A shocking difference between online and traditional students

New study reveals retention rates are all about how students perceive time

perspective-online-studentsThere are many ‘practical’ reasons why a student would pick an online course over an onsite course: money, time constraints, travel time, and supplementing education rather than obtaining a full degree. But a new study reveals that one of the major reasons for dropout rates in online learning has a lot to do with the psycho-social profile of the student.

It’s an intrapsychological factor called temporal perspective (TP) and it’s pretty much the glass half-full/half-empty scenario, mixed in with some other perceptions. And, say researchers Margarida Romero and Mireia Usart from ESADE, it’s a major reason why many online classes have low retention rates.

“Instead of looking to demographics to paint a portrait of the online student, we believe lecturers and administration need to look at the social psychology of online students to determine which students are more likely to succeed and how to address their needs,” they say.

The study, “The Temporal Perspective in Higher Education Learners: Comparisons between online and onsite learning,”  studied students in both a traditional face-to-face setting and in online classes (classes offered by the same higher-ed institution) using the Zimbardo time perspective inventory (ZTPI), which you can read about in the report.

(Next page: The fascinating results)

Temporal perspective can be understood as someone’s cognitive construct, and typically falls into one of five categories:

Past Negative (PN): They remember the traumatic and negative experiences from the past and tend to over-generalize those for their entire life.

Past Positive (PP): They tend to recall the positive experiences from their past. It’s related to an optimistic outlook on life.

Present Hedonists (PH): They are oriented towards immediate pleasure, living the present moment without worrying too much about the future.

Present Fatalists (PF): They feel powerless about their future no matter what they do; they perceive themselves as helpless and define life as unfair.

Future Time Perspective (FTP): They desire to plan and achieve specific future goals; they are achievement-oriented, have expectations for the future and hope for change.

According to the results of the study, onsite students have a very different temporal perspective than online students.

Students taking online courses show a high Past Negative (PN) perspective, while onsite students have a high Future Time Perspective (FTP).

One of the reasons this may be occurring, notes the study, is because of the vast difference in typical ages of both onsite and online students.

As the study reveals, students in onsite higher education have a “significantly lower average age (around 24) than online students, who are mostly in their mid-30s.” And as the researchers explain, as people get older, temporal perspectives also tend to change: younger people generally tend to be future-looking, whereas 30-40 year-olds tend to take more into account past experiences and have a higher concentration of Present Hedonists (PH).

“These results could be related with [one] study [in 2010] which showed that extroverts such as Past Positivists tend to prefer onsite classes; this chimes with the results of [another study in 2004], which showed that future-oriented individuals tend to engage more in onsite learning activities than present students,” say the researchers.

Perhaps the finding that carries the most weight is that “previous literature identifies FTP as one of the temporal orientations that could be strongly related to learning;” in other words, perhaps retention in many online classes is low because students, who are less inclined toward FTP, are worse learners.

(Next page: Solutions for online higher-ed)

The report emphasizes that faculty members and higher-ed administrators should evaluate whether courses can be taught online and whether students be “allowed to take online courses.”

To help institutions better identify practices for online students, the researchers developed two tables: Students choosing online classes for convenience and students choosing online classes for personal preferences:


PP: PP are extroverts who enjoy developing social relationships. When a PP profile has to enroll in an online course, he/she can fit in group-oriented courses aiming to develop the social relations between the participants.

PN: PN are introverts showing unsatisfactory interpersonal relationships in face-to-face contexts but could benefit from online courses where they can be more uninhibited in online interactions.

PH: When personal and professional ties force a PH student to enroll in online courses, they should look for practical rather than content-based methodologies. MOOCs could be a solution for PH profiles that are forced to study online. Also recommended is game-based learning and collaborative elements such as forums and group work courses.

PF: PF has been related to difficulties with information and communication technologies, and a desire for innovation and self-control. PF enrolling online HE programs for convenience should benefit from easy-to-use Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) and Online Educational Resources (OER), such as content based on videoconferences and interactive quizzes. PF profiles are better adapted to lecture-based methodologies rather than in group or collaborative learning activities, where they show more difficulties and dropout more often.

FTP: Future oriented individuals could need to engage in online contexts due to the need of lifelong learning in order to advance in their career. Instructional designers could use future orientation as a critical factor for promoting increased proximal motivation in online students.


PP: Could equally attend online and onsite courses, however PP students have shown preference for onsite classes in various studies because their extrovert profile tends toward social relations and the sense of belonging facilitated by the student’s proximity in traditional face-to-face programs.

PN: The PN orientation is significantly higher for online students. PN are usually introverts that can benefit from computer-mediated communication to uninhibited. Online education could fit their PN profile, but probably won’t help them to “overcome their introversion.”

PH: PH tend to prefer onsite classes, social interchange and communication. However, highly interactive online courses, involving active learning methodologies such Game Based Learning and collaborative learning could also fit the PH seeking for immediate gratification, feedback and interaction.

PF: PF profiles tend to be passive, and thus could have a preference for lecture-based methodologies; however, these methodologies are also found in some online learning courses that are lecture-based. The study observed that online students have lower PF than onsite students.

FTP: FTP students are prone to delay gratifications to achieve their goals in both onsite and online learning programs. Students with a future orientation may feel more comfortable in both types of programs.