Research: Online learning part 2

In my last post, I shared the research that discussed student achievement with computer assisted online courses and teacher lead online courses.  This post will focus on research done within online courses and what causes students to complete online courses.

One area of research that continues to emerge is what causes students to be successful in online courses.  It is estimated that attrition rates in online courses are between 20% and 50% and that course completion rates in online courses are 10% to 20% lower than traditional courses (Hernandez, 2008; Lamkins, 2004).  Reasons for dropping out of courses have generally focused on two areas:  individual characteristics (demographics, family and peer support) and institutional characteristics (course design, course interactivity, and timeliness of instructor responses).

Kember (1989) developed a model of factors that caused students to to drop out of an online course.  These factors included individual and home, extrinsic or intrinsic goal attainment, academic environment, social and work integration, and cost/benefit analysis.  Porta-Merida (2009) utilized Kember’s model and surveyed 877 full time online college students to determine student retention in the online program.  She found that students who remained in the online program scored high on social integration (having support from peers and family) and had an average previous GPA of 3.1, which was higher than students who dropped out of the online college courses (Porta-Merida, 2009).  Other researchers have categorized the barriers to online course completion which included: (a) situational or the individual’s social, economic or personal environment, (b) institutional or having to do with the institution’s program, policies or procedures, (c) dispositional or the individual’s background including attitude, motivation and learning styles, and (d) epistemological or having to do with course content or pre-requisite knowledge or expectations (Garland, 1993).  In follow up research based on Garland’s barriers to success in online courses, Moore et al. (2002) surveyed college students about their reasons for not completing online courses.  The top reasons included that students did not know a certain course was online (institutional barrier), felt alone and not part of the course (epistemological barrier), course too unstructured (dispositional barrier), and couldn’t handle course plus work or family responsibilities (situational barrier).  Similar reasons for dropping out of online courses were found by other researchers.  In a survey of students who drop out of college courses, it was found that students drop out of online courses for personal reasons, job-related reasons, program related reasons or technology related reasons (Willging & Johnson, 2004), which were similar to the categories identified by Garland (1993).

Kember (1989) found that a number of institutional or faculty factors influenced the retention of students in online courses including the frequency and nature of contacts, the speed of instructor response to student questions, tutorials, use of telephone, and synchronous communication with students contributed to the positive feelings of a student in an online course.  Another study that surveyed online course instructors about online students found that there was a higher dropout rate among younger and less academically experienced students and that there was a significant association between student-teacher interactivity and course completions (Lamkins, 2004).  These findings were affirmed in another study that surveyed community college online instructors.  The online instructors reported that student success resulted from immediacy or how much a student feels a part of the online course (Hernandez, 2008).  Chyung (2001) found that course design made a significant contribution to the retention of online students.

Roblyer, Davis, Mills, Marshall, & Pape. (2008) were some of the first to examine success characteristics of high school students who were taking one or two online courses in addition to their brick-and-mortar courses.  Based on previous research, the researchers identified four factors that lead to success in an online course:  (a) technology use/self-efficacy (self-assessment of one’s ability with technology); (b) achievement beliefs (confidence in one’s ability to learn, an aspect of locus of control); (c) instructional risk-taking (willingness to try new things and risk failure in instructional situations, related to locus of control); and (d) organization strategies (ways to organize for more efficient learning).  From this information, the researchers developed a survey instrument based on previous findings and administered it to part time online high school students.  Overall, it was found that a student’s past academic ability (GPA) was a significant predictor of success, but that equally important were a student’s technology access, self-efficacy and organization beliefs.  Results also indicated that environmental (or institutional) variables played an equally important role in causing student success in online courses (Roblyer et al., 2008).  Additionally, it has been found that successful online students have the following characteristics:  (a) self-motivation, (b) supportive parents, (c) a working knowledge of computers and the Internet, (d) are visual learners, and (e) have strong language skills (Roblyer et al., 2008).

Researchers have found that the factors that cause students of any age to be successful in online courses are both individual and institutional (or environmental).  Generally, the individual factors that lead to success for online students include previous school success, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and a comfort level with the use of technology (Roblyer et al., 2008).  The institutional or environmental conditions which cause students to be successful in online courses include ease of enrollment, course design, course interactivity, the involvement of the instructor, and the timeliness of responses from the instructor (Chyung, 2001; Hernandez, 2008; Lamkins, 2004).  In addition to the individual and institutional factors, students who choose online learning fall into two categories: those who are self-motivated and choose online courses as a first choice and those who have been unsuccessful in other types of schooling and online courses are their last choice (Barker, 2001).  Generally, students make a choice to take an online course.  Once enrolled, students choose whether to complete the needed work or not.  Researchers continue to analyze the significant factors that cause students to be successful in online courses.


Chyung, S. Y. (2001, August). Conducting learner analysis to adjust online instruction for your faceless learners. Paper presented at the 17th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning, Madison, WI. Retrieved July 10, 2009, from

Hernandez, R. (2008). Development and validation of an instrument to predict online student success using faculty perceptions. Dissertation Abstracts International, 70 (04). (UMI No. AAT 3353583)

Kember, D. (1989). A Longitudinal-Process Model of Drop-Out from Distance Education. The Journal of Higher Education, 60(3), 278-301.

Lamkins, J. E. (2004). Logging off: A study of online attrition in community college-level coursework. Dissertation Abstracts International, 66 (04), 3085A. (UMI No. AAT 3171841)

Roblyer, M. D., Davis, L., Mills, S. C., Marshall, J., & Pape, L. (2008). Toward practical procedures for predicting and promoting success in virtual school students. American Journal of Distance Education, 22(2), 90-109.


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