How to Be a Strong Online Learner in College


by Mark Carrier and Shaina Nguyen

Psychology Department

California State University, Dominguez Hills

April 21, 2021

Contact: Dr. L. Mark Carrier,

Online courses are part of nearly every college student's academic career. About 10 years ago, it became clear that college students need digital technologies in order to complete their educations because more and more college activities were becoming computer- and Internet-based (Slate, Manuel, & Brinson, 2002). While it seems that you can get a lot done in this world on a smartphone, the first steps to succeeding in online courses involve getting access to the best hardware and software that you can, plus having stable, reliable access to Internet broadband. The best hardware for online learning is a computer with a full-sized screen, either a laptop computer or a desktop computer. The best software usually includes paid (not free) versions of a word processing program, a spreadsheet program, and a slide presentation program. Plus, your college will require you to use a particular software system for taking classes; this system usually is called the Learning Management System. Thankfully, it is free from your campus. Your college might be able to help you out if you cannot afford the hardware and software. Some colleges have laptop computer "loaner" programs where students can check out laptops for a term. Or, if you plan to purchase your own computer, you might get an "education discount" if you buy the computer through your campus bookstore. Also, your college might offer student discounts for software like Microsoft Office or, better yet, your campus might provide the software for free. If you do not have Internet access at home, then perhaps your campus has a computer laboratory that is available to you. You also can try setting up your smartphone as a local Internet hub, contacting your local cable television provider to see if they offer Internet rate discounts, or (and this is not optimal) working at a local coffeehouse or supermarket that offers free Internet.

You will not only need the hardware, software, and Internet--you also will need to know how to use them, a concept referred to as "computer literacy" (Carrier, 2018) or "skills access" (van Dijk, 2005). On top of that, you will need to find a quiet place, away from other people and distractions, where you can sit comfortably while you learn and do your work. van Dijk (2005) called this the "usage access." If you can satisfactorily attain these three levels of access to digital technologies, then you can start on your way to online learning success (Scheerder, van Deursen, & van Dijk, 2017). It's not critical that you get all of these factors perfectly in line for yourself before you start, but always aim for improving your digital technology situation as you progress in college. As Hawkins and Oblinger (2006; pp. 12-13) put it, "Students who have a well-configured computer and broadband where they live have 24x7 access to information. However, students who share a computer or who must go to a public lab are limited by when a facility is open, when a computer is available, when they can get transportation to campus, and so on. The use of a shared machine is much lower than the use of a personal machine."

Many authors recommend that students be given an orientation course prior to taking their first online class. An orientation course might cover key skills, so that student's do not need to learn these skills at the same time as they are taking their first online course (Kauffman, 2015). One way to boost one's chances of completing an online course, and thus avoid having a history of dropped courses, is to take a training workshop or orientation class that teaches the essential technical skills for online coursework (Berenson, Boyles, & Weaver, 2008). In a study of students dropping out or failing in online community college classes in Maryland, a lack of technical skills—like basic computer skills and navigating websites—was a key factor in student problems (Muse, 2003). In addition, an orientation course could help students become aware of the time commitment of an online course and help to improve their self-regulation skills (Yukselturk & Bulut, 2007), time management skills (Neroni, Meijs, Gijsalaers, Kirschner, & de Groot, 2019) and emotional intelligence skills—an important part of self-regulation (Berenson et al., 2008). Research results show that taking an orientation course can increase performance in an online class by as much as one-half a letter grade! Community college students in Michigan participated in a study where final course grades in an online course were predicted from various other factors. In turned out that the second biggest impact on course grades was having taken an orientation course. The authors of the study argued that orientation courses should be required for students preparing to take online classes (Wojciechowski & Bierlein Palmer, 2005). You might find that your college or university offers an orientation course for online courses.

