retention.  I’ll tell you why.  Familiarity.  The student who has decided to continue working on their English is more likely to stay with the school they are currently studying at because of familiarity.  Not only do they know the routine, love their teacher and get along with their classmates, but they’ve also bought the book (and we should see this as a sign of commitment).  The class schedule has become part of their daily schedule. 

Why go elsewhere and start with a new teacher, new times, new classmates and a new book?  Generally, students don’t change schools – they stop altogether.

So if the other schools in town aren’t the competition, who is?  Your competition is those people that good old marketing stalwart Philip Kotler calls our ‘dollar competitors’ – simply put, it’s all those other businesses that want your student’s money.

Yet sadly, many of those ‘dollar competitors’ are pretty much closed down for the foreseeable future.  The gyms, yoga classes, photography courses and most other ‘self-improvement’ alternatives have all either closed or have moved to a free-access online model.  Beyond this, the restaurants, bars and nightclubs have all pulled down the shutters; nobody is buying new clothes or getting haircuts; and weekend breaks are a thing of the past – or at best the very distant future. 

So, in other words, our ELT competitors are unlikely to win our current students from us; our non-ELT ‘personal development’ competitors have almost gone away; and on top of this, our students have less options and more free time on their hands - and they have all read an Instagram post telling them that ‘self-improvement is the key to staying sane’.

Students still need convincing, however.  They need to be educated that continuing their language course, extending their stay in class, and not ‘taking a break’ is the right thing for them at the moment.  Bring on our influencers!

People of influence.

To buy or not to buy – that is the eternal question.  A lot of time has been spent studying and analyzing how humans behave when faced with a buying decision. 

Mr Kotler (and many other marketing gurus) will tell you how important other people’s opinions are. ‘People of influence’ play an important role in any buying decision.  We’ve all bought something simply because someone told us it was the right thing to buy. 

But who are these influential people?  In the case of the student currently sitting in our online classroom, we don’t need to look too far.  The person most likely to influence their decision to re-enroll is their teacher.  Teachers hold more influence over a student’s choice to re-enroll than anyone else.

This can be problematic.

Not in my classroom.

When I was a teacher, I was asked by my academic manager to sell copies of a local English-language newspaper in class.  Selling?  Collecting money?  I wasn’t the only teacher to say “not in my classroom!”

Many of my ELT teaching colleagues don’t look at their school as a commercial venture, and students as ‘consumers’.  We’ve heard it said– “we are schools, not shops. We are teachers, not salespeople.”

Without a doubt, there can be resistance from academic staff – who are very busy with their teaching responsibilities - to accept a role in the marketing of the school.

Scullion and Molesworth looked at the education sector in 2016 and found that schools were getting better at seeing themselves as consumer-led organisations.  They saw conversations around consumerism becoming increasingly commonplace.  This was shown in the day-to-day routines and practices of the schools, such as student satisfaction surveys, the collection of marketing data, discussions about ‘the student experience’, and the promotion of optional extras in class.

But they also reported continued resistance from academic staff to playing an extended role in any commercial initiatives.  But that was back in 2016.  2020 has brought an unprecedented situation that is putting schools and job security at risk.


We’re all in this together.

In this new reality, teachers understand the need to retain students, and are more willing to play a greater role in ensuring retention.  But there is still a need for buy-in.  People are always more likely to implement something if they have been involved in its design.  I suggest meeting online as a whole school to discuss student retention – listen to each other, share feedback, find the answers together, and most importantly, make a plan.  Involve, don’t enforce.  Now more than ever, it is important for everyone to be heard and for everyone to feel they are helping the school – and themselves – to survive.

Practically speaking.

The big question that remains unanswered is – what can we do?

We need to focus on the GDP.

No, not that GDP, this one:

  • Goals
  • Dreams
  • Progress

Goals – Make sure that your teacher knows exactly what the students in their class want to achieve academically.  Is their goal to achieve a 6.5 at IELTS?  Maybe they need a B1 certificate for a work visa. It could be that they want to be a better writer.  Everyone joined the course for a reason.  With student counsellors and front-desk teams taking a back seat, it is more important than ever that the teacher knows what the student is looking to get out of their class.

Dreams – What does the student want to achieve in their life that is beyond the end of this course?  Work in fashion?  Study at a top university?  Become a lawyer?  Again, this is basic information that the teacher needs to know.  Class activities can easily retrieve this information for us – but it needs to be noted somewhere.

Progress – Finally we bring it all together.  Students don’t need to feel that they are doing well – they need to KNOW that they are doing well.  It’s not enough to say ‘you’re improving’.  The student needs tangible proof of what they have achieved.  Progress tests will help here, as will can-do statements and reflective journals.  I find that taking a moment in class for students to list the things they can do now that they couldn’t do a week ago works wonders. 

The GDP meeting.

Give your teachers time to hold regular one-to-one ‘GDP’ sessions with all students.  With fewer students at the moment, this is maybe a luxury we can afford.  The teacher should remind the student of why they are in class (their goals) and how their work is moving them towards the realization of their dreams, and then share with them how they have moved closer to achieving both (their progress). 

At the end of the session, the student and teacher should agree an action plan.  The plan should focus on the achievement of the goals, the attainment of the dreams and build on the progress so far.  The plan should involve staying in class.  The plan should involve re-enrolling.  The plan should be written down and shared with the student – or better still, the student should write the plan down and share it with the teacher.

Retention is possible.

By reminding the student of why they are in class (goals, dreams) and how well they have done so far (progress) the student will hopefully be motivated to continue and they will be more inclined to extend their course.

Their teacher has the key relationship with the student – and we know that relationship building is the most important factor in education.  So the fact that it is their teacher telling them to “keep going, you can do it” will reinforce that this is the right thing and strengthen their decision.

And of course, the quality of your teaching, the engaging nature of your lessons and the books, courses and materials you choose will no doubt do the rest.


Kotler, P. et al, (2011) Principles of Marketing.  Pearson

Scullion, R. and Molesworth, M. (2016) Normalisation of and resistance to consumer behavior in education.  Journal of Marketing for Higher Education Vol 26, Issue 2

About the author

Steve Tulk is the Macmillan ELT consultant for London, the Midlands, Northern England, Scotland and Wales.  Looking for a change from his career in marketing, Steve became an ELT teacher and has taught for many years - in Europe, the Middle East and in the UK.  He is an experienced teacher trainer and has also held academic management and school management positions in the UK and overseas. 

Steve’s particular areas of interest within the ELT classroom are the need to place a greater emphasis on meaningful communication practice, and increasing the representation of international accents in our class materials.  Outside of the classroom, Steve’s interest lies in how the ELT sector can develop stronger marketing and commercial skills.

Recently awarded a Fellowship by the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (the RSA), Steve enjoys the networking opportunities that this brings.  He is a firm believer that, whilst the level of knowledge and experience in our industry is outstanding, the answers to our questions don’t always come exclusively from within the ELT world.

by Steve Tulk in Blog