Deeper listening: The unexpected relevance of external stressors and time poverty for online students

Concurrent Session 2
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Brief Abstract

This study explored how life events impact time and energy available for education (interviewing 49 online students at a large public urban US university). Surprisingly, 89% of reported external stressors differed from factors students indicated impacting course outcomes. Join our discussion of these complex environmental factors possibly underreported in research. 


Catherine A. Manly is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the City University of New York Graduate Center and teaches for Bay Path University. She earned her PhD in higher education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She brings a social justice lens to quantitative investigation of transformational innovation. Her research aims to improve affordable postsecondary access and success for students underserved by traditional higher education, particularly through the changes possible because of online and educational technologies. Her dissertation investigated the effectiveness of using multiple modalities when presenting course content (one aspect of Universal Design for Learning) for improving student learning outcomes in online courses. She was formerly the Director of Educational Technology and Distance Learning at Manchester Community College, and she worked in the Information Technology Department at Amherst College.

Extended Abstract

Session Goals

Attendees will better understand factors potentially impacting online student success that are not typically considered in studies of online students or within institutional support initiatives. They will be able to describe these factors and they will consider avenues for targeted supports, leading to collectively generated ideas for future research and policy.

Study Motivation

Online students have different characteristics than face-to-face students (i.e. Wladis, Conway, Hachey, 2015; Shea & Bidjerano, 2014) and research has investigated whether students are at higher risk of dropping out or failing online than in face-to-face courses (i.e. Wladis, Conway, Hachey, 2015; Jaggars & Xu, 2010; Johnson & Mejia, 2014; Shea, & Bidjerano, 2014).  While many studies account for online students’ demographics, few include data related to external stressors or time poverty. Yet, online students are more likely to work full time or to have children, and these factors are correlated with higher stress levels and higher rates of time poverty (Wladis, Hachey, Conway, 2018; Giancola, Grawitch & Borchert, 2009). Moreover, other external stressors (i.e. illness or job/ housing instability) may prompt online enrollment because of a need for flexibility in time and space; these may also impact online outcomes. In this presentation, we report results from interviews with online students at the City University of New York. Student narratives are used to investigate to what extent external stressors impacted the time and energy that students had available for their studies, and to explore the extent to which these characteristics influenced online course enrolment decisions.

Theoretical Framework

Our framework posits that time poverty (Vickery, 1977), a by-product of environmental factors, and that includes both quantity and quality of time, influences students’ decisions about enrolling online and may impact course outcomes. There is clear evidence that student parents and working students are more time poor than their childless and non-working peers (Wladis, Hachey, Conway, 2018); both of these groups are more likely to enroll online (Jaggars, 2014). Further, we previously found that online students are, on average, more time poor than students who enroll in the same course face-to-face (Wladis, Hachey, Conway, n.d.).  

Another related issue is that academic, social, emotional or financial stress has been shown to negatively impact college students’ academic performance (see Pariat, Rynjah & Kharjana, 2014). However, little is known about the complex external factors that may exist in the lives of online students, and how these impact online enrollment decisions and online course outcomes.


In-depth, semi-structured interviews with 49 students enrolled in online courses at the City University of New York’s two- or four-year colleges were conducted immediately after a semester in which students had enrolled in an online course. Students were asked about their reasons for enrolling online, their experiences online, and various environmental factors during the semester in which they were enrolled. Factors ranged from having and raising children, work commitments, and other external stressors (e.g. health issues) that may have impacted their studies. Interviews were continued until full saturation was reached, both in terms of repetition of common themes in the interviews, as well as representation of various student demographic groups that were present in the overall online student population.

Three researchers conducted two full coding passes (with a norming session in between) of student responses, utilizing an emergent coding scheme of student reasons for course dropout developed through constant comparison analysis. All three researchers revised the coding structure throughout the coding process and engaged in joint discussion until the researchers came to a consensus. Final inter-rater agreement for all codes as measured by Krippendorf’s alpha was 0.976.  

Results and Discussion

Many students cited work or family reasons for enrolling online: 51% commitments to paid work; 31% family obligations; and 27% commute, distance, or convenience. Similar to previous studies, this indicates external non-academic factors hold relevance in online course selection; many of these factors are also related to time poverty (e.g., Wladis, Conway, Hachey, 2015) and stress (e.g., Savage, 2006; Grabowski, et al., 2016).   

However, what was particularly striking is, when specifically asked at the end of the interview whether there were any other life events that impacted the time and energy they had for their studies that semester, 73% of students brought up a host of external environmental stressors, 89% of which had not originally been mentioned as reasons for enrolling online or factors that impacted their course outcomes. Many students cited three to four different categories of stressors—with one challenge leadings to others, or several which naturally co-occured. The majority were serious health problems (student themselves or a close relative) or the death of an immediate family member. Frequencies of each category can be seen in Table 1 below.   

Table 1.  Proportion of different types of external stressors cited by online students during the interview

%     External Stressor
33% Serious illness/injury (family/close friend)
19% Death in the family/close friend
19% Caring for sick/disabled parent/grandparent
19% Job stressors
17% Serious illness/injury (their own)
17% Unemployment/job change
17% Moving house or housing insecurity
11% Pregnant/birth of a child
11% Financial issues
  9% Disabled child
  8% Childcare issues
  8% Romantic relationship stressors, including divorce
  3% Planning a wedding
  3% Domestic violence
  3% Immigration
Note: n=49

Student narratives inform composite vignettes that will be the basis for discussion in the presentation. Due to proposal space limits, we present only one sample of a student narrative to give a sense of the scope of the challenges that many students were facing. Additional student stories will be included in the actual presentation.

One student was working 40 hours/week to pay for living expenses and was the primary caretaker of two children in primary school.  While this student cited work and childcare as having an impact on the decision to enroll online as well as on course outcomes, these stressors were not the only ones:

Recently I found out I had kidney stones, you know I was getting a lot of pain, and I thought it had to do with my sleeping habits. I would wake up and I would have a lot of lower back pain. It affected me as far as moving around and certain points it was very painful for me to move around... The semester that I took the classes online, my father actually he was actually dying of cancer, and that was hard of course because I was still in school…he passed [in] November during this time. I did let the teachers know and they were very considerate. You know they said you’ve been a good student and you know if there was an assignment when we were going to have the funeral, they told me you go be with your dad, even though I was trying to do the work the same day I found out… since my dad passed, I also alternate households because I would stay with my mom, because she was by herself. I would stay there a couple of nights and go to my home with my husband and kids, then there would be times when we would all stay there and like that.  

While the external stressors experienced by this student may seem severe, this example is fairly representative of the type of challenges that different students described. Additional types of difficulties will be presented in other vignettes. While some students did not face challenges of these kinds, they were in the minority. In addition, we assume that the sensitive nature of these challenges means that they are likely underreported (e.g., Dayan, Paine & Johnson, 2010; McNeeley, 2012). Our data also suggest that these stressors are underreported: of the students interviewed here, 20% cited general work and/or family or other external factors as impacting their decision to enroll online without detailing the exact nature of these stressors, so these stressors were not included in the table above and these students were not coded as having these specific stressors during that semester. Many of these stressors (e.g. disability, illness, and even work and family responsibilities) are often stigmatized, or at least presented as “atypical” of college students (e.g., Chen, 2017), and therefore, students may feel more comfortable keeping these details of their lives private, even though they can have a profound effect on their postsecondary outcomes (e.g. Grabowski et al., 2016).    

Interactivity Plan

This session will include an interactive discussion organized around a series of illustrative vignettes grounded in our research results and intended to inspire future research and potential support intervention ideas. After an overview of the research, vignettes showcasing different types of stressors will be introduced and followed by probing discussion questions for the participants; attendees will then participate in small group discussions. Take-aways for future research directions will be summarized from the groups at the end of each vignette’s discussion. This interactive discussion format will help the online research community, as well as faculty, staff and administrators who support online students, understand our results and consider how they may be applied in future institutional research and campus support efforts.