Ensuring Student Success in Online Courses

Students like online classes due to their flexibility and convenience. But not all students do well in these courses; the statistics indicate that online classes have a much higher dropout rate compared to traditional face-to-face classes.

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Students like online classes due to their flexibility and convenience. But not all students do well in these courses; the statistics indicate that online classes have a much higher dropout rate compared to traditional face-to-face classes. The attrition rates in online courses tend to be 10 to 20 percent higher than in face-to-face classes. While there are some personal factors that could influence a student's decision to drop out, many of the factors are related to institutional and course level support—and these barriers can be addressed with thoughtful planning and implementation. Institutional level factors like technical support, academic support, advising, and availability of resources can support student success in online courses. At the course level, there are many simple strategies and techniques that instructors can use to support students' success in their online classes.

Course organization and layout

Many students drop out of online courses because they feel overwhelmed and sometimes frustrated with the amount of information presented to them and the way it is presented. Learners can experience “cognitive overload” if the information presented to them is not logically organized and the course design is not easy to follow. In such cases, learners will end up spending a lot of mental energy just trying to figure out how the course is organized and how to find information, and may end up feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. The design and layout of the course can minimize this frustration and help students focus on the content rather than on navigation issues.

Clearly communicate expectations

Many students report feeling lost and confused in online learning environments. Due to lack of face-to-face contact, sometimes students are unclear on the expectations or need reassurance that they understand the expectations.

Prepare students

Many times students enroll in online courses without a realistic understanding of what it takes to be a successful learner in an online environment. Online learning environments are better suited for students who are self-disciplined, motivated, and know how to manage their time. An orientation to online learning and tips on how to succeed in online courses can better prepare students for online courses.

The student orientation should include discussions of:

Chunk the content and scaffold instruction

Sometimes the workload and reading requirements in online courses may seem daunting to students, especially if they don't have very good time management and prioritization skills. Chunking and organizing the content meaningfully into modules/units not only makes it easy for students to understand and remember the concepts but also makes it more manageable for them. By doing this, the instructor can present complex concepts/ideas as “bite-size information” so students can understand, apply, and retain the information. By incorporating assessments and feedback with every learning module, instructors have the opportunity to scaffold students' learning.

Humanize the course

Students report that one of the main reasons they drop out of online courses or programs is because they feel lonely and isolated. Learning is a social activity; we learn through interactions and discussions with others. In the absence of face-to-face contact, online learning can be an isolating experience if there are no opportunities to interact with others in the course. Humanize the online experience through personal interactions and stories and add the human touch to it.

These simple strategies will help students succeed in your courses.

Dr. Poonam Kumar is the director of online/hybrid learning and Dr. Marilyn Skrocki is an associate professor of health sciences at Saginaw Valley State University.