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Experiences of Successful Undergraduate Students in Online Science Courses

Diane Mason (Lamar University, USA)
Carolyn Barnes (Lamar University, USA) - virtual presenter
Kaye Shelton (Lamar University, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 2:30pm
Learning Effectiveness
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Northern Hemisphere A4
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 8

This qualitative phenomenological study explored successful undergraduate experiences in online science courses to determine factors that contributed the necessary support for their success.

Extended Abstract

Literature revealed a problem in undergraduate online science courses with a low incidence of student success coupled with high attrition rates (Ghosh, 2011). The purpose of this qualitative phenomenological study was to explore successful undergraduate experiences in online science courses (Physical Geology, Historical Geology, Space Science, Physics, and Microbiology) at a regional university to determine factors that contributed necessary support for success.

Research Questions
1. What factors contributed to student success in an online science course?
2. What university supports and interventions were available that contributed to
student success?
3. What challenges or barriers to success were encountered?
4. What advice or suggestions can be offered to enable students in an online
science course to be successful?

A qualitative phenomenological study was selected to discover factors that contributed to the success of participants in online science courses by analyzing their lived experiences (Englander, 2012). A purposeful and convenient sample was used. Thirteen undergraduate students were chosen who recently completed an online science courses with the grade of C or higher. A guided interview protocol steered the questioning process of four individual interviews and two focus groups. This permitted the researcher to concentrate on narratives of participants to get a clear description of the phenomenon (Creswell, 2012). Data collected through interviews were transcribed and coded into themes, looking for significant or common statements.

The purpose of this qualitative phenomenological study was to explore successful undergraduate experiences in online science courses to determine factors that contributed necessary support for their success. The following findings were determined.
- RQ#1's emergent themes included personal characteristics (motivation, study habits); course structure (design, interest, feedback); professor style (responsive/available, provided feedback); and external supports (sports, family, friends).
- RQ#2 revealed emergent themes of either satisfaction or dissatisfaction with supports and interventions.
- RQ#3's emergent themes were: no challenges/barriers or challenges/ barriers were encountered (lack of face-to-face instruction, technology issues).
- RQ#4's emergent theme was: future students need to be aware of requirements and expectations of online classes.

This research study explored successful undergraduate experiences in online science courses to determine factors that contributed necessary support for success. Conclusions are listed below.
- RQ#1 identified multiple factors contributing to successful performance (personal characteristics, course structure, professor style, external supports). Conclusion: one factor was not responsible for success of all online students, but instead, success occurred when students had multiple support factors (Kelly & Rebman, 2012). This support is better provided when the university understands their program and target students (Palmer et al., 2010).
- RQ#2 revealed most students were satisfied with university support; however, additional supports were identified (qualified peer tutors, professor face-time, additional technology support, online platform orientation). Conclusion: despite university support, individuals either were not utilizing support provided or desired support was unavailable (Sang et al., 2011). Continual assessment with instruments such as The Quality Scorecard could help administrators strengthen their online program by identifying areas that needed bolstering (Shelton, 2010).
- RQ#3 indicated technology and preconceptions created challenges. Conclusions: technology needs ongoing review. Traditional students were primarily concerned with connectivity while non-traditional students perceived technology as a challenge to success (Mann & Henneberry, 2012). Secondly, student perception of online learning needs to be addressed. Participants perceived lack of face-to-face interaction with their professor as lack of support (Sang et al., 2011).
- In answer to RQ#4, participants stressed future online students should understand requirements and expectations of the course before enrolling because unrealistic expectations lead to dissatisfaction and attrition (Haynie, 2013). This will only be possible if universities clearly communicate technical and course requirements and professors state course expectations clearly in syllabi (Shelton, 2010).

Implications for practice drawn from this research study should enable universities to better understand factors that will support student success and the challenges that students face by creating better support systems to promote student satisfaction and retention:
- Aid students in identifying self-motivating factors.
- Identify student study habits and provide support accordingly (Kelly & Rebman, 2012).
- Review elements of course design that inhibit success (Palmer et al., 2010).
- Review policies concerning feedback between online professors and students to ensure adequate, timely feedback occurs.
- Review resources available for online courses.
- Provide peer-to-peer support (tutorials, cohorts, study groups).
- Provide adequate technology tutorials, orientations, and support.
- Identify challenges/barriers inhibiting student success in individual courses (Sang et al., 2011).
- Allow for comprehensive student feedback.
- Provide online course orientation, outline rigor, stress personal characteristics needed to be successful.