November 2nd, 2012

Instructor Characteristics That Affect Online Student Success


Which online instructor characteristics help students succeed? It’s a rather basic question that has not been adequately answered. We did a literature search to find if anybody had done any research from the students’ perspective on what constitutes a quality online instructor. There were perhaps 10 articles by professors speculating about what they thought defined quality online instruction, but nobody had asked students.

We decided to pursue this question at our institution, Anne Arundel Community College. We asked students in 27 sections of online psychology courses to answer the following multiple-choice question: How quickly should faculty respond to any student posting (i.e., email, quiz, written assignment, etc.)?

  1. 24 hours
  2. 48 hours
  3. 72 hours
  4. One week

We also asked study participants to name three characteristics of an outstanding online teacher and explain why those characteristics are important. We received 624 responses that yielded the following results:

  • Communication/availability: 66 percent
  • Compassion: 58 percent
  • Organization: 58 percent
  • Feedback: 45 percent
  • Instructor personal information: 18 percent
  • Other (e.g., knowledge, technical competence, creativity): <10 percent

From these findings and the comments from participants, we identified communication/availability and feedback as the two primary characteristics that the students found important in their online courses. Students wanted frequent, timely communication and substantive feedback on their assignments. We received comments such as the following:

  • “We must hear from the instructor within 24 hours!”
  • “I would not think twice about withdrawing if the instructor is not available five days a week.”
  • “The worst thing is waiting for a graded paper.”

It’s helpful to learn what students want from their online instructors, but we also wanted to know how these instructor characteristics affect student success, defined as course completion with the grade of an A, B, or C.

To determine the effect that outstanding online instruction can have on student success, we identified five instructors who

  • responded at least three times daily to all online course emails,
  • graded all papers within 48 hours of submission,
  • offered specific feedback on all written work, and
  • were compassionate to students’ needs.

We compared success rates in 137 online course sections within psychology, history, and sociology for a total of 2,432 students. Success rates at the college in 2008 were 66 percent for traditional courses and 59 percent for online courses. The success rate of students in online courses with outstanding instructors was 82 percent, 16 percent better than in the traditional lecture classroom and 23 percent better than online students overall.

Although not definitive, this study suggests that meeting online students’ needs significantly impacts student success and that students expect a quick response from instructors.

Despite these findings, some online instructors have rebelled rather vigorously against what we have found. They have contended that providing this level of communication and feedback coddles students, asks too much of them as instructors, and violates academic freedom (“Who are you to tell me how to teach my course?”).

We had a subsidiary study that asked faculty how quickly they thought they should be responding to students. It was kind of scary. They thought that a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours is adequate. And despite our study that showed how a long response time affects student success, faculty resisted our recommendations. It was really disappointing, quite frankly.

Ideas for further study
These studies had some methodological flaws. Future research needs to look across disciplines, geographic regions, and demographics and should distinguish among the different types of feedback that instructors provide. For example, I know that several of our outstanding instructors simply copy and paste feedback that they anticipate they will likely provide based on their experience teaching the course. However, they also make sure that they offer personal comments about the assignments, so it’s a blend of formatted and personalized feedback.

Donald Orso and Joan Doolittle are psychology professors at Anne Arundel Community College.

Reprinted from “Instructor Characteristics That Affect Online Student Success.” Online Classroom, (October 2011): 2,7.

  • Pingback: Instructor Characteristics That Affect Online Student Success | Faculty Focus | E-Learning and Online Teaching Today()

  • Pingback: Well-Trained Online Instructors Outpace Their Traditional Counterparts()

  • Laurien Jones

    If online teachers are expected to be on deck 20 hrs a day, awaiting the next student email that comes in, then they should be paid for 20 hours on the job. I guess that spells overtime in a big way. I am a student, and I think this is an unrealistic expectation for the teacher. I feel that with the potential number of students coming your way with an online school, expecting a teacher to answer each and every student email within 24 hours will detract from the education that the professor can give.
    It is important for the teacher to set boundaries too; afterall, they are humans too, with a life outside of work. Professors are also bound by federal and state labor laws that govern their working environment.

    • Online Student

      No one expects online instructors to be available 20 hours a day. They can work 8 hours if hired full time with weekends and holidays off. Most instructors have a limited number of students. At one school, a full time chair for the dissertation has 40 students which is a lot, but the person has 2 days to respond to emails and notes, 5 days for partial papers and up to 14 days for large submissions. The problem is that sometimes the f.t. chair does not adhere to the timelines and students wait weeks to get simple questions answered.

  • Thanks for posting your research! I shared your post with my online faculty.

  • Carol Waters

    Many conditions affect how quickly feedback can be provided. Does it help, do you think, to tell students that they will receive feedback within 3 days or whatever period of time is reasonable/possible considering one's other demands? Is part of the problem failure to make students understand when feedback can be reasonably expected which will depend on lots of things including the length and complexity of the assignment. For instance, we will be grading graduate comprehensive exams starting next week and students know to expect feedback within two weeks, not 48 hours whereas a short assignment can be graded within a shorter time.

  • Faculty have other responsibilities besides teaching: meetings, committees, and so on. These tasks that are outside of teaching and researching on teaching subject can occupy most of a teacher's day. When thinking about faculty responsiveness, we need to look at other tasks that are assigned to faculty outside of instructional that could be affecting quality of instruction and interaction with students.

    Instructors should also share with students in the syllabus the expected response time on emails, calls, etc. Students should know what to expect from an instructor in terms of response time. If the institution is closed due to holiday or weekend, why would an instructor be expected to answer emails at that time? If the institution is open, administratively, from 8 am – 5 pm..then why would faculty be expected to answer emails outside of those hours?

  • Again, faculty need time for grading, planning and developing curriculum, professional development as well as time for interaction with local community and businesses to keep curriculum updated.

    Same concept would apply to office hours. They are usually posted and they become binding after they are posted, so there are many behind the scenes contractual obligations that affect teacher response time. Students should be aware of this.

  • Pingback: Instructor Characteristics That Affect Online Student Success | Faculty Focus | TCDSB21C()

  • Pingback: How to Connect Better with Your Online Students | Global Digital Citizen Foundation()

  • Pingback: Distance Education: Efficiency or Bust | PCC()

  • Pingback: What are the essential characteristics an instructor should have in order to be an effective virtual teacher/online educator? | Dorianne Azzopardi's Blog()