November 14th, 2014

What We Can Learn from Unsuccessful Online Students

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There are many studies that look at how online students differ from those in face-to-face classes in terms of performance, satisfaction, engagement, and other factors. It is well-known that online course completion rates tend to be lower than those for traditional classes. But relatively little is known about what the unsuccessful online student has to say about his or her own experience and how they would improve online learning. Yet these insights can be vital for distance educators.

Christy Hawkins is director of continuing and professional education at Thomas Nelson Community College. As part of her dissertation research, she conducted a pilot study of students ranging in age from 20-49 who had withdrawn from an online course. Most of these students had previously attempted multiple online courses, and about half were unsuccessful in all of their previous online attempts. This qualitative study sought student perspectives about their online courses, with results that fell into three main areas: course issues, student issues, and suggested improvements.

Course issues

Course issues ran the gamut from issues that could appear in any course delivery modality to ones that were unique to the online format. For example, some students mentioned that the course was not engaging, admitting that they took the course to satisfy a requirement but felt the content was boring. Clearly, this type of mismatch of content with interest level could occur with a traditional course as well. Additionally, some students expressed a desire for faculty members with more expertise in the subject area to assist when the students were uncertain of the material.

However, most of the responses surrounded aspects of the online delivery format.

One student knew that she was an auditory learner and was distressed to discover that the course had no auditory components. Some students disliked the discussion format, reflecting on the poor quality of responses from other students or feeling that too many responses were required each week. At least one respondent was unhappy with the amount of sharing of personal information required in the online format, which this person would not voluntarily have done in a classroom setting.

Still other issues were specific to the online format and may point out some of the limitations of the way the course is delivered. Hawkins found “some desire for a self-paced course,” and she also found a number of technical issues, like lost assignments or difficulty of downloading required software.

Student issues

Student issues divided down into time management concerns and lack of skills required to succeed online. Regarding time management, some students reported a “failure to log on and do the work,” Hawkins says. This was sometimes due to work and family constraints, and sometimes due to a priority placed on face-to-face courses.

The work and family issue is interesting because sometimes students will opt for an online class because they know they do not have time to commit to face-to-face meeting each week. However, the same issues that make traveling to class inconvenient will certainly make it difficult to give online study the necessary focus.

Interestingly, students also admitted to prioritizing face-to-face classes for a number of reasons. One student said, “I prioritize my brick-and-mortar classes over the online class…because I have to see the teacher’s face.” At least one student reported prioritizing face-to-face classes in a way that was strategic and which might arguably have been a good decision for that person. That student reported, “I made a choice to keep my other classes that required less reading and withdrew from the online course so I could take it when I could be successful.”

Additionally, some students simply did not have the skills needed to learn in an online setting. Most online classes require a great deal of reading comprehension ability, and some students need more instructor assistance to help them solve problems or to explain the material in a different way than the reading does.

Nine more ways to improve online student retention

In the course of her research, Hawkins also uncovered several ideas for how faculty and administrators can help students be more successful in online classes. These ideas include:

  1. “Faculty need to go above and beyond to demonstrate their expertise,” Hawkins says. Faculty should use all the tools available to them online to be sure that students are able to be as confident in their instructor online as they would be in the traditional classroom.
  2. Avoid making all the assignments reading. An online course that is simply written material placed online can be a boring one, and it can be difficult for students who do not have great reading comprehension skills. Video snippets, chats with the instructor, and other ways to convey information can break up the tedium. “My teacher took the time to record little videos of his lectures, which really helped to engage me,” one student reported.
  3. Let students know if supplemental opportunities are available. Some instructors may wish to schedule time for synchronous online chats or face-to-face meetings. Let the students know this at registration time so those who know they need more interaction with the instructor can opt into those sections of the course.
  4. “Be understanding when things happen,” says Hawkins. Students will have family and work issues crop up and, within the bounds of institutional and course policy, it helps for an instructor to be understanding of these issues and help students work through them.
  5. Provide good academic advising to the students. For example, Hawkins suggests students not take the hardest course in their discipline or program as their first online endeavor, so they are not struggling with learning how to study online while they confront challenging material.
  6. Counsel students about technology. Hawkins notes that students studying online really need to have a computer at home or at the office that they can access on a daily basis in order to succeed in an online course. Depending on a library computer or the internet will not be sufficient.
  7. Encourage or require students to complete an assessment to see if online learning is right for them before enrolling in an online section of the class.
  8. Offer special computer lab hours staffed by online instructors who can help students learn to navigate and use the LMS in their online course.
  9. Offer special sections of orientation courses (like University 101) for online students.

