Top 5 Research-Based Online Learning Tips

06/25/2018

Some students choose to study online to earn a degree or qualification, while others are primarily looking to further their professional development. Whatever their motivations may be, however, it’s clear that enrolment in online courses is not slowing down.

According to the 2017 Distance Education Enrollment report released by the Babson Survey Research Group, enrollment in online courses has increased for the fourteenth straight year. The report shows that 6.3 million students in the U.S. took at least one online course, which is a 5.6% increase from the previous year.

Even so, dropout rates in online courses still tend to be higher than in traditional courses. Some of the biggest reasons online students drop out include unrealistic expectations, poor planning, and a lack of engagement and motivation.

So how can students be better supported and engaged in online learning programs? Based on the research available, here are five ways to make online learning more effective.

1. Actively Involve The Learner

A lack of engagement with the material is one of the biggest reasons students struggle to stick with online courses. However, research shows that students learn more when they participate in the learning process, whether it’s through discussion, practice, review or application.

So in order to engage online students, it’s important to incorporate activities that allow students to get actively involved. In face-to-face learning, this might take the form of classroom debates and discussions, brainstorming sessions, and pairing students up to solve a problem.

In online learning this can be more difficult to do, but it certainly isn’t impossible. Rather than just passively watching lectures or reading, online students should be encouraged to engage in hands on learning and put theory into practice, whether that means gathering data, going out and conducting face-to-face interviews, analyzing case studies or developing and investigating their own questions.

2. Foster Collaboration Between Students

Another thing that’s been shown to have a positive impact on student motivation is interaction and collaboration with peers. A survey of 1,500 current, prospective, and recently graduated online college students found that more than 50% considered interaction with their academic community important and a quarter of them said having more contact with instructors and more engagement with classmates would improve the quality of their online courses.

Recently, a study led by researchers from Michigan State University also showed that students performed better academically and were more inspired about learning when they were given a rationale for why learning is important from their peers rather than their instructors.

The researchers point out that while instructors are good at getting across facts, it’s easier for students to identify with individuals who are more similar to them. Some of the ways to increase interaction and collaboration between peers in online learning include group emails, video conferencing, discussion boards and online groups, as well as student blogs and podcasts.

3. Recognize Cultural Differences

With students of all ages, from all walks of life, and from different parts of the world now using online education to achieve their career goals, it’s important for cultural differences among course participants to be recognized.

Recently, researchers from Stanford University found that people in less-developed countries are less likely to complete an online course or MOOC. They speculate that this is due to a psychological barrier known as social identity threat, which has been shown to impair working memory and academic performance. Simply put, it’s a fear of being seen as less competent because of race, religion or background.

Fortunately, two brief psychological interventions were enough to help participants feel that they belonged and increased their motivation to learn.

For the study, learners were assigned one of two activities before they started a MOOC. One was a social belonging activity, which had students read and summarize testimonials from previous students about how they initially felt worried about belonging in the course but felt more comfortable over time. The other was an affirmation activity where students were asked to write about how the course reflected and served their values.

The researchers found that these simple interventions doubled the persistence of students from less-developed countries and eliminated the global achievement gap by raising their course completion rate from 17% to 41%.

4. Encourage Self-Governance

Although it’s important to provide students with frequent feedback and support as they work their way through an online learning program, much of a student’s success will depend on their own persistence and motivation to see things through.

Researchers from the College of Business Administration at Louisiana State University suggest that the key to success in online learning is individual self-governance. They also point out that factors such as personal goals, communication skills, and study environment can affect a student’s success.

With this in mind, online learners should be encouraged to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning. Even before enrolling in an online course, they should also be advised to strengthen skills like time management, organization, goal setting, and critical thinking. Online students should also be encouraged to ask questions and seek out advice.

5. Use Humor Strategically

Online courses are sometimes viewed as boring and impersonal, so one way to engage online students is to incorporate some humor into online instruction. Research shows that humor can produce psychological and physiological benefits that help students learn.

This is because laughter helps us relax, and when we’re relaxed, our capacity to retain information expands. A study led by Ohio State University psychology professors even found that the use of humor in online courses can boost student interest and participation.

Of course, it’s important to find the right balance between keeping the material engaging and making it educational. Communications researcher Dr. Jennings Bryant has studied the effectiveness of humor within education and cautions that, while humor can make learning more pleasant and enhance students’ attention, it must always be attuned to the audience’s knowledge.

So if you in order to effectively incorporate humor into online learning, it’s important to know your audience and not go overboard to the point where it becomes distracting.

By Marianne Stenger

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