July 15, 2010

Student Performance and Satisfaction: Online vs. Face to Face

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Many faculty have questions about the relative merits of online courses versus the traditional face-to-face classroom experiences. Researchers also have an interest in the question, and a variety of studies have been conducted with the usual mixed results but overall accumulating evidence that online courses can provide rich learning experiences. But for many faculty, it is still an open and individual question. Many would like to have the opportunity Kathleen Dolan describes.

Dolan simultaneously taught sections of an introduction to American government class face to face and online. She did so for two consecutive semesters and decided this unique opportunity gave her the chance to collect data that would allow her to determine if the mode of instruction influenced student performance and satisfaction. She structured the courses as similarly as possible. Both courses covered the same content. Students in each took three exams and completed the same Web-based writing assignment. They used the same textbook as well.

Despite these similarities, there were some differences between the two courses. Students in the face-to-face course took their own lecture notes. Dolan made a lecture outline available to them, but in the online course, given the script nature of the lectures, students had access to a more complete set of notes. Furthermore, students in the online course were required to participate in an online discussion exchange. They responded to questions and comments made by other students. The number of students in the face-to-face class was significantly larger than the number in the online course, and discussion there was limited to the 10 to 12 students who regularly responded to the teacher’s questions. But beyond the instructor’s inability to control for note taking, discussion, and class size, a survey on which demographic details such as gender, GPA, reason for taking the course, and previous coursework in the area were collected revealed that the only difference between these groups of students was that those enrolled in the online course were a bit older and further along in school.

The average grade for students in the face-to-face course was 77/100 and for those in the online course it was 81/100, or the difference between a C and a B-. Obviously the variables Dolan couldn’t control and the age difference between the groups may account for the different levels in performance. However, Dolan did a regression analysis and the differences in performance levels were maintained. As for satisfaction with the course, as measured by a 14-item evaluation instrument, “there are very few real differences between their evaluations.” (p. 390) On some items the online scores are higher and on other items they are higher in the face-to-face course.

This article is noteworthy as an example of how faculty can do research using their own classes and instructional situations. It does an excellent job of delineating what variables can and cannot be controlled when faculty go about comparing different “treatments” and their influence on learning outcomes. Often teachers cannot control important variables, like class size in this case. That does result in findings that are less definitive, but the value here is not so much adding to what is known about the effects of online versus face-to-face instruction, but what an individual faculty member can learn about his or her own practice. Dolan discovered answers to one set of questions, but her research, like most, raised equally intriguing questions. Now Dolan wonders whether online courses are better in some content areas than in others. Should beginning students be discouraged from taking online courses? Do the convenience and cost savings of online courses substitute for the “real” learning that can take place face to face?

Reference: Dolan, K. (2008). Comparing modes of instruction: The relative efficacy of on-line and in-person teaching for student learning. PS: Political Science and Politics, 41 (2), 387–391.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, April 2009.

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