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What We Can Learn from Unsuccessful Online Students

There are many studies that look at how online students differ from those in face-to-face classes in terms of performance, satisfaction, engagement, and other factors. It is well-known that online course completion rates tend to be lower than those for traditional classes. But relatively little is known about what the unsuccessful online student has to say about his or her own experience and how they would improve online learning. Yet these insights can be vital for distance educators.

Christy Hawkins is director of continuing and professional education at Thomas Nelson Community College. As part of her dissertation research, she conducted a pilot study of students ranging in age from 20-49 who had withdrawn from an online course. Most of these students had previously attempted multiple online courses, and about half were unsuccessful in all of their previous online attempts. This qualitative study sought student perspectives about their online courses, with results that fell into three main areas: course issues, student issues, and suggested improvements.

Course issues

Course issues ran the gamut from issues that could appear in any course delivery modality to ones that were unique to the online format. For example, some students mentioned that the course was not engaging, admitting that they took the course to satisfy a requirement but felt the content was boring. Clearly, this type of mismatch of content with interest level could occur with a traditional course as well. Additionally, some students expressed a desire for faculty members with more expertise in the subject area to assist when the students were uncertain of the material.

However, most of the responses surrounded aspects of the online delivery format.

One student knew that she was an auditory learner and was distressed to discover that the course had no auditory components. Some students disliked the discussion format, reflecting on the poor quality of responses from other students or feeling that too many responses were required each week. At least one respondent was unhappy with the amount of sharing of personal information required in the online format, which this person would not voluntarily have done in a classroom setting.

Still other issues were specific to the online format and may point out some of the limitations of the way the course is delivered. Hawkins found “some desire for a self-paced course,” and she also found a number of technical issues, like lost assignments or difficulty of downloading required software.

Student issues

Student issues divided down into time management concerns and lack of skills required to succeed online. Regarding time management, some students reported a “failure to log on and do the work,” Hawkins says. This was sometimes due to work and family constraints, and sometimes due to a priority placed on face-to-face courses.

The work and family issue is interesting because sometimes students will opt for an online class because they know they do not have time to commit to face-to-face meeting each week. However, the same issues that make traveling to class inconvenient will certainly make it difficult to give online study the necessary focus.

Interestingly, students also admitted to prioritizing face-to-face classes for a number of reasons. One student said, “I prioritize my brick-and-mortar classes over the online class…because I have to see the teacher’s face.” At least one student reported prioritizing face-to-face classes in a way that was strategic and which might arguably have been a good decision for that person. That student reported, “I made a choice to keep my other classes that required less reading and withdrew from the online course so I could take it when I could be successful.”

Additionally, some students simply did not have the skills needed to learn in an online setting. Most online classes require a great deal of reading comprehension ability, and some students need more instructor assistance to help them solve problems or to explain the material in a different way than the reading does.

Nine more ways to improve online student retention

In the course of her research, Hawkins also uncovered several ideas for how faculty and administrators can help students be more successful in online classes. These ideas include:

  1. “Faculty need to go above and beyond to demonstrate their expertise,” Hawkins says. Faculty should use all the tools available to them online to be sure that students are able to be as confident in their instructor online as they would be in the traditional classroom.
  2. Avoid making all the assignments reading. An online course that is simply written material placed online can be a boring one, and it can be difficult for students who do not have great reading comprehension skills. Video snippets, chats with the instructor, and other ways to convey information can break up the tedium. “My teacher took the time to record little videos of his lectures, which really helped to engage me,” one student reported.
  3. Let students know if supplemental opportunities are available. Some instructors may wish to schedule time for synchronous online chats or face-to-face meetings. Let the students know this at registration time so those who know they need more interaction with the instructor can opt into those sections of the course.
  4. “Be understanding when things happen,” says Hawkins. Students will have family and work issues crop up and, within the bounds of institutional and course policy, it helps for an instructor to be understanding of these issues and help students work through them.
  5. Provide good academic advising to the students. For example, Hawkins suggests students not take the hardest course in their discipline or program as their first online endeavor, so they are not struggling with learning how to study online while they confront challenging material.
  6. Counsel students about technology. Hawkins notes that students studying online really need to have a computer at home or at the office that they can access on a daily basis in order to succeed in an online course. Depending on a library computer or the internet will not be sufficient.
  7. Encourage or require students to complete an assessment to see if online learning is right for them before enrolling in an online section of the class.
  8. Offer special computer lab hours staffed by online instructors who can help students learn to navigate and use the LMS in their online course.
  9. Offer special sections of orientation courses (like University 101) for online students.

Reprinted from Distance Education Report, 17.11 (2013): 4,6. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

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