Encouraging the Success of Online Students

person typing on a laptop

July 28, 2011. The past decade has seen a plethora of research studies attempting to document the impact of online learning on measures of academic success and student persistence. The studies often produce widely divergent results, in part because institutions vary dramatically in the level of support and preparation they offer to both students and faculty.

To inquire into best practices for preparing both faculty and students for online courses, we turned to two online learning veterans to learn more: Kristen Betts, director of the Center for Online Learning at Armstrong Atlantic State University, and Mark Parker, interim assistant dean and collegiate associate professor for communication, arts, and humanities at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC).

Betts and Parker suggest that the most critical steps in encouraging the academic success and persistence of your online students involve setting and managing faculty and student expectations around workload and interaction within the online course. Here are some examples.

Managing Expectations for Students

Betts and Parker advise institutions to be more proactive in setting expectations both:

  • When marketing online programs to students (while promoting the flexibility of an online program, it’s important to also set expectations around the program’s rigor and the quality of student work that is expected)
  • Once students are enrolled (inform students about the technology needed and reinforce expectations around time management)

Betts warns that students who haven’t enrolled in an online course before may face a number of challenges. There may be a misperception that online learning is the same as correspondence education and that it will be self-paced. Students may not be aware of what software they will need or how to use it, and they may not understand expectations around class participation online.

“Help your students see that in an online classroom, there is no back row. Be clear about the level of discussion and dialogue expected in the course, and distinguish clearly between informal discussion and content-based contribution.”
Kristen Betts, AASU

Parker adds that it’s important to make sure students have or know they need to develop several skill sets that are crucial to success in an online course. For example, Parker notes, “Strong analytical reading and expository writing skills can be a predictor of success in online learning — regardless of the subject being studied — because learning management systems are commonly text-based.” He notes that students will also need a degree of information literacy as well as technological fluency (not only to navigate the LMS, but also library resources and databases).

“If you can, assess students on writing, information literacy, and technological fluency when they come in, and be ready to provide training and mentoring in these three areas. This will pay off in retention rates.”
Mark Parker, UMUC

Here are examples of opportunities for setting expectations early on:

  • Offer a virtual orientation for online students — “this can’t just be another email, it has to include a human touch,” Betts advises; for example, offer recorded videos by representatives from the academic library, disability services, financial aid, the dean of students, and others, and then offer opportunity to chat with these individuals — help connect students with services and key contacts right from the start
  • Parker suggests offering virtual connections for prospective students, as well — such as virtual meet-and-greets, virtual open houses, and the opportunity to test-drive an online class as a guest; ideally, give prospective students the chance to chat with a faculty member online
“If a student has never participated in an LMS, never posted to a text-based discussion board, never had to use an audio discussion board or work in a virtual group, their first online course can be overwhelming. We need to integrate them into the online learning environment even before the start of the course. The more comfortable they are navigating an online learning community early on, the better equipped they are for success in the online classroom.”
Kristen Betts, AASU

Managing Expectations for Faculty

Parker advises, “It needs to be clearly defined how frequent and how in-depth faculty/student interactions will be in the online environment. The faculty’s role is to evaluate how well students are mastering the material and succeeding. You need to define how faculty can get early news that a student may be in trouble.” Betts adds, “Students need the social presence, the engagement with faculty, in order to succeed in an online class. Set expectations for managing that social presence.”

For example, define policies around:

  • How often faculty are present in the online classroom, and the consistency and duration of online office hours
  • Response time to student email (is this 36 hours? 48? What makes sense for your faculty?)
  • Level of detail in faculty responses to student posts and to graded assignments
  • Turnaround time for graded assignments
  • How often faculty should post announcements during the week (Betts stresses the importance of a high-touch approach in engaging students)

While some of the leading institutions in online learning have begun developing more centralized policies and guidelines around these items, Betts and Parker warn against adopting standards in place at a peer institution uncritically. Your faculty culture and your students’ needs within a particular department or school at your institution may be unique.

Make sure your policies are realistic by developing them in collaboration with your own faculty. Betts recalls a conversation with one colleague from another institution who proposed a policy requiring faculty to return graded assignments within 72 hours — not a realistic expectation. “Unrealistic expectations will damage faculty retention and will place undue stress on your faculty,” Betts cautions. “And having no consistent expectations will place undue stress on your students. You may have students moving from one class where a well-trained instructor does a fine job to another class where the next instructor does not post the first grades until week five.”