March 27th, 2013

Student Persistence in Online Courses: Understanding the Key Factors


Who should be taking online courses? Are online courses equally appropriate for all students? Can any content be taught in an online format or do some kinds of material lend themselves to mastery in an electronic environment? Who should be teaching these courses? These are all good questions that institutions offering online courses — and instructors teaching them — should consider.

Most of these questions are being answered in stages by research inquiries that address smaller issues related to these larger questions. For example, Carolyn Hart has completed an integrative review of the research literature in the hopes of identifying those factors that positively affect a student’s persistence in an online course. Do we know what differentiates students who complete online courses from those who drop out?

Her review is based on 20 studies published since 1999. She found that researchers used a wide range of definitions for persistence. She opted for this straightforward description: persistence is “the ability to complete an online course despite obstacles or adverse circumstances.” (p. 30) The opposite of persistence is attrition, which she defined as “withdrawal from an online course.” (p. 30) Based on her review, she identified the following factors as being related to student persistence in online courses.

Satisfaction with online learning – Not surprising, students who are satisfied with online courses and programs persist. In one study, students who had graduated from an online program reported satisfaction levels above 90%, those enrolled in a program reported 70% satisfaction levels, and those just beginning indicated a 58% satisfaction level. Those percentages compared with 20% satisfaction levels reported by those who withdrew from courses. (p. 34)

A sense of belonging to a learning community – Students who are comfortable establishing relationships in an online environment tend to persist at higher rates. These are students who can successfully participate in online discussions and work with others they do not know or have not met. The feeling of “camaraderie” among students within the class contributes to persistence.
Motivation – Highly motivated students complete online courses. “Personal resolve and determination to succeed strongly contributes to persistence.” (p. 34)

Peer and family support – Those learning in online environments more often successfully complete courses if they have peer and family support. The emotional support provided by peers, family, and sometimes even faculty, is especially important when students are trying to complete online courses at the same time they are coping with hardships or juggling competing demands.

Time management skills – “Students with good study habits, [who have] the ability to stay on task with assignments and readings, and [who] are able to successfully manage time are more apt to persist when compared to non-persisters.” (p. 31)

Increased communication with the instructor – “Qualitative findings indicate that in addition to promptness, the quality of feedback, and the willingness of faculty to meet student needs are viewed as important to student persistence.” (p. 33-4)

Some of these factors for success in the online classroom are not unexpected. It makes sense that students are more likely to complete a course when they are happy with how the course is going and self-motivated enough to see it through. Others factors implicate how online courses should be taught and to some degree who should teach them. Online courses need to be designed so that students have opportunities to connect and work with each other. They should be taught by teachers who understand the importance of communication with students and who willingly interact with them throughout the course.

The research findings also give an indication of who should be taking online courses. If the student is one of those not particularly well prepared for college-level work and not an especially motivated beginning student, online courses early in the college experience may not be advised.

Online courses can be designed so that they work well for many students and with most content. And most teachers can learn how to teach online. But those courses, like any kind of instruction, don’t work well automatically, which means the questions of who takes, who teaches, and what content is most appropriate should influence our decision-making.

Reference: Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11 (1), 19-42.

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  • Cynthia Johnson

    Very interesting points made. Supports some of what we've been deducing about the why's and why not's of vibrant online discussions in a study conducting in our own graduate online courses. The points are worthy of consideration as online education providers chart the way forward.

  • Thanks for this

    We tend to look at things as either/or and strongly perpetuate the traditional educational paradigm of one size fits all (but really doesn't fit anyone) in opposition to the research on how individuals learn, long term (we continue to jam a square peg in a round hole hoping for bettered results)

    Such as, certain students can succeed learning online and certain students can't

    IMHO we should be looking at research proven pedagogy then integrating that pedagogy into course design and delivery to ensure that each participant has the best chance of learning, transfer and application of must know information, resulting in sustained individual performance improvement

    We continue to strongly resist the proven research that coached, truly personalized adaptive learning and reinforcement ensures the most effective and efficient individual path to learning and performance improvement for all students (at risk, traditional, gifted)

    Unfortunately we continue to look for an hope to find quick fixes, rapid learning, motivational blame, whatever.

    There is a defined individual path to individual mastery and fluency that is different for each learner. Instead of acknowledging that its our traditional teaching approach that is the problem and revising our approach, we continue to blame others including our students and chalk it off that only the strong survive

    As copious data tells us our traditional one to many teaching approach has not worked, is not working, and will not work.

    We need to quit looking for a quick fix and understand that deep learning, transfer and application that results in sustained performance improvement is not fun, its not a game, is not easy, is not defined by I liked this and there are no shortcuts

    Until we understand deep learning and how individuals learn difficult information long term, we will continue to chase rainbows hoping to find the pot of gold, at the expense of our students and society in general

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