Boosting Your Success with Psychosocial Skills

Experts who study online learning have suggested a wide range of psychological and student factors that can improve performance. Many of these factors are listed in Table 1, along with definitions and examples of each. They include motivation, time management, self-discipline, emotional intelligence, self-regulation, learning style, and many others. Learning style has been broken down into several types that include visual learners, verbal learners, intuitive learners, reflective learners, and others (Felder & Silverman, 1988). Al-Abri, Jamoussi, AlKhanjari, and Kraiem (2020) applied these learning styles to online education, mapping specific technological aspects onto the learning styles. For example, visual learners would prefer images, videos, and animations, while verbal learnings would prefer audio and the audio portion of videos. However, research reveals that learning style is not a factor in performance. The research on learning style shows inconsistent effects, with some studies showing that it matters, while others do not (Yukselturk & Bulut, 2007). Studies that did find an effect of learning style include Dille and Mezack (1991), Eom, Wen, and Ashill (2006), and Gibson and Graff (1992). The studies that did not find an effect of learning style include Day, Raven, and Newman (1998), DeTure (2004), Liu and Reed (1994), Liu, Magjuka, and Lee (2008), Marrison and Frick (1994), and Shih and Gamon (2001). One of the best studies on learning style was a true experiment conducted at Mississippi State University. Students were randomly assigned to take an online version or a traditional version of an agricommunication class. The former performed no better or no worse because of their learning styles (Day et al., 1998).

While some researchers pick out one, single factor as key to online success—e.g., motivation (Keller, 1999; Song, 2000)—many authors have offered various optimal sets of factors or combinations of factors for an online learner (see Table 2). These student factors have been suggested by authors based on their understanding of the research literature, but some factors are known to be more supported by the research than others. The best evidence--from thoughtful and careful reviews of the literature by experts in the field and from well-designed studies--shows that letting students control when and how they access learning materials in the online context--for example, by letting learners choose they order in which they access content—appears to improve learning (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009). This effect possibly could happen because self-directed, independent, and exploration-driven students can take advantage of the freedom to choose their learning paths and engage in active learning. And, providing opportunities to self-reflect or to self-assess their performance also seems to improve learning (Means et al., 2009). This could be the result of giving all students the chance to engage in self-regulatory and metacognitive behaviors, where they adjust their expectations of themselves and then their plans in the class; if they do a good job at this, then their self-efficacy should be raised. An impediment to student success in online courses is the fact that students often think that online courses will be easier than face-to-face courses (Moody, 2004); this factor could influence students' ability to set proper expectations and adjust their work efforts accordingly (i.e., self-efficacy, self-assessment, and metacognition). It is important, too, for students to interact with another and the instructor to stay in a course; this finding supports the idea that online success requires good communication skills and interacting with others, as necessary (Moody, 2004). It has been established that being distracted by engaging in irrelevant tasks is detrimental to online learning (i.e., multitasking); healthy executive function includes the ability to focus and stay on task (Carrier, 2018). Even doing seemingly harmless tasks while taking an online course interferes with learning. For example, folding laundry is associated with as large a decrement in learning as using one's cell phone. Across six different types of distractions, learning went from 87% correct to 62% correct on average (Blasiman, Larabee, & Fabry, 2018). There are critical roles of students interacting with other students and with the instructor, of the teacher getting involved with students, and of designing a course that adds elements of interactions with the physical campus (Nortvig, Petersen, & Balle, 2018). In one study of 80 Turkish students taking an online computer programming class, self-regulation accounted for 16.4% of the performance variance (Yukselturk & Bulut, 2007).

There is good evidence to suggest that one's self-efficacy and attitude toward online learning predict performance in an online course, and that web-based courses may encourage a superficial study strategy that is known to be bad for any type of course. Undergraduate students taking a business class in online or F2F format did best when their attitudes toward the selected format were positive. At the same time, students who took the online format of the course were more likely to report using superficial study strategies than students taking the F2F format (Sankaran, Sankaran, & Bui, 2000). In a study done with students taking an undergraduate business computer course, students who did not use a clear study strategy did worse than other students, regardless of the format of the class. Further, being able to self-regulate, managing one's time, and having an internal locus of control were associated with relatively high learning levels (Sankaran & Bui, 2001). Some learner readiness tests such as the Test of Online Learning Success (TOOLS) have been developed that let people assess themselves on many dimensions that might be relevant to doing well in an online course. Research using TOOLS shows that being self-regulated, managing one's time, multitasking skills, and being disciplined are important to online success (Kerr et al., 2006). Further, it was found that academic skills were a core predictor of online success.

