For a majority of online learners, math and reading, jobs hours directly impact grades and retention

online-student-predictorA majority of research on the predictors of student success in online learning focus on traditional four-year institutions; a fact the community college community finds troubling, since most community college students [a growing number!] are also going online. But are there any differences in the predictors of success? Researchers say ‘yes,’ which could also impact traditional institutions’ online learners, too.

According to a recent study conducted by Brian Wolff, biology instructor at Normandale Community College, MN; A. Michelle Wood-Kustanowitz, Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management Program, University of Minnesota; and Jennifer Ashkenazi, librarian at the National Library of Israel; the current cuts in funding for community colleges are similar to those that traditional institutions are also facing. Because of these cuts, and the need for institutions to provide more with less, online learning options are becoming increasingly prevalent.

However, though many studies conducted at four-year institutions’ relatively new online learning options focus on what makes online learning students successful, the online learning students at these often prestigious institutions are not necessarily the most representative of the large number of students currently taking online courses today.

That’s why researchers say it’s critical to research predictors of success for online students at community colleges (who are often employed full-time, parents, and/or remedial learners), since these predictors could better help all institutions develop strategies for better retention, and better exam scores and overall GPA.

Backing the belief that online community college students are more numerous and, therefore, a better representation, according to the Journal of College Teaching & Learning, while overall student enrollment at community colleges remained flat in 2011, online enrollment at community colleges increased 8.2 percent—a percentage that continues to increase.

And according to the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 31 percent of 18 to 24 year-old college students and more than half of all online students in the U.S. attend 2-year institutions.

(Next page: The predictors of online learning success)

In the study conducted by the authors, over 100 community college student in a 16-week environmental biology course—offered both face-to-face (F2F) and online—were surveyed. It’s also important to note that an instructor with 12 years of experience teaching online and F2F taught both classes using the same textbook.

Half of students were enrolled for the course online and half were enrolled in the F2F course. More on the report’s methodology can be found here.

The purpose of the study, say the authors, was to investigate 11 factors likely to have a “significant influence on student performance at a Midwestern community college: age; gender; course load; caregiver status; mode of delivery; GPA; credits previously completed; employment (in average hours employed per week for pay); and math, reading, and writing proficiency (as measured by ACT and ACCUPLACER tests).”

To measure success, students’ final exam scores for the class were evaluated.

The 11 factors, or potential predictors of success, were chosen through conversations with community college instructors, recent studies, and by conversations with struggling students who had enrolled in prior courses and often explained that work and/or children interfered with their studies.

The interesting results

Though the sample of students is small, and only one course is measured, the study’s findings certainly make good food for thought.

According to the report, no significant differences exist between online and F2F students in relation to GPA, course load, gender, placement levels, or previously completed credits.

However, when evaluated individually, GPA, placement levels (math, reading, and writing), and employment were determined to be significant predictors of final exam score. GPA, math placement, employment, and mode of delivery were determined to be significant predictors of outcome.

“A key finding is the importance of employment and academic preparedness as predictors of successful course completion,” said the report. “Of the students employed 12 or fewer hours per week, 75 percent completed the course and passed the final exam; whereas only 40 percent of the students employed more than 12 hours a week experienced the same positive outcome.”

The findings also show that nearly 55 percent of the variation in final exam scores can be explained by difference in course load, employment, and academic preparedness.

For example, students with low math placement levels scored almost 22 points lower on the 156-point final exam than did their more proficient peers. Students employed full time lost almost 25 point.

“These figures are very high relative to standard deviation for final exam scores,” emphasize the authors, “and equate to greater than a full letter grade in performance.”

The authors point to multiple studies that show that employment often impedes not only the number of hours available for study, but limits interaction with peers and professors—both consequences can affect performance.

And because more students online are often full-time employees, notes the report, online students are significantly less likely than their F2F peers to successfully complete their courses.

Though mode of delivery (F2F or online) did not have a significant effect on exam scores for those students who completed the course, mode of delivery did have a large effect on attrition rate.

The study revealed that of those students that did not complete the course, most were online students and most have low developmental placement scores in math, reading and writing.

“In this study, students that withdrew from the class had significantly lower GPAs than retained students,” say the authors. “Consequently, differential attrition left the online course with students that were likely better prepared than their F2F counterparts when classes began.”

Going from here

The report’s authors suggest that the study’s findings reveal that online student success rates can be helped by either discouraging students with poor academic skills from enrolling in online courses, or (and in a more practical option) greater investments in mandatory counseling and online orientation programs should be made.

“By requiring students to address their academic weaknesses before taking online courses, administrators may be able to reduce the number of risk factors associated with poor academic performance and improve online success rates.”

For students who may not have poor performance skills, but who are full-time employees, the report cites research that providing, and potentially requiring, course discussion participation as helpful; as well as mandatory counseling.

“Online students with accurate expectations are more successful than students with false expectations,” conclude the authors. “Mandatory counseling could be of particular benefit to working students, who may have trouble recognizing unmanageable course loads without help.”

For the full report, click here.