May 6th, 2016

Ensuring Student Success in Online Courses

By:

online student

Students like online classes due to their flexibility and convenience. But not all students do well in these courses; the statistics indicate that online classes have a much higher dropout rate compared to traditional face-to-face classes. The attrition rates in online courses tend to be 10 to 20 percent higher than in face-to-face classes. While there are some personal factors that could influence a student’s decision to drop out, many of the factors are related to institutional and course level support—and these barriers can be addressed with thoughtful planning and implementation. Institutional level factors like technical support, academic support, advising, and availability of resources can support student success in online courses. At the course level, there are many simple strategies and techniques that instructors can use to support students’ success in their online classes.

Course organization and layout
Many students drop out of online courses because they feel overwhelmed and sometimes frustrated with the amount of information presented to them and the way it is presented. Learners can experience “cognitive overload” if the information presented to them is not logically organized and the course design is not easy to follow. In such cases, learners will end up spending a lot of mental energy just trying to figure out how the course is organized and how to find information, and may end up feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. The design and layout of the course can minimize this frustration and help students focus on the content rather than on navigation issues.

  • Provide a simple and consistent layout and navigation for the course. Use the same layout for each module (for example, overview, objectives, readings, viewings, assignments etc.; differentiate between required and recommended reading), as too much variation could overwhelm students.
  • For variety, present some information via the visual channel and some information via the verbal channel.
  • Explain and show the structure and layout of the course by making a “course tour” video.

Clearly communicate expectations
Many students report feeling lost and confused in online learning environments. Due to lack of face-to-face contact, sometimes students are unclear on the expectations or need reassurance that they understand the expectations.

  • Instructors need to provide detailed and very explicit instructions about the course format, assignments, expectations, grading criteria, etc.
  • Provide a “Frequently Asked Questions” section with a list of questions that students may have about the course.
  • Provide rubrics and sample assignments. Creating a short video tutorial explaining the rubric and assignment would give students a very concrete idea of the expectations.
  • A quiz tool can be utilized to ensure comprehension of course responsibilities as outlined in the syllabus. Students are allowed multiple attempts to take the quiz under low pressure, which ensures confidence when utilizing the quiz tool function.

Prepare students
Many times students enroll in online courses without a realistic understanding of what it takes to be a successful learner in an online environment. Online learning environments are better suited for students who are self-disciplined, motivated, and know how to manage their time. An orientation to online learning and tips on how to succeed in online courses can better prepare students for online courses.

The student orientation should include discussions of:

  • Technical skills
  • Understanding of online/hybrid learning environments
  • Study skills
  • Workload management
  • Communication
  • Resources, including technical help and other campus resources
  • Welcoming and personal introductory video of the instructor in a nonacademic role
  • A library of resources on issues affecting online instruction, such as time management, computer accessibility, willingness to reach out with questions, etc.

Chunk the content and scaffold instruction
Sometimes the workload and reading requirements in online courses may seem daunting to students, especially if they don’t have very good time management and prioritization skills. Chunking and organizing the content meaningfully into modules/units not only makes it easy for students to understand and remember the concepts but also makes it more manageable for them. By doing this, the instructor can present complex concepts/ideas as “bite-size information” so students can understand, apply, and retain the information. By incorporating assessments and feedback with every learning module, instructors have the opportunity to scaffold students’ learning.

  • Divide big assignments or projects into smaller milestones to help students manage the workload, and provide feedback at each step.
  • Provide review sessions or instructional videos where you notice gaps in learning to clarify concepts.

Humanize the course
Students report that one of the main reasons they drop out of online courses or programs is because they feel lonely and isolated. Learning is a social activity; we learn through interactions and discussions with others. In the absence of face-to-face contact, online learning can be an isolating experience if there are no opportunities to interact with others in the course. Humanize the online experience through personal interactions and stories and add the human touch to it.

  • Set a warm, welcoming tone right in the beginning of the course to connect with students
  • Do ice-breaking activities to create a community of learners; ask students to share personal profiles, bios, stories, and other examples of personal information
  • Offer a “live” orientation session through Skype or any other Web conferencing tool so students have the opportunity to interact with the instructor in real time
  • Provide a discussion forum for non-course-related social interactions
  • Encourage peer-to-peer support
  • Incorporate group work
  • Provide a personal response to students on their personal profile
  • Encourage students to contact you when commenting on their assignments or discussion postings; a simple “as always, contact me with any questions” assists with comfort when seeking additional information

These simple strategies will help students succeed in your courses.

Dr. Poonam Kumar is the director of online/hybrid learning and Marilyn Skrocki is an associate professor of health sciences at Saginaw Valley State University.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 15.5 (2015): 3, 4, 8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.


  • Dr. Solis

    Excellent advice presented here. I’ve been teaching (in various capacities) for 16 years now with 11 of those years in fully online learning environments. With regards to dropout rates in online courses, you bring up a valid point that there are many factors that contribute to one’s decision to leave the course. I will also add, at least from my experience at both undergraduate and graduate-levels, that students often don’t understand that online courses require greater responsibility/ownership for their own learning. Yes……..it is imperative that the instructor creates a learning environment that is engaging and guides students to achieving specific learning outcomes/objectives. However, it is the students that must step up and control their own learning. We instructors can’t learn for them. The reality is that some students really need to be in the traditional physical classroom while others that are highly independent and self-motivated learners typically thrive in fully online environments. Unfortunately, many students who enroll in fully online courses perceive these as “easy” courses when well-designed online courses are quite the opposite. Thanks for sharing this information.