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Predictors of Success for Adult Online Learners: A Review of the Literature

By Elizabeth A. Gruenbaum / February 2010

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As an adjunct professor for an online-only graduate school course, I have found myself contemplating the retention rate of adult e-learners.

What are the predictors of adult students' success in online learning environments? Is there a difference in undergraduate versus graduate online learners and their motivations? Does age play a factor? Do the course's characteristics have an impact on performance and learner satisfaction? What are the implications of these findings for online instructors, and how could that affect their practices and approaches to retaining students in the future?

Here, I examine what the literature says about these questions.

Predictors of Adult Students' Success in E-learning Environments
E-learning has become an expected part of higher education in recent years (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006; Tallent-Runnels et al., 2006; Zandberg & Lewis, 2008). In fact, more than a decade ago Moore and Kearsley (1996) found that an overwhelming majority of distance education students were between the ages of 25 and 50.

Since online enrollment continues to grow, so does the scholarly interest in students' educational motivations in such courses (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2004; Green & Azevedo, 2007). However, to be successful in an online only learning environment, students should be well-motivated, autonomous learners, who are able to self-regulate their learning experiences (Artino & Stephens, 2009).

A motivated student may be defined as one who seizes the opportunity to learn—the opposite of a procrastinator. The motivated learner will stick with the class even in the face of adversity.

Autonomous, self-regulated learners committ to controlling their own learning experiences. Some of the ways that this self-regulation may be displayed is by seeking help when they lack understanding, believing in their own capabilities, rehearsing the material to be learned, organizing the material to be learned, and holding an intrinsic belief in the value of learning (Boekaerts, Pintrich, & Zeidner, 2000; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1998).

Many active, self-regulated learners use their past experiences and the context of their present virtual classrooms to set goals for their learning. Their goals become a standard against which they compare their progress (Green & Azevedo, 2007; Pintrich, 2000). Highly motivated and autonomous, self-regulated learners are needed in e-learning environments because of the autonomous nature of the online classroom, in comparison to a traditional classroom (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2004).

Graduate vs. Undergraduate Motivations
Differences have been noted between undergraduate and graduate distance learners and their motivations. Even though many graduate students are less experienced with online learning and technologies, they were more likely to be self-motivated, to utilize critical thinking skills, and were less likely to procrastinate when compared to their undergraduate counterparts (Pintrich, 1999; Wolters, 2003). In contrast, undergraduate students were more likely to procrastinate and less likely to use in-depth critical thinking skills (Wolters, 2003).

Age as a Factor in Online Learners' Success
The literature supports the idea that because adult learners are not as technologically savvy and have more responsibilities toward work and family, online learning is more difficult for them (Dubois, 1996). However, Ke and Xie's (2009) study showed that regardless of an adult learner's age, students self-reported the same amount of effort put into learning tasks and reported comparable levels of satisfaction.

Artino and Stephens (2009) saw differences between undergraduate and graduate online students: even though undergraduates were more likely to procrastinate, they were also more likely to show greater continuing motivation to enroll in further e-learning courses and reported valuing and benefiting from online classroom tasks. The majority of the undergraduates in the study were non-traditional students—working adults between 25 and 50 years old. Their age and circumstance may have played a part in the outcome (Artino & Stephens, 2009).

On the other hand, Hargis (2001) points out that age alone will not predict online learning outcomes. Since more and more online students are between the age of 25 and 50, further studies that explore differences in non-traditional versus traditional learners may be beneficial in helping instructors and universities to better understand the motivational differences of these demographics and compensate practices and design accordingly (Artino & Stephens, 2009).

Design Model Characteristics and the Impact on Performance and Learner Satisfaction
Understanding the nature of online learning helps educators and schools implement online courses (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). High-quality course designs should include certain features within their makeup. Cercone (2008) suggests that course design models:

  • connect new knowledge to prior learning
  • maintain collaboration and social interaction between students
  • promote a self-reflective environment
  • include current or immediate applications
  • advance self-regulated learning.

These components in the design of a class lead to deep learning as opposed to just surface learning (Fink, 2003; Majeski & Stover, 2007). Deep learning proves successful and provides satisfaction by engaging the whole learner in the learning process, socially, cognitively, and affectively (Fink, 2003; Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000). Deep learning permeates across all age groups and all types of learners. Distance learning should be desirable to all adult learners, regardless of age, and promote lifelong learning (Cahoon, 1998).

Implications for Online Instructors: Practices to Promote
In light of the findings, it would be wise for instructors to implement practices that cultivate self-regulation and critical thinking in their students (Green & Azevedo, 2007). Teachers may need to provide varying levels of support and guidance for their undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduates, for example, may require more explicit support that will help them self-monitor (Artino & Stephens, 2009).

Providing reflective prompts is one way to support all online learners (Davis and Linn, 2000). Making specific and clear syllabi and assignments with progressive calendar deadlines may encourage task completion and improve self fulfillment (Liu, Bonk, Magjuka, Lee, & Su, 2005; McLoughlin, 2002).

Other strategies that have improved self-efficacy in both undergraduate and graduate learners, are to provide students specific performance feedback on a timely basis (Bangert, 2004; Wang & Lin, 2007), as well as assist students in identifying and setting challenging yet reachable goals (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2004).

In regard to online discussions or discussion board prompts, undergraduates in particular may benefit from instructor assistance, or scaffolding in such a way that promotes critical thinking. Some examples of instructor-enhanced scaffolding within the prompts includes modeling a response to the prompt, requesting clarification, reinforcing students' ideas, correcting misunderstandings, and asking for consensus within areas of disagreement (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001; Shea, Li, Swan, & Pickett, 2005). These practices may improve learner interaction; increase satisfaction; increase retention; and facilitate critical thinking and self-regulation in students (Shea et al., 2005; Whipp, 2003).

Implications for Online Instructors: Approaches and Techniques
Instructors should consider different approaches and techniques that they may utilize to maximize students' success. Online learning models may incorporate both asynchronous and synchronous communication tools.

Asynchronous tools include applications such as email, discussion boards, newsgroups, and conference rooms where users are allowed to contribute at their leisure, but are not required to be online at a specific time. Asynchronous forms of learning lend more to self-reflection and deep learning as posited earlier (Hiltz & Goldman, 2005; Jaffee, Moir, Swanson & Wheeler, 2006).

Synchronous tools include chat rooms, webcasts, desktop video, and audio technologies. These tools are used to simulate real-time teaching strategies, like meeting with groups of students or delivering lectures or presentations. The synchronous activities may help foster a sense of community to facilitate learning a complex body of knowledge (Schwen & Hara, 2004; Vrasidas & Glass, 2004).

Three different types of learning experiences may be fostered within an online community. These approaches are 1) expository learning, 2) active learning, and 3) interactive learning. The type of learning provided may determine the way the learner acquires knowledge.

Expository learning is a conventional approach to learning where the information is given to the student through a lecture or via written material. Active learning involves the learner having control over how and what she learns. Learning is inquiry-based, such as working on manipulation of artifacts, simulations, web quests, or games (Zhang, 2005). Interactive learning emphasizes collaborative learning activities where the learning develops from interaction with others or other knowledge sources within the course. Teachers may be facilitators in such learning (USDOE, 2009).

In determining which approach to use and when, the instructor should 1) remember what has been said thus far about learning and best practices, 2) consider the student group to be served, and 3) consider how the learning should best emerge. Think of using technology as a tool to foster deep learning and critical thinking skills (Fink, 2003; Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000; Majeski & Stover, 2007). With expository instruction, the technology is conveying the content. With active learning, the technology is allowing the learner to be in control of the learning by investigation of information or of problems. With interactive learning, the technology is mediating the interactions of learners and allowing learning to emerge (USDOE, 2009).

Implications of Findings for Online Instructors
The U.S. Department of Education (2009) says earlier online programs typically utilized either asynchronous or synchronous applications within their courses. The Department suggests that combining these types of forums in online classrooms is catching on. It has also become more of a common occurrence to provide a blended model of instruction where, in addition to the online format, an occasional face-to-face class will take place. However, a U.S. Department of Education study (2009) found that when comparing an online-only versus a blended classroom, the learning outcomes are similar. Thus, learning will emerge and provide a similar success rate in online-only classes with or without a face-to-face component.

With the convenience of distance learning, I see the trend pushing more toward the online-only realm, especially since the study showed comparable learning gains. Additionally, the study found that active learning strategies enhance learning and foster self efficacy and intrinsic motivation, as Shea et al. (2005) and Whipp (2003) say are necessary for critical thinking and deep learning.

Interactive learning is another trend that will prompt learner reflection and assist with developing a sense of community, as noted by Schwen and Hara (2004) and Vrasidas and Glass (2004). Instructors should focus on this trend to promote the community feeling that students tend to express they feel is lacking within online courses. Students say online learning is what they turn to for flexibility and because of their busy lifestyles (Green & Azevedo, 2007). As a result, instructors should change their teaching styles to be just as flexible and accommodating to all learners by incorporating the various strategies discussed and by being easily accessible to students. National University's (NU) School of Education, where I am an adjunct professor, has a 24 hour "return policy": If a student contacts a professor, the professor should get back to the student within 24 hours by email or phone.

In regard to student satisfaction and retention, I suggest that instructors and universities consider promoting an environment of continuous improvement by allowing students to anonymously complete a survey at the end of the class to assess their learning and improvement and the instructor's teaching and course management. The quality of an instructor is an important determinant of an effective learning system (Khan, 2005; Selim, 2007; Wang, Wang & Shee, 2007). If measured, it will get attention (Eccles, 1991).

NU has a policy of asking students to complete course evaluations, and instructors ratings are reviewed by deans and heads of departments. Instructors' ratings play a part in whether they are asked to teach that class again. About half of my students complete the evaluations for my course, but this only gives me and the other faculty a partial picture of my effectiveness as an instructor. I'd suggest universities give students an incentive for completing course evaluations to increase the likelihood of a higher return.

The studies reviewed suggest that students are using their past experiences and the context of their present online environment to set goals for their learning where the goals set become a standard against which to compare their progress (Green & Azevedo, 2007; Pintrich, 2000). Thus, instructors should look to mirror this idea within their own teaching of future classes.

Instructors should also use evaluations or other student feedback to drive their future instruction (Stanford & Reeves, 2005). Just as technology is always changing and evolving to meet the students' needs, so too should the instructor's teaching and management of the course.

References Below


  • Wed, 12 Oct 2016
    Post by Janice

    As an online Literature tutor for me teaching people of all ages is an amazing job. I get to teach the whenever they are available and at the comfort of their homes.

  • Sun, 15 Aug 2010
    Post by Dana Dolsen

    I must say I was never sure on why anyone would ever want to take online courses from a higher education institution. Once I met Dr. Mark Welch, my opinion did an about face (a 180 degree) turn around. Talk about passion and zeal for the great opportunities available to reach out across communities of place and interest in a way that impacts those who love to learn and the few who are truly committed to teach regardless of whether it is in person on campus or via the Internet! Mark took me under his wing about half a year ago after we met at a fundraiser for African orphaned children here in SLC (I am on the board of the Interethnic Health Alliance).

    Mark was totally inspiring and engaging as well as encouraging as far as my potential to offer my experience and acquired knowledge to others who wanted to learn! He has coached and mentored me since then, coming to visit me at my workplace to learn about the online and on campus courses I am certified to teach through my current employer, as well as personally taking the time to visit me in my home to further guide and coach me as I seek further opportunities to teach online.

    I am so very saddened to learn today that Mark, my friend and mentor, has unexpectedly and tragically died yesterday of pancreatisis and I am at a loss as to what to say or do except to urge anyone who reads this to do as Mark did - inspire and guide others in their joie de vivre for learning and teaching and go the extra mile to assist any who wish to pursue their dreams. If there is any way that I may help anyone, please contact me at 801 550-9623, or if you just want to chat about the online education community, please send me a note. Thank you all for living, learning and laughing - that is what Mark did and I hope to honor his legacy by doing the same. Sincerely, Mr. Dana E. Dolsen, Holladay, Utah

  • Mon, 26 Jul 2010
    Post by Thomas Retterbush

    Very insightful article. I believe that online learning, via laptop or iPad has a lot of potential to someday challenge the traditional classroom as the primary source of learning. Even though students may miss interaction with fellow students and teachers, both, this problem could be resolved by means of social media.

  • Fri, 18 Jun 2010
    Post by Tina

    I really felt a connection to this topic. I teach the Lead 219, Developmental Writing Course. Most of my job is spent motivating student engagement and involvement. I work tirelessly throughout the semester building community in my classroom to provide a safe, comfortable, and accepting setting for students to share ideas and receive peer feedback. My goal is that students innitiate activities that provide meaningful learning opportunities. So much of this is dependant (or so I thought) on f2f interations. I am excited about exploring how to recreate that on Bb. Great article and it gave me alot to think about as I develop my LM.

  • Thu, 08 Apr 2010
    Post by Beth Gruenbaum

    Hi Moussa,

    I'm glad that my article was helpful to you with your term paper. Thank you for your positive comments, and good luck!

  • Wed, 07 Apr 2010
    Post by Moussa Tankari

    Hi Beth,

    Thank you for this very informative article on adult online learners. I am writing a term paper on online student performance and satisfaction and thought this article is a great start for me. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

  • Sat, 20 Feb 2010
    Post by Beth Gruenbaum

    Thank you for your thoughtful response and for the information on the findings of your dissertation with regard to best practices and gender differences in online learners. I concur that further research into gender differences in e-learners may not only yield interesting findings but may also be helpful in assisting instructors to better understand and serve the different needs of their students.

  • Wed, 17 Feb 2010
    Post by Dr. Julian R. Cowart

    Thanks for this great article. I just completed my dissertation, Best Practices in Online Instruction: Why Practices Work for Some Students and Not for Others. Of 20 best instructional practices identified, I found that there are significant differences in how students of various ages, gender, educational backgrounds, and comfort levels in using technology, value those instructional practices. Some of the greatest differences surfaced between genders.

    I think you are right on target with your recommended practices to promote, and I would add that instructors may wish to vary their practices, approaches and techniques based on gender as well. At minimum further research into gender differences among online learners might yield some interesting finds.

  • Tue, 16 Feb 2010
    Post by Beth Gruenbaum

    Dr. Tudor, thanks for the encouraging response. The United States Department of Education (2009) recently evaluated evidence-based practices in online learning with a specific focus on K-12 online learning. One of the limitations with that study was the fact that so few rigorous published studies exist that focus solely on K-12 e-learners that they had to pull information from other settings and fields such as higher education to complete their evaluation. Thus, they cautioned generalizing the findings of the study to just the K-12 online setting. This is just one example showing that more needs to be done in the way of researching and writing about the topic. Therefore, I believe you are correct in concluding that it may be helpful to investigate this topic. Maybe this is cause for another article in the near future. We'll have to see. Stay tuned!

  • Tue, 16 Feb 2010
    Post by Beth Gruenbaum

    Hi Taruna, thank you for your kind comments and response to my article. I will definitely check out your blog in the near future. Thanks for sharing that information.

  • Tue, 16 Feb 2010
    Post by Taruna GoelT

    This is an interesting article! You have been able to share some significant components that can contribute to the success of an online learning intervention. I especially enjoyed the implications for online instructors. I recently reflected on the same topic and have my own recipe for online success! I don't have research backings but just my experience (and that of others) that helped me reflect on what I learnt. I welcome your views and comments.

  • Tue, 16 Feb 2010
    Post by John Tudor

    Well written and very good information. I wonder how the research applies to high school students as there are now an increasing number of virtual high schools? Perhaps a new article? Well done.

  • Fri, 12 Jun 2009
    Post by Belinda Schafer

    I have found it so true that emotionally engaging students "hooks" them - and it''s pretty easy to provide that emotional buy in with the emergency medical care courses I teach - I have found that the "real life" stories (no HIPPA violations!!) inspire and engage the students. I really need practice with site design - I don''t even have the time to research all the cool sites and what''s out there available to use. I hope I can use some down time this summer to do some research - and I''m certain this class will give me more confidence in using links/sites, etc

  • Mon, 05 Jan 2009
    Post by Jennifer Juhl-Darlington

    Wow, This article was excellent and touched on many topics I have thought about while developing my hybrid nursing classes. I teach a few f2f courses and two hybrid courses and struggle with keeping emotional energy flowing through my fact driven lessons. I identified with Gail, another student in the POP course when I read what she wrote. As a f2f instructor I am evaluated highly for my "passion for the topic" and students have commented on their interest in my "real-life nursing stories. I feel both of these categories take a hit in the hybrid portion of my online. I have already learned much from the intro to this course in how to interject my own experiences to increase the emotional experience of my students. My attention was increased when I read the "getting personal" section. I am excited and now re-motivated to improve my classes yet again.

  • Thu, 12 Jul 2007
    Post by Jo Anna

    Making connections with students, whether within an on-line course or face-to-face, is critical. As a manager, it is important to make the connection and continue updating our students with up-to-date information. OUR students appreciate it.

  • Tue, 10 Jul 2007
    Post by Jill

    I agree the emotional component of learning is very important for motivating students. The difficulty in the typical class environment is that it is hard to always predict what students care about, especially when you have a students from a variety of backgrounds (and everyone does not always talk in class nor do you always have the time you like to get them talking). So, one benefit of the online environment is the ability for the teacher to see student responses to find out what they care about on an ongoing basis. I like the list of suggestions at the end. In the past, I have found that it can be tricky to grab the emotion, and then get students to settle back down to the process of studying, and forming opinions backed by the factual information (especially in the field of psychology). The suggestions to have "Frequent assignments" and "keep the topic narrow" would be key to be able to consider all aspects of learning without overworking the student. If this model, were to be used in a student services environment, I would think it would be key to create stories of students and their experiences.

  • Tue, 10 Jul 2007
    Post by Julie Withers

    Using an emotional appeal really makes the difference. If I can''t get the students to connect emotionally with sociological topics, I''ve lost them. And humor helps lighten the pain when thinking of societal woes, helps us all get past the "what can I do feeling" and get to the heart of the matter.

  • Tue, 12 Jun 2007
    Post by David Payne

    I agree with many of Gail''s comments. I find that her commensts are true for face to face classes. The skills and intellectual curiousity is often dulled or lacking entirely in most of my students. I try continually to reach out and to connect, a few, avery few students connect and make my classes enlightening. Always, for me is the fight toget students to see the world as a great toy or game to be reached out to and engaged. There world is so small...their text message and wonder that tell me how boring things are.

  • Sun, 08 Apr 2007
    Post by Stacey Bartlett

    Teaching communication studies courses causes me to use a great deal of humor and emotional appeal to help students overcome communication apprehension. I have felt somewhat disconnected from online teaching because of my narrow-minded view of purely lineal teaching strategies. This article was a welcomed slap in the face. I might be able to do this after all.

  • Tue, 03 Apr 2007
    Post by Alfred Konuwa

    I article defines many of the problems associated with failed online communities. The need for emotional attachment is revealing. Online social interactions in the classroom should be treated no different from face to face. Imagine going into a classroom as an instructor and deciding not to direct the content of a discussion. This is tantamount to posting a query and waiting for students to carry on by themselves. Eventually, it dies. While I support the appointment of a cheerleader in the online community, I would add that the primary cheerleader should be the instructor!

  • Fri, 01 Dec 2006
    Post by David paynP

    All good information in this article. Much of the same information that one would encounter in a Teacher Education Credential Program fact, I shared this article with my wife (asst.dean CSUChico Dept. of Ed.) I''m lucky that I teach a subject that is ore focused on application of the subject content than a base information acquisition.

  • Tue, 28 Nov 2006
    Post by David Payne

    I like this article. It reminded me of my doctorial studies. I remember how much I enjoyed courses that had emontion and humor in them, even courses that i didn''t care about. It was nice to hear about non-linear teaching. That is how I teach all of my Communication Studies courses. I like to get the students up and working and then present skills and knowledge to them when they needed it improve the work. This article also reinforced my perception about just how terminally boring my on line traffic class was...dull,linear succession of facts, visually dry...a sleep inducer. I appreciate good heads up information that is useful and timely.

  • Mon, 27 Nov 2006
    Post by Molly

    I have created a discussion board and abandoned it. Everyone in my classes has figured this out, and they have stopped posting on it. I wish I had known some of these tips earlier!

  • Mon, 27 Nov 2006
    Post by Gail Hannan

    I really fall down in appealing to the heart in my courses. I am always so focused on getting the facts out that students probably tune me out. I teach a study skills course that students take because they are concerned with their own success in college. I give them many lessons on various aspects of becoming more successful such as time management and preparing for tests. Somehow I need to appeal more to the personal concerns of students than just give them principles. In a face-to-face class you have a better opportunity to communicate directly with students. In an online course, you have to connect emotionally without the benefit of seeing people. I feel like I can use some major improvement here. Sometimes when I read my own lessons I start to tune out. The students need to connect emotionally and I think I could use some change in that area. This course has the potential to be very relevant am I going to communicate that online?