Meeting the Needs of All Students: Undergraduate Student Experiences in Online Education

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This interactive presentation will engage the audience in exploring elements of course design and instructional strategies to support the learning of at-risk undergraduate students in online environments.


Dr. Jessica Decker is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of La Verne in La Verne, California. She teaches primarily in the Teacher Education program, but also teaches in the undergraduate education major and the Master's of Education program. Her areas of interest include multiple subject methodology and the meaningful use of technology in today's classrooms. She teaches both blended courses and online courses and has published research in the areas of building social presence in online courses and enhancing students' skills of self-regulation.
I'm an associate professor of education at the University of La Verne in La Verne, California. I am the program chair for the Master of Education in Special Emphasis. I also teach in the teacher credential program specifically focusing on working with English learners. My current research agenda focuses on social presence in online courses and building students' self-regulated learning skills.

Extended Abstract

This session will explore the experiences of undergraduate students in online education who are defined as “at risk” by examining background characteristics, internal characteristics, and environmental factors.  Specifically, the session will focus on instructional strategies and course design elements used in online undergraduate courses to support these students.  A summary of student experiences will be presented along with practical strategies for increasing support for at-risk students.  The goals for this session are as follows:

  • Explore students’ perceptions of successful online learning experiences

  • Identify elements of online courses that support learning of at-risk students


Student characteristics have been shown to impact levels of success in online education.  For example, students’ prior participation in online courses has been found to be an indicator of whether students will persist or drop out of future online courses (Osborn, 2001).  In addition, those students who come into the course with self-efficacy related to learning the course content and meeting the technological demands of a fully online course are more likely to succeed (Wang & Newlin, 2002).  Bulger and Waston (2006) determined that students’ persistence in college is impacted by a variety of variables such as age, technology proficiency, task values, access to student support services and flexible course offerings.  These variables are organized into three categories: background characteristics, internal characteristics, and environmental factors.

Wladis, Conway, and Hachey (2015) studied 3,600 students in online and face-to-face STEM courses in a community college setting.  Their study found that older students (24 and older) performed significantly better in online settings than their younger (under 24) counterparts, and that younger students may be at higher risk in these settings.  

In a study of 890 undergraduate students who either persisted in or dropped out of online courses, Devey (2009) found that more female students dropped out than their male counterparts.  He also noted that part-time students were less likely to finish these courses.  In addition, students who dropped out reported feeling disconnected in their online classes and not having effective time management skills.  In exit interviews, these students also cited institutional barriers to their success in online courses.  Some of these hurdles were a lack of timely feedback from the instructor, questions going unanswered, and unclear expectations.

In a recent large scale study of 4,599 college students, the investigators determined that certain variables such as being female, coming from a migrant background, and being fully employed led to having a high risk of dropping out of online courses.  In order to decrease the potential negative impact of these variables, the authors suggest that universities provide virtual counseling services and support networks.  They also advocate developing peer-pairing programs in which students are connected for academic, social, and moral support based on their needs (Stoessel, Ihme, Barbarino, Fisseler, & Sturmer, 2015).

In our current study of students enrolled in online courses in an undergraduate education program, a survey was conducted to determine the impact of various support structures and course design elements on perceived student success.  Participants were asked a variety of questions related to the assignments, interactions, and design of the online courses they had taken, along with the perceived impact of those elements on their success in the courses.

Online courses need to be designed in such a way so as to appropriately support those students who may be at risk due to their background characteristics, internal characteristics and environmental factors.  The overall design of the course, including strategies to connect students with university support services, can be structured to enhance students’ likelihood of success.

Attendees of this session will explore course design that targets the needs of at-risk learners in online education. The presenters will discuss results of the survey, along with strategies for supporting at-risk students in the online environment.  Attendees will examine these strategies and engage in partner or table discussions related to how those strategies can be implemented in their own professional practice.  The session will finish with a question and answer or open discussion period with the presenters.