Published on 2013/10/10

Setting the GPS: Navigating the Online Classroom

Co-written with Jennifer Tutor | Adjunct Professor, American Public University and Janice Flegle | Adjunct Professor, American Public University

Setting the GPS: Navigating the Online Classroom
Courses that offer strategies for academic success and opportunities for socialization have the most positive impact on learner retention.

A learner’s experience in his or her first online class has a strong impact on the decision to continue to degree completion. Learners may have no college experience or be a transfer learner whose first class is one within their major. Regardless of their entry level, a successful experience in the first course within the institution is an essential part of the progression to degree completion with the institution. This paper discusses best practices for instructors to help learners assimilate into the institution through success in their first experience.

Online learners may come to their first course having never attended a course of any type, or they may transfer from another institution; however, regardless of their prior experience, learning to navigate the online education environment can present challenges. Learner retention is of importance to all institutions. It is well accepted that a learner’s first-year experience in higher education — and especially their experience in their first online course — is of enormous importance in the learner’s decision to return to the institution for a second year of education. [1]

Smith and Wertlieb found learners’ social and academic expectations often did not align with their first-year experience. [2] This lack of alignment is a threat to learner retention to degree completion. It is critical for distance learning administrators to address these expectations through a well-planned and systematically executed first-year experience.

The theoretical foundations of the learner-institution relationship and lack of alignment in learners’ expectations and experience can be based in expectancy-value theory and ecological theory. Both of these theories emphasize the interconnectedness of the learner and the institution. [3]

The desired outcomes of offering a first experience course or program are to offer learners the skills they need in order to be productive and successful, and to improve the institution’s retention rates. [4] Models that explain the value of a first experience course fall into two camps. [5] One camp is based on Tinto’s interactionalist model. [6] This model is based on the premise that a first experience course increases the learner’s feeling of academic and social integration into the institution, thus increasing commitment to the institution and increased retention.

The second explanation of the positive impact of a first experience course on retention rates is it increases the skills needed to be successful, thereby improving the learner’s performance and grade point average and leading to increased retention. [7] Ryan and Glenn find one-year retention rates are higher for students in a strategy-based (skill building) first experience course than for students in a socialization-focused group (similar to Tinto’s model). [8]

What a student experiences while in college plays a role in persistence. [9] Ishler & Upcraft found the characteristic that has the most influence on retention is prior academic achievement; therefore, first experience courses should provide ample opportunity for the learner to develop the academic skills needed for success. [10] Curricula which include both models and offer strategies for success as well as opportunities for socialization have the most positive impact on learner retention. [11]

The following areas should be included in a first experience course: time management, resource use, online library use, writing, learning styles, reading, critical thinking, course navigation (first time at any place), communication and encouraging collaboration. Online learners come to the experience with different skills and backgrounds. There is a need for a first experience class that will help the learner to assimilate into the educational journey. The perception of the learner’s first experience will be an important element in the decision to continue to degree completion.

A marathon race begins with one step; taking that first step is critical to the completion of the race. The first step a learner takes in the online education journey is of equal importance, and a well-structured and well-executed first experience is a key to success.

– – – –


[1] van der Meer, J., Jansen, E., & Torenbeek M. (2010). It’s almost a mindset that teachers need to change: First-year students’ need to be inducted into time management. Studies in Higher Education, 35(7), 777-791.

[2] Smith, J.S. & Wertlieb, E.C. (2005). Do first year college students’ expectations align with their first year experience? NASPA Journal, 42(2), 153-174.

[3] Ibid

[4] Erickson, S.L., & Stone, M.F. (2012). First year experience course: Insights from the first two years. American Journal of Business Education, 5(2), 139-148.

[5] Ryan, M., & Glenn, P. (2004). What do first year students need most: Learning strategies instruction or academic socialization? Journal of College Reading and Learning, 34(2), 4-28.

[6] Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45(1), 89-125.

[7] (Erickson & Stone, 2012)

[8] Ryan and Glenn (2004)

[9] Purdie, J.R,. & Rosser, V.J. (2011). Examining the academic performance and retention of first-year students in living-learning communities and first-year experience courses. College Student Affairs Journal, 29(2), 95-112.

[10] Ishler, J. L. C., & Upcraft, M. L. (2005) In M.L. Upcraft, J. N. Gardener, & B. O. Barefoot, (Eds.). Challenging and supporting the first year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

 [11] Erickson and Stone (2012)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Communicating with Students in a Noisy World

Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students

Read here

Readers Comments

Rhonda White 2013/10/10 at 11:14 am

My hunch is that students respond better to what Tutor calls a “strategy-based” first experience, where they learn specific skills, than to a “socialization-focused” course because the former allows the student to see the tangible results of his or her efforts. The lesson here is that all instructors need to be very clear at the beginning of their course about targeted learning outcomes. They should also design assignments to test for specific skills. This way, students will be able to see the value in all of their courses.

Ellen D 2013/10/10 at 5:14 pm

The broader issue with retention is that almost all institutions focus their efforts on enrollment. There’s very little follow up once a student enters the system. Perhaps institutions should require all new students to have an appointment at the end of their first term/year with an advisor who can go over their learning plan and identify their progress as well as whether their goals have changed. This could also be a valuable opportunity for the institution to gain feedback on the student’s first experience.

Ken Edick 2013/10/14 at 4:28 pm

Excellent article. Thank you. I agree 100% with your assertion that “there is a need for a first experience class that will help the learner to assimilate into the educational journey. The perception of the learner’s first experience will be an important element in the decision to continue to degree completion”. I am in the process of completing my MBA at a top 25 rated university for online MBA programs. While attending the traditional brick and mortar classrooms in my MBA pursuit at this institution, I have always excelled. This fall I made the decision to enter the world of online to “make it easier” on myself by eliminating the constant travel. I have struggled since. Navigating the online classes has proven very difficult for me. Assuming I am not alone, the creation of a class dedicated to developing the fundamental skills required in the online environment would be very beneficial for students like myself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *