Some critics of distance learning say face-to-face classes give students a better learning environment, but a recent Indiana University study found that online learners reported deeper approaches to learning than classroom-based learners.

Deep learning, researchers said, is a type of learning that goes beyond rote memorization and focuses on reflection, integrative learning, and higher-order thinking–analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which was conducted by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, collected information from nearly 380,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 722 four-year colleges and universities across the United States. NSSE explored the experiences of online learners through a set of additional questions given to more than 22,000 students from 47 institutions. The results were released Nov. 10.

“Critics of distance education assume that face-to-face classes have inherent advantages as learning environments,” said Alexander C. McCormick, NSSE director and associate professor of education at Indiana University. “But these results indicate that those who teach classes online may be making special efforts to engage their students. It may also be the case that online classes appeal to students who are more academically motivated and self-directed.”

Bob Gonyea, associate director of the Center for Postsecondary Research, said the survey did not collect data that could concretely determine why online learners reported deeper approaches to learning.

“I believe one part of the explanation is that online learners tend to be older students who are somewhat more motivated and responsible in getting things done,” he said, adding that there are a disproportionate number of older students who take online courses because of the convenience.

“I also think that people who teach online classes don’t take engagement for granted. They have to structure assignments that get students connected,” Gonyea said.

According to the survey results, 37 percent of first-year online learners and 45 percent of seniors said they participated in course activities that challenged them intellectually “very often,” compared to only 24 percent of first-year classroom-based learners and 35 percent of seniors. The survey also found that online learners reported slightly more deep approaches to learning in their coursework.

“With reflection, students think about who they are and what they know and how they know what they know. They question it, and there is an openness to changing what you believe and how you understand,” Gonyea said. “With integrative learning, students take information from one setting–such as a classroom–and apply it in real-world situations or in another class.”

Survey results showed that 58 percent of first-year students taking most of their classes online reported using higher-order thinking in their coursework, compared to 55 percent of classroom-based learners. Results also showed that 69 percent of first-year students taking most of their classes online reported using integrative thinking in their coursework, compared to 67 percent of classroom-based learners. Additionally, 62 percent of first-year students taking most of their classes online reported using reflective learning in their coursework, compared to 59 percent of classroom-based learners.

It might be that students who pursue online courses are those who embrace the spirit of independent, student-centered, intellectually engaging learning as captured by the deep-learning measures, according to survey results. The study also found that online courses stimulate more intellectual challenge and educational gains, suggesting that integrating technology-enhanced courses into the curriculum for all students might have some valuable benefits.

Another key finding from the survey was that more than 90 percent of the variation in the quality of undergraduate education occurs within institutions, not between them. As a result, rankings can be highly misleading predictors of educational quality. Even institutions with high benchmark scores have an appreciable share of students whose undergraduate experience is average at best, the report said.

Also, nearly 25 percent of first-year students and one out of five seniors reported that they frequently came to class without completing readings or assignments.

Thomas F. Nelson Laird, assistant professor and project manager for the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE), said results from the FSSE and NSSE indicate that students spend about half as much time preparing for class as faculty expect.

“With ongoing concerns about grade inflation, these findings suggest that we in the higher-education community need to examine whether we are truly holding students accountable for their side of the educational equation,” he said.

The survey, which is entering is 10th year, annually provides comparative standards for assessing effective education practices in higher education. Five key areas of educational performance are measured: the level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and having a supportive campus environment.


National Survey of Student Engagement

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Keeping Online Learning Secure resource center. Online learning is becoming increasingly popular, especially as fuel costs force schools to consider shortened schedules and have college students opting for virtual classes to save money. But while interest and enrollment in virtual classrooms rises, so do concerns about security while students are learning online. School IT staff already work around the clock to make sure their systems are secure and reliable; they can’t afford to have school networks vulnerable to attacks from outside—or from curious students who believe they are honing their tech expertise. Go to: Keeping Online Learning Secure

Add your opinion to the discussion.