An analysis of published reports found that becoming a self-directed learner is especially important when students are new to online learning. Students need to learn how to rely less on the instructor for guidance and more on their internal goals and motivation. In addition, during this period, students need to figure out how to use the technological tools to interact with others in the class. Cognitive overload is a serious problem during the first online class, so students with mature executive function and self-regulation skills should fare better than others (Tyler-Smith, 2006). The bottom line is that you need to practice becoming self-directed, self-regulated, focused, and good at interacting with others in your classes, if you do not already possess these skills. It is important to start by assessing yourself. So, think back to prior courses, especially online ones if you have taken them, and evaluate your abilities in these areas. Identify the areas that you feel are the weakest, then give yourself concrete tasks that can help you build a skill and increase your confidence levels (for example, set a goal to contact your instructor using the computer tools during the first week of a course and to introduce yourself).

How to Stay Enrolled and Avoid Course Dropout

A big problem is that dropout rates are higher in online courses than in traditional, face-to-face courses. Various papers since the 1990s have noted the relatively high dropout rates of online courses, noting that up to 30% or more of the students in online classes are withdrawing from the courses (Allen & Seamen, 2015; Dutton, Dutton, & Perry, 2002; Griffith, Roberts, & Schultz, 2014; Jaggars & Bailey, 2010; Jaggars, Edgecombe, & Stacey, 2013; Kearsley & Lynch, 1996; Roblyer, 1999; Rovai, 2002). Dropping out occurs heavily at the beginning of a class (Laato et al., 2019). In fact, even when considering other differences between students who sign up for online courses and students who sign up for face-to-face courses, the online courses can have significantly higher dropout rates than face-to-face classes. In Virginia, a study of more than 20,000 community college students found dropout rates in online versions of entry-level math and English courses that are 2 to 3 times higher than in the face-to-face versions. In addition, for the students that stayed in the classes, online students were only 60% as likely as face-to-face students to pass the class with a C grade or better (Xu & Smith Jaggars, 2011). And, even when dropout rates are similar in face-to-face and online versions of the same course, the chances of passing the class can be lower in the online sections or the grades in online sections may be lower than F2F sections, as shown in a study involving more than 4,000 college students at a Tennessee community college (Gregory & Lampley, 2016) and other studies (Fischer, Xu, Rodriguez, Denaro, & Warschauer, 2020). At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, the chances of dropping out of an online section of Introduction to Research Methods was about 3.0%, not statistically different than the chances of dropping out of a face-to-face section; however, the failure rate was higher in the online sections (8.3% versus 4.9%) (Roberts et al., 2019).

Theoretical models of student persistence in college insist that student dropout is affected by social, psychological, and external factors. One theory of college persistence incorporates interactions between the environment, the academic situation, and a student's psychological characteristics (Bean & Metzner, 1985). Cabrera et al. (1992) highlighted the psychological elements of a student's experience in college. Tinto's (1993, 1997) famous model of college student persistence argues that students must feel socially and academically integrated into college life to succeed. While these theories were designed to explain why students drop out of a university or college entirely, similar factors may influence students dropping out of individual online courses. When students are asked why they drop out of online courses, the top reasons are personal reasons (34%), course design and communication with the instructor (28%), technical issues (18%), and institutional mistakes or improper procedures (11%) (Aragon & Johnson, 2008). Objective research done over the last 20 years to elucidate the causes of dropout from online courses points a finger at all these variables. A student's performance in a course depends on numerous design, instruction, technical, and external factors, as well as a series of student factors--factors that largely are under the control of the learner.

Experience with taking prior online courses or familiarity with online course features (for example, through an orientation workshop) are extremely helpful. If a student has withdrawn from an online course in the past, then this is a warning sign that he or she will withdraw from a future online course; conversely, success in prior online courses makes a good prognosis regarding success in future online courses. One study of more than 2,000 students taking online courses found that one of the key predictors of dropping out was how many times a student had dropped out of online courses in the past (Cochran, Campbell, Baker, & Leeds, 2014). And, if you dropped out of an online course in the past, your chances of passing a future online class will be affected. This was shown in an examination of performance in a community college business course, where the number of times a student dropped out of an online course in the past was the third biggest predictor of not passing the business class (Wojciechowski & Bierlein Palmer, 2005). Part of the reason that past success predicts future success has been attributed to a student picking up important computer and technical skills for the online learning environment (Dupin-Bryant, 2004; Hachey, Conway, & Wladis, 2013; Harrell II & Bower, 2011; Kerr et al., 2006).

However, taking prior online courses or taking an orientation course does not always determine one's performance in the larger context of all the variables that influence course grades. It's also important for students to think about their overall course load and their prior academic performance when considering enrolling in an online course. It might be bad to take too many online courses at once; a student's chances of coming back to the school are lower as the proportion of online courses in her schedule goes up. Data supporting this assertion comes from a study of 1,173 students at the University of Central Florida. Students were free to enroll in online or F2F sections of Political Science Courses. Students with large proportions of online courses in their schedules were less likely to re-enroll in the university, with the impact being especially damaging for transfer students (suffering a 10% decline in retention with a fully online course load) (Glazier, Hamann, Pollock, & Wilson, 2019). If you have a lot of commitments outside of school, or if you do not feel fully engaged by your campus, then you might be tempted to choose online courses over F2F ones; however, these other factors might have a long-term detrimental effect on your continuation in college.

The dropout effect is even stronger for students with relatively low prior GPAs. A study in Florida shows that the negative impact of dropout rates from online courses is worse for student with low GPAs than for students with high GPAs (Glazier et al., 2019). In online classes, students with poor past academic performance are more likely than others to drop out or to get poor course grades (Attardi, Barbeau, & Rogers, 2018). Prior GPA is one of the top factors that differentiate students who dropout or fail online courses who pass, according to a study involving students in a Maryland community college (Muse, 2003) and a study of students at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (Gering et al., 2018). In another community college study, a student's core reading, writing, and math skills were not a factor, suggesting that the effect of prior GPA relates to time management, motivation, or other school-related characteristics (Aragon & Johnson, 2008). Students with GPAs of less than 2.0 are less likely than other students to complete an online course, as demonstrated in data from a Virginia community college (Office of Institutional Effectiveness, 2001). College students with GPAs of 3.0 or higher are less likely to withdraw from online courses than other students (Cochran et al., 2014). Even for students who manage to stay enrolled in an online course until the end, prior GPA matters. In a study of an online business course in community college, the biggest predictor of a passing grade was overall GPA. In fact, each 1.0 increase in prior GPA resulted in a whole-grade increase in the final course grade (Wojciechowski & Bierlein Palmer, 2005). Students with GPAs between 3.00 and 3.99 are 45 times more likely than students with poor GPAs to earn a passing grade in an online course (defined as C- or better); and, students with 4.00 GPAs are 91 times more likely that students with poor GPAs to earn a passing grade (Gering et al., 2018). It is suggested that students with low GPAs meet with advisers prior to taking an online course. The advisers can assist students in improving their planning and time management skills (Aragon & Johnson, 2008).

Students with family obligations—who tend to be females or older students—and students with work obligations outside of school may find those obligations to interfere with performance in online courses. Older learners, sometimes called adult learners, are seen as being anywhere from 22 years old to 28 years old and older. These students are assumed to be balancing family lives, work lives, and their educations (Kahu, Stephens, Leach, & Zepke, 2013). Female students suffer in online courses more than male students around the world, according to a careful review of the research, because of female students' extra family obligations (Kara, Erdoğdu, Kokoç, & Cagiltay, 2019). Transfer students and students with high proportions of online courses in their schedules—groups that suffer from higher dropout rates—might have higher than average commitments outside of school (Glazier et al., 2019). A review of causes of dropout from online classes included family issues, a lack of support from the school, changing a job, and having too high of a workload (Willging & Johnson, 2004). University students in online courses who lack support from their employers are only 63% as likely to persist in courses (Park & Choi, 2009). Studies show that getting support from one's family can improve one's chances of success in an online class. Families can support online learners by providing a physical location for learning, for example (Kara et al., 2019). Also, the problems might be lessened by getting the support of one's workplace or using course materials that are directly relevant to one's life or job (Park & Choi, 2009). (Park and Choi found that students who think their classes are not relevant to them are only 59% as likely to continue in the class as other students.) Employers can support online leaners by cutting back on work hours and providing work scheduling flexibility (Kara et al., 2019). It could be most helpful to students who have outside obligations to give them class materials that directly connect to their lives; this would maximize the usefulness of courses to them given their tight schedules (Bouhnik & Marcus, 2006). On the other hand, the flexibility of the online course—if designed well—could benefit students with employment or family obligations. One study found that older leaners (in this case, define as aged 28 years old or older) did better than younger learners (Dille & Mezack, 1991).