Reprinted from Distance Education Report, 17.11 (2013): 4,6. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.


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  • This was an excellent read and current topic for discussion in higher education. A few thoughts come to mind.

    –One thing many students don’t do prior to enrolling in online courses or programs is to assess whether or not their own learning style and modality preferences is ideal for the online learning environment. Most adult learners, especially those at the graduate level, find the ‘convenience’ and ‘flexibility’ elements appealing because they can maintain their work and family obligations. These attributes are great in theory, but making the decision to pursue online learning based only on these two elements can result in several occurrences such as dropping out of online courses. Institutions, and some already do this, need to implement an assessment tool/system where students can assess their own learning to decide if online learning is for them. I realize this can be difficult in times with institutions are trying to increase enrollment numbers. However, not every learner will be successful in online learning environments. As research has shown for years, high self-motivated/direct independent learners tend to well in online courses. On the other hand, we have learners who are more dependent and need that authoritative figure facilitating what needs to occur in the learning process. This is not a negative thing, but simply a characteristic of how some individuals learn. If you need ‘hand holding’ in the classroom, may be better off in face-to-face (possibly blended) learning environments.

    –Regarding the “Course issues” section. Ill designed online courses will typically result in disengaged learning. As educators, we cannot immediately point to the fact that these challenges occurred because it was an online course. The fact of the matter is that the online space is a different learning environment. The design of your assessments (i.e. assignments, tests, activities, etc.) that may be effective in the face-to-face setting does not imply the same effectiveness in the online environment. So we have to take a step back and take a more global view of the course/assessment design and process that took place. You have to, for example, rely more on the technology in online learning environments than you might in a face-to-face context. If you are simply attempting to just replicate your instruction from your face-to-face course to the online environment, this will not work.

    –Regarding the “Student issues” section. The reality is that students have increased ownership for their learning. Students don’t have the instructor physically present telling them what needs to be done. Assuming proper/effective communication is in place by the instructor, students have to motivate themselves, and ask questions when they have problems/concerns, to complete tasks in a timely manner. Students have to dedicate just as much time, if not more, to their online courses as they do for their face-to-face courses. Well-designed online courses are not easier, as some students perceive them to be, than well-designed face-to-face courses in terms of rigor and learning outcomes. Had an assessment been in place to help student determine if the online learning environment will be ideal for their own learning, we may see decreased course drop rates. If students don’t have the skills, both learning and technology, to be successful in online environments, they may be better suited in traditional face-to-face courses instead.

    –The 9 items for improving online student retention are great. I would also add that having varying types of learning activities should be part of a course’s design. Only having tests and discussion boards in an online course won’t cut it. Take advantage of what the technologies have to offer to engage learners with the content. For example, updated learning management systems give students the capability of recording video/audio through their web cameras. Enhance online discussion by giving students the option to record responses rather than only having to type text. In another example, design assignments or projects that requires collaborative planning tasks with their peers (i.e. Google Documents, planning with online brainstorming/flowchart tools, social bookmarking, research, etc.).

    This is just some food for thought. Great article.

    • willett2012

      Thank you for this thoughtful reply to an excellent article. You filled in some really important fixes to the problem.

  • Guest

    Attention to learner needs and challenges in the online learning environment has not kept pace with increased enrollment in online courses. Similarly, many faculty develop online courses and/or teach online without appropriate training and understanding of the online environment. The article does an excellent job of pointing out several key issues resulting from these disparities.

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