Who Doesn’t Succeed In Online Classes

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I came across this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that reported results from a recent study (2013) about how different demographics fared in online courses. I was especially interested in this study as it focused on students at community and technical colleges in the U.S. as opposed to universities. I am always curious about the impact of taking “trends” and applying them across all kinds of institutions without factoring in diversely different student bodies. I suppose I should apply the same modicum of caution to this study as well. This study used a large sample size of 40,000 students from Washington state taking ~500,000 online courses in a variety of subject areas. (Note: the quality of the online courses was not evaluated or corrected for as a variable). The two key results were: (1) almost every subgroup of students performed more poorly in online courses (both in retention and in grades) than they did in face-to-face classes and (2)  students who typically struggle in traditional classrooms experience even more difficulty in online courses.

In particular, the study showed that men fared worse than women in both course retention and grades in online courses versus face-to-face. Black students also showed a more significant decrease in grades in online courses. Older students tended to achieve better grades than younger students (traditional college age) when they persisted in the online course, but their tendency to drop out was higher than younger students. “The gap in course performance between high  and low skill students tended to be stronger in online courses than in face-to-face courses” (Xu & Smith Jaggers, 2013, p. 19). Basically the study identifies that the largest issue was the ability to adapt to the online learning environment and highlights that many online courses are not adequately addressing or preparing students for the online experience.

There are numerous studies supporting the idea that online learning provides a learning experience equal to that of face-to-face classrooms and a fair amount of studies that contradict this hypothesis. Driscoll et al. (2012)  include a thorough literature review of the debate. Driscoll et al. also conducted their own research with multiple sections of the same course that was taught both face-to-face and online at a university. Their conclusions were that while performance in the face-to-face classes was better than in online courses, they felt it was the result of student self-selection: “the students in our study who selected an online section of the course tended to be older, tended to have lower GPAs, tended to have greater experience with online courses, were more likely to be college seniors, were taking fewer credit hours, and were working a greater number of hours per week” (Driscoll et al., 2012, p. 324). They also suggested that academically weaker students may self-select for online courses because of the perception that they will be easier. So rather than concluding that online courses result in poorer performance, they suggest that the poorer performance observed in online courses is a reflection of the self-selection of the academic levels of students for face-to-face versus online courses.

This study raised a few questions for me. Do we need to be concerned about the retention rates and grade performance in free online courses?  If this is a type of self-directed learning, e.g. teaching oneself to play the guitar, why does it matter if someone decides for personal reasons not to continue with a course or realizes they don’t have the self-discipline to complete the course in an online format? Or do we only care about it when the money matters? If educational institutions want to switch to using an online course in place of face-to-face, have students pay tuition for the course, and maintain similar student retention and grades, then this kind of research matters. Further, if a school has to pay the licensing fee to use an online course developed by a company, they need to know what impact switching to an online version of the course will have and how students’ performance may change because of it.


Driscoll, A.; Jicha, K.; Hunt, A.N.; Tichavsky, L.; & Thompson, G. (2012). Can online courses deliver in-class results? A comparison of student performance and satisfaction in an online versus a face-to-face introductory sociology course. Teaching Sociology, 40(4), 312–331. Retrieved from http://www.asanet.org/journals/TS/Oct12TSFeature.pdf

Xu, D. & Smith Jaggers, S. (2013). Adaptability to online learning: Differences across types of students and academic subject areas. Community College Research Center Working Paper No. 54. Retrieved from http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/adaptability-to-online-learning.pdf

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2 Responses to Who Doesn’t Succeed In Online Classes

  1. Pingback: Who Doesn’t Succeed In Online Classes | Express!

  2. Katie Baird says:

    Hi Emily! Such a great post regarding on-line courses verses face-to-face courses. I think you bring up some really good questions about the subject as well. What I found so interesting was that the conclusion of the study was not that on-line courses caused poorer preformance but that it had to do with what type of student more commonly chose the on-line course over the face-to-face course. Should the educational institutions then have a type of screening tool to use to help select which students should be studying on-line verses in the classroom in order to help student success rates? Another interesting question to ponder on is if on-line courses cost the same amount of tuition as the face-to-face courses, would the number of students who chose them drop?

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