What We Can Learn from Successful Online Students

Concurrent Session 6
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Brief Abstract

A recent study of 27,000 online enrollments revealed key factors associated with student success. Quantitative results were reinforced by student voice during strengths-based interviews with successful students—yielding rich insights about personal, circumstantial, and course variables. Findings of this research have practical implications for administrators, faculty members, and instructional designers.


Dr. Carol Gering is the Associate Vice Provost for Online and Distance Education at the University of Oregon (UO). She has more than twenty years experience in higher education and has taught a variety of online courses. Dr. Gering holds a Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary field of Online Education and Psychology, and an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction.

Extended Abstract

Presentation Format, Goals, and Audience Engagement

Research methods and results will be presented with accompanying slides.

Goals of this presentation are:

  • communicate research results
  • discuss implications for practice at the local university
  • connect with other researchers and practitioners interested in online student success

Time will be allocated for questions and answers. The audience will be engaged by means of polling activities and will be invited to discuss directions for further study.


Research Context, Questions, and Methods

Online courses have given a broader, more diverse population access to higher education. Despite the fact that postsecondary institutions have embraced this opportunity, scholarly literature reveals persistent concern over low retention rates in online courses. In response to this concern, we conducted an explanatory-sequential, mixed-methods study to answer seven research questions related to student success in online courses. The first three questions explored association between the dependent variable of student success (measured by final course grade) and 28 independent variables categorized as personal, circumstantial, and course variables. The fourth question sought to ascertain whether success could be predicted by a combination of personal, circumstantial, and course variables. The final three questions pursued viewpoints of successful students, capturing their voices to present a strengths-based perspective of success. Research was conducted at a public university in Alaska—a state of vast size, where online learning is particularly important for reaching the distributed population.

We carried out this study in three phases. Analysis at each stage informed the subsequent phase. We began by analyzing existing data on more than 27,000 student enrollments. During this phase, we used logistic regression to develop predictive models of success. In the next phase, we invited online students to complete an assessment of non-cognitive attributes and personal perceptions. Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA) identified eight factors from these assessments. Mean scale scores for each factor were then evaluated against final course grade by means of Mann Whitney U Tests. Finally, we selected a stratified sample of successful students for the third phase of research. During personal interviews, these successful students elaborated on factors impacting their success.


Background and Significance

Similar to several previous studies, early results of this study revealed cumulative GPA to be the strongest predictor of passing grades in online courses. This finding suggests that students who have been academically successful overall are likely to perform well in online courses too. However, this conclusion is less than satisfying, as it fails to explain lower retention rates in online courses.

Previous studies have not formed a consistent body of evidence regarding online student success. Many of the variables investigated in prior research were only examined in a single study. When variables were researched in more than one study, the studies often produced conflicting results. A number of studies have examined personal characteristics of online learners. Other studies have explored student circumstances. Some prior research focused on whether the courses themselves account for the difference in success rates. Few empirical studies have looked at all three of these factors simultaneously. By contrast, the current study did so. We believed the combination of personal, circumstantial, and course variables would prove more contextually relevant and useful than evaluating single variables in isolation. Results support that premise.



Phase One results indicate that factors related to success may change with a student’s level of academic experience. This finding may help to explain some of the contradictions in previous research, as some of the earlier studies focused on students at a single educational level. During this research, we evaluated a large and diverse population ranging from freshmen to graduate students, as well as non-matriculated students. We used logistic regression to generate six predictive models, yielding a different combination of contributing variables for each level of academic class standing. Accurate classification of success was substantially improved in the models developed for non-degree seeking students and freshmen.

Phase Two analyses of students’ non-cognitive attributes and perceptions yielded two statistically significant factors. First, students with high scale scores for Perceived Academic Control (PAC) earned statistically significantly higher grades than students with lower PAC scale scores. Second, students who reported high teaching presence in their online courses earned statistically significantly higher grades than students who reported lower levels of teaching presence.

Based on results of the first two phases of research, we selected a stratified sample of successful students. Selected students were invited to participate in personal interviews, which were recorded, transcribed, and then analyzed. Six themes emerged during qualitative analysis. Emergent themes aligned with—and provided additional information about—the quantitative results in earlier phases of the study. Examples shared during the interviews illuminated elements of student and instructor actions that support online course success.


Conclusion and Discussion

This research contributes to the current understanding of online student success in three significant ways. First, prior research yielded mixed results regarding variables that impact student success in online courses. Although this study identified seven individual variables with statistical and practical significance for online student success overall, a more significant finding was evidence that success factors appear to change as a student progresses through college. This contribution to existing knowledge may explain some of the conflicting evidence in previous studies.

The current study indicates that PAC and teaching presence are both associated with higher final grades in online courses. More importantly, the mixed-method nature of this design teased out additional details about both factors. While quantitative analysis provided evidence for a positive relationship between perceived academic control and student success, subsequent interviews described behaviors those students with high PAC use to achieve success. Similarly, quantitative results confirmed an association between students’ success and their rating of teaching presence, while personal interviews explained which instructor actions students perceived to be most valuable.

Finally, this research revealed that personal, circumstantial, and course variables all contribute to student success in online courses. Among the predictive models generated in this study, final grade success was more accurately classified by a combination of variables than by single variables. In light of current findings, it is important for academia to approach online teaching and learning in a holistic manner, addressing students’ personal characteristics and circumstantial barriers while attending to effective course design and teaching practices.