The technology used, the instructor, and the course structure can predict how well a course will go (Yukselturk & Bulut, 2007). Instructors and course designers build courses, choosing how the websites function, the course assignments, and the activities. For instance, the course designer and the instructor will choose specific communication and interaction tools and set assignments that may or may not require that students interact with other students or with the instructor. In fact, students must "interact" during online courses in at least four ways: interaction with the course material, interaction with the teacher, interaction with the other students, and interaction with the technology itself (called "interaction with the system") (Bouhnik & Marcus, 2005). If it is difficult for students to interact, then students will participate less (Arbaugh, 2000). Yet, the student decides how much to participate and interact with others (Fresen, 2006); students adjust their level of interaction with the LMS and they decide how much effort to put into opportunities for interaction, participation, and self-reflection. In highly structured courses, the instructor gives lots of information about what students are supposed to do, and the course designer has created a highly organized website with very specific software tools that are to be used by students. But in courses with low structure, students determine how much effort they want to put into using the course website, what tools to use to carry out assignments, and how and how much to interact with peers and the instructor. Students become "self-directed learners." Self-directed learning promotes deep learning, curiosity, and exploration (Knowles, 1975). Students and instructors agree that success in an online course follows from student interaction and participation (Yukselturk & Bulut, 2007). In other words, you should take the option of interacting with others in your class when you are given it. You also should take up opportunities to do self-reflection. Both activities improve success in online courses (Means et al., 2009). The simplest level of participation—such as signing on to the course during the first week (Wang & Newlin, 2000, 2002)—is predictive of success in an online course. Some instructors include social media in their online courses, adding an interactive component called "collaborative learning." Collaborative learning increases student participation and student interaction with other students; therefore, students should take advantage of it if it is available (Al Abri, Jamoussi, AlKhanjari, & Kraiem, 2020). Beyond minimal interaction, improving your interaction and communication skills reaps even more success in online classes (Dabbagh, 2007).

It's easy for our brains to become overwhelmed with the many extra technological skills required in online courses. In fact, at least one of the published self-assessment tools for online learners includes computer skills as an important component (Kerr, Rynearson, & Kerr, 2006). Students might not think that technical skills have much importance to online course success (Muilenburg & Berge, 2005), but Tyler-Smith (2006) identified several skills that successful students must master. They include using technology tools, becoming familiar with the LMS (e.g., Blackboard), and learning how to use a computer to interact with other students and the teacher. Students new to online learning need extra time to learn the new technology, possibly taking time away from learning the course material (Loomis, 2000). For first-time online students, these new skills can be overwhelming in the first few weeks (Tyler-Smith, 2006). Researchers suggest that this "cognitive overload" is a key factor in why students do not do well (Dumont, 1996; Hiltz & Wellman, 1997; Warkentin, Sayeed, & Hightower, 1997), especially when they are taking their first online course. Some researchers have gone so far as to say that cognitive overload relates directly to the phenomenon of high dropout rates (Cochran et al., 2014). While problems with technical skills have not been shown to be the biggest factor in why students drop out of an online course, and have not mattered in all studies (e.g., DeTure, 2004), many researchers have determined that they do contribute to trouble in completing a course (Dabbagh, 2007; Gregory & Lampley, 2016; Meyer, 2002; Muse, 2003). If the course is designed and run well, then cognitive overload is minimized. Students who are relatively young in age might not feel that technical skills are much of a barrier and are easy to pick up with experimentation, but students who are older than 50 might need supplemental help from the teaching institution (Kara et al., 2019). Researchers suggest that instructors can help new online students develop technical skills by giving students chances to try out the different, required technical tasks (Palloff & Pratt, 2013). Research suggests that students with positive qualities like high self-esteem and a knack for independent learning will quickly build up their technical and computer skills as they progress in their first courses (Kerr et al., 2006). In summary, trying out different technical tasks and asking for help from your instructor or your institution are good ideas if you are taking an online course for the first time, or if you feel the need to improve your computer and technical skills.


This essay is designed to provide college students with research-informed avenues for mastering online courses, preventing dropout from those courses, and raising grades in the courses. Several psychosocial variables were identified as being important in online course success, including self-direction (independence), self-regulation (staying balanced and on task), and executive function (focus and distraction avoidance). At the same time, there are other factors that students can use to their advantage. For instance, taking an orientation course for online learners and improving one's online communication skills are both important to success.

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