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Why Do Some Students Struggle Online?

Why Do Some Students Struggle Online?
Incorporating instruction of self-directed learning skills into online classes could help to bridge the performance gap between different groups of students.

In a recent article on semester-length online coursework, I wrote about some recent research findings that many community college students perform more poorly in online than face-to-face courses. Some readers wondered what makes the particular groups mentioned (males, ethnic minorities and those with lower GPAs) less likely to succeed in online courses. This follow-up article discusses what challenges these specific groups face in the online context, and how those challenges might be addressed with specific strategies in online programming.

The flexibility of online education is particularly valuable to adults with multiple responsibilities and busy lives. Without being required to attend classes at a fixed time (usually in the day) many adult learners are able to return to school and complete additional education that otherwise could not fit into their daily routines. Yet, associated with the convenience provided by an online platform is a greater level of responsibility that students are required to assume for this self-paced learning:

  • To learn course materials independently
  • To manage time wisely
  • To keep track of progress on course assignments
  • To overcome technical difficulties and the feeling of isolation
  • To take the initiative to communicate with instructors and peers for questions and group assignments.

These skills — generally falling under the category of “self-directed learning” — are critical to success in online and distance education. However, not all online students have been equipped with strong self-directed learning skills upon college entry.  Studies of adolescents and young adults show females, Caucasian students and individuals with higher prior educational attainment were often found to be more self-directed on average. Self-directed learning skills may also increase with age, before leveling out in one’s 50s.

Given the link between self-directed learning and online success, men, younger students, ethnic minority students and academically underprepared students may need additional supports and scaffolding in order to perform as well in an online course as they would in a face-to-face course. Indeed, studies indicate these populations not only perform more poorly in online courses than do their peers, but also tend to experience greater decline in course performance in the online than in the face-to-face learning environment. Accordingly, the performance gaps between key demographic groups already observed in face-to-face classrooms (e.g., between male and female students and between Caucasian and ethnic minority students) may be exacerbated in online courses. In addition to individual differences in skills such as self-directed learning, some researchers also point out that some student populations may struggle in online courses due to inequities in computer and Internet access.

For example, in 2010, only 55 percent of African Americans and 57 percent of Hispanics had high-speed Internet access at home, compared to 72 percent of Caucasian and 81 percent of Asians.

Online learning has the potential to be a democratizing force in higher education; however, to meet this potential, it must not only improve access to college courses among traditionally-underserved students, but also support the academic success of these students. For example, colleges could incorporate early warning systems into online courses in order to identify and intervene with individual students who are struggling. For example, if a student fails to sign in to the online system, or fails to turn in an early ungraded assignment, the system could generate a warning for the instructor or for the college’s counseling department, who could in turn call the student to see if he or she is experiencing problems and to discuss potential supports or solutions.

In the meantime, colleges could facilitate successful online learning by incorporating the teaching of self-directed learning skills into courses. This strategy would require the college to support instructors in developing materials, assignments and other pedagogical processes that cultivate self-directed learning skills. As a limited strategy, colleges could focus scaffolding efforts on online courses in subjects in which online at-risk students tend to cluster. For example, our recent research suggests students taking entry-level English courses are more likely to be academically underprepared, and therefore many students enrolled in these courses may need additional support to develop self-directed learning skills to succeed in online learning. A broader-based strategy would incorporate scaffolding into all online courses and perhaps even all face-to-face courses. To avoid exposing students to redundant skill-building exercises across courses, each instructor could embed the teaching of self-directed learning into the specific context of his or her discipline. Such a systematic skill-building strategy would require substantial new investments in faculty professional development and support. Yet these investments could pay high dividends. The consistent relationship between self-directed learning skills and academic success suggests building these skills may not only help close the online performance gap, but also improve students’ overall performance and long-term persistence in college.

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