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Teaching Online

Student Performance in Online Learning

Student Performance in Online Learning

A meta-analysis based on more than 10 years of empirical studies found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia and Jones, 2010). Further, the study suggests that it’s not the delivery mode per se, but the fact that students tend to have access to a larger amount of course related content and resources and the fