Online Doctoral Students: Influence of Emotional Intelligence on Student Success

Concurrent Session 8

Brief Abstract

Findings from a qualitative study conducted in a Texas university suggest the Emotional Intelligence (EI) components self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management have an important influence on the successful completion of students in an online doctoral program. Attendees will learn ways to support online student success using EI.

Extended Abstract


            Emotional intelligence (EI) is a strong predictor of job performance and is actually a better indicator than an individual’s IQ (Goleman, 1998b). In fact, research has found that one’s emotions enable individuals to navigate and comprehend social interactions including other individual’s motivations, thoughts, and deeds (Bharwaney, 2007; Ekman, 1973; Keltner & Haidt, 2001). Learning institutions have taken notice of the impact of the EI phenomenon as a predictor of student success from K-12 to post-graduate education (CASEL, 2013; Freedman & Jensen, 2007; Shriver & Weissberg, 2005).

            As online learning continues as an integral part of how higher education institutions deliver course work and emotional characteristics have been identified as factors linked to online success, a student’s EI could be a factor in their success or failure (Albritton, 2003; Holcomb et al., 2004; Irizarry, 2002 ; Kemp, 2002; Parker, 2003; Sparkman, 2008; Walsch-Portillo, 2011; Wang & Newlin, 2000). Doctoral distance learning programs have become a viable choice for students over face-to-face settings because the asynchronous delivery, enables students to have flexibility within their scheduling (Kvavik & Caruso, 2005; Precin, 2014).  However, other researchers have argued that many students do not complete their course of study because of their lack of self-discipline or management of time, both components of emotional intelligence (Cockran, 2009; Street, 2010). The purpose of this phenomenological narrative study was to investigate the influence of emotional intelligence on successful students in a fully online education leadership doctoral program at one southeast Texas university

Research Questions

            The theoretical foundation for this research was emotional intelligence (EI), which has an important role in predicting a person’s success in life (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2000b). The overarching research question was: How does emotional intelligence influence students’ success in an online learning program? The related research questions included the following:

  1. How does a student's self-awareness influence learning in an online doctoral program?  
  2. How does a student's self-management influence learning in an online doctoral program?
  3. How does a student's social awareness influence learning in an online doctoral program?
  4. How does a student’s relationship management influence learning in an online doctoral program?


            A qualitative narrative approach was used to report the individual stories of 12 participants (10 females and two males) who were engaged in different fully online doctoral cohort groups within one university. The participants’ age range was 37 to 62 years with the average age being 46.9 years. Participant ethnic backgrounds included seven Caucasians, three Hispanics, and two African-Americans. The participants met all of the following qualifications: (a) completed 60 hours, with no more than 12 hours transferred towards the online doctoral program degree structure, (b) completed total program, including dissertation, within four years of beginning the program, and (c) were recommended by doctoral faculty as successful students.

            The study was conducted at one university located in southeast Texas, which has an enrollment of over 14,000 culturally diverse face-to-face and online students. All participants were interviewed by web-conferences using Google Hangouts On Air™ or Skype™. Subsequent interviews were made via cell phone or web-conferences. Kvale and Brinkmann (2009) endorsed the use of a guided protocol to be utilized in the interview process to illicit in-depth responses from the participants that relate to the study purpose. These additional questions or prompts helped the participants answer questions during the interview process and were considered relevant in acquiring rich data. The data were analyzed, coded, and emergent themes were identified.


            The emergent themes revealed from this phenomenological narrative study were:

  • Research question one: awareness of strengths and limitations; awareness of self-discipline; awareness of own emotions.
  • Research question two: awareness of time management; awareness of schedules and routines; Self-reflection and monitoring.
  • Research question three: awareness of other’s experiences, perspectives, and emotions; importance of technology to assist social awareness.
  • Research question four: Developing and maintaining relationships; seeking group support; being socially aware of others’ needs.



             This research study explored the influence of emotional intelligence on successful students in a fully online educational leadership doctoral program at one southeast Texas university. Conclusions suggest that self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management have an impact on the successful completion of the online doctoral program for these students.

  • RQ#1 - Having a true understanding of one’s strengths and limitations, being disciplined, and understanding one’s emotions, permitted them to be more confident, which enhanced their self-esteem, enabling them to achieve success in their online program. According to several studies, self-awareness is considered the most important competency of emotional intelligence because when an individual has a firm grasp of their own awareness, the other competencies are easier to develop (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009; Gill, Ramsey, & Leberman, 2015). Self-esteem then builds confidence, which helps individuals to establish new goals and levels of achievement, along with being satisfied with their lives (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009; CASEL, 2013; Nelson, Low, Nelson, & Hammett, 2015; Gill et al., 2015).
  • RQ#2 - Having awareness of one’s time management and following a structured routine, are paramount in order to be successful in the online doctoral program. Time management has been identified as an indicator of achievement and class completion along with behaviors that cause individuals to have more clarity and perception that they accomplish more (Kenney-Wallace, 2013; Macan, Shahani, Dipboye, & Phillips, 1990). Moreover, Macan et al. (1990) explained that when students felt they were in control of their schedules, they had lower stress levels. Equally important, Nelson and Low (2003) declared self-management abilities are significant to high levels of academic and career success.
  • RQ#3 - Having awareness for others’ feelings, experiences, and perspectives, individuals developed empathy with other cohort members. Bradberry and Greaves (2009) and Goleman (1998a) who argued while listening thoughtfully, and being able to correctly perceive others feelings through mannerisms, voice, and body language, along with other factors, enable individuals to make empathetic, intelligent decisions. Although technology assisted with the flexibility and ease of access afforded one by enrolling in online courses, there are also emotional factors associated with students’ experiences: a) anxiety, apprehension, and fear, (b) shame and embarrassment, (c) frustration, (d) pride, and (e) enthusiasm while working online (O’Regan, 2003). 
  • RQ#4 - Developing and maintaining relationships within the cohort was vital to achieving success in the online doctoral program. Students became cognizant of other’s needs, which facilitated group support, sharing stories, trusting one another, which led to bonds being formed. All participants clearly articulated the need to develop some type of relationship or bond with one or several individuals within their doctoral program. This conclusion is congruent with several studies, which maintained that students who have a good perception of not only their own emotions [self-awareness], but others [social awareness] emotions as well, tend to create and maintain better relationships (Brackett, Mayer, & Warner, 2004; Bradberry & Greaves, 2009; Free Management e-books, 2014; Goleman, 1998b). Although this may be true, Han and Johnson (2012) argued that relationships and bonds created from online programs were more management type of interactions, which are an individual’s task management abilities such as identify and reporting issues, setting up meetings, and managing work schedules; rather than emotional, based on the similar work related interests, previous success in online courses, and commonality of earning a doctoral degree.


           The implications for practice drawn from this study provide awareness and understanding to educational leaders, teachers, and support staff which will enable them to better educate and support the students they instruct. Based on the findings, suggestions for implementation for practice include the following:

  • Create a standard, based on reliable research, to identify students who may be at risk of not being successful in rigorous online program (Simpson, 2013).
  • Identify and assess student’s emotional intelligence with formalized EI testing instrument such as the Emotional Competence Inventory (ESCI), which is a multirater or “360 degree” feedback assessment (Cherniss, 2000, 2010).
  • Provide additional support for students who score below EI norms associated with successful college and university students (i.e.: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management training) (Brackett & Rivers, 2014; Murphy, 2014).
  • Provide technology information and training to students and teachers (Simonson et al., 2012).
  • Provide professional development and training to instructors to ensure best practices teaching online (Fish & Wickersham, 2009; Simonson et al., 2012) and to maximize learning for all students (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009).
  • Provide professional development for instructors to incorporate appropriate social media opportunities within online classroom settings (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009).

            Suggestions for future research include an investigation of the relationship of emotional intelligence as it relates to an individual’s personality makeup and successful completion of an online degree plan. Conducting a study with a population of students who take an emotional intelligence assessment prior to beginning an online degree program could provide insight for future program planning.