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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

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