We have quite a bit of information on what it takes to be a successful online student but we may also be able to learn a few things from a couple of studies focusing on the unsuccessful online student.

Great Expectations by Greg Myers on Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA

Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY, surveyed 438 unsuccessful online students over a ten year span about their online learning experience. “Unsuccessful students” were defined as those who either failed or withdrew from the online course (Fetzner, 2013).

Online course retention rates are on average, between 5 – 10% lower than for on-campus courses. Findings from the study show the group of students least likely to complete include the “first-time, full-time” students, with a difference in the success rate of 32%. The top three reasons given by the unsuccessful students for dropping or failing their courses, were “falling behind in coursework”, “personal problems”, and conflicts with work and/or family responsibilities (Fetzner, 2013).

In another study examining student engagement and online persistence, researchers from from the University of Georgia collected data on 423 students enrolled in thirteen online course sections over three semesters. The withdrawal rate for the asynchronous online courses was very high at 32%. Of those students who stayed enrolled in the courses, only 75% successfully completed the course (Morrie, Finnegan, Wu 2005).

Findings from the UG study (2005) indicated that unsuccessful completers (those finishing the course earning a D or F grade) were much less likely to participate or engage meaningfully in course discussions / postings, etc.

It is apparent from both studies that students may have very unrealistic expectations of what it takes to succeed going into the online learning environment. I have heard anecdotally on numerous occasions of students who have enrolled in an online course for the first time because they thought it would be “easier”.

Our campus is developing an “Introduction to Distance Learning” module in our LMS for students enrolling in an online or blended course for the first time at our college. At the moment they enroll they will be automatically enrolled in the module. An email message will alert them that they need to complete the module before their online course begins. The purpose of the module is to help students better understand what they can expect in taking an online course in regards to organizational skills, time-on-task, the amount of reading and writing required, as well as their access to, and comfort with, technology, etc.

I would be interested to hear of what other colleges have done to help mitigate unrealistic expectations of the first-time online student.


Fetzner, M. (2013). What do unsuccessful online students want us to know? Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol 17, No. 1

Morris, L., Finnegan, C., Wu, S. (2005). Tracking student behavior, persistence, and achievement in online courses. Internet and Higher Education Vol 8. 221-231.