Student Persistence in Online Courses: Understanding the Key Factors

Who should be taking online courses? Are online courses equally appropriate for all students? Can any content be taught in an online format or do some kinds of material lend themselves to mastery in an electronic environment? Who should be teaching these courses? These are all good questions that institutions offering online courses — and instructors teaching them — should consider.

Most of these questions are being answered in stages by research inquiries that address smaller issues related to these larger questions. For example, Carolyn Hart has completed an integrative review of the research literature in the hopes of identifying those factors that positively affect a student’s persistence in an online course. Do we know what differentiates students who complete online courses from those who drop out?

Her review is based on 20 studies published since 1999. She found that researchers used a wide range of definitions for persistence. She opted for this straightforward description: persistence is “the ability to complete an online course despite obstacles or adverse circumstances.” (p. 30) The opposite of persistence is attrition, which she defined as “withdrawal from an online course.” (p. 30) Based on her review, she identified the following factors as being related to student persistence in online courses.

Satisfaction with online learning – Not surprising, students who are satisfied with online courses and programs persist.

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