Published on 2013/07/25

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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Readers Comments

Rob Young 2013/07/25 at 11:03 am

Interesting idea to have a system in place that flags at-risk students early in a course and alerts the instructor. This, to me, is an example of taking advantage of a new technology to address a real problem. Are there any institutions anyone knows of that have implemented this type of system? Or, forgive my ignorance, does this type of technology currently exist?

    EdTechSandyK 2013/07/26 at 12:52 pm

    The best early detection system for a struggling student is an involved, proactive instructor or instructional team. If student success is truly a goal, then an instructor is going to contact students who seem to be falling behind early in the course. If they are not getting responses, then a referral can be made to academic counseling services to further pursue contact.

    Another issue that needs to be addressed is class size. Lower-level online classes, which tend to attract more at-risk students, should have fewer students to facilitate the instructor being able to spend more focused time on each student.

    Perhaps blended learning would be a good first step for students who might need more support in online learning as well.

    Joel Galbraith 2014/05/15 at 10:40 am

    Systems do exist–coming primarily from our for-profit colleagues–and consortiums of state schools have also come together to share data on large data-driven early warning systems.
    UoP and Rio Salado have sophisticated systems that help both advisors and teachers respond long before an intuitive teacher might pick up on clues of a struggling student (especially remote students, in a classes of more than 30 students.) Their systems are impressive indeed, but should be seen in context. They raise awareness for parties concerned (even the student themselves), but don’t fix the problem. That’s where a good teacher, TA, advisor comes in to contact a student and provide a little extra support.

Suzanne 2013/07/25 at 1:11 pm

What’s generally absent from studies of online learning is an understanding of decades of educational research and theory-making on socio-economic status, race, gender, etc. and student success.

The thrust forward with online learning, particularly under the guise of “democratizing education” is woefully mis- and under-informed about education as social system.

See Steven Krashen, Larry Cuban and Dianne Ravitch for substantive arguments to these points.

Yvonne Laperriere 2013/07/25 at 1:45 pm

I agree with the suggestion to incorporate the teaching of self-directed learning skills into all courses. This needs to be a concerted effort, with direction from the top in terms of setting across-the-board standards, so students truly benefit from this teaching.

Instructors need to be trained on what these self-directed learning skills are and on techniques to teach them. Most importantly, the institution needs to establish clear objectives and a way to measure outcomes to ensure that, instead of paying lip-service to the idea of helping at-risk students, it is actually achieving results for them.

Wendy 2013/09/11 at 10:04 am

With regard to flagging at-risk students early into a course, our school has implemented an Early Alert notification system. We rely on the instructors to initiate the process, but we’ve made it extremely easy for them to do so.
For in-class courses, an instructor would complete an Early Alert immediately upon a student’s failure to show for two classes. This notification is then forwarded to the student’s counselor. Additionally, phone calls are made to the student, in an effort to help resolve any issues that might be affecting his/her performance. Early Alerts are also used when students are missing assignments, performing poorly, or in danger of failing. Thus, instructors of online courses can (and should) also use Early Alerts.
We make our best effort to be proactive in helping the student while there is still time to turn things around (possibly by encouraging the student to request peer tutoring, which we freely offer to our students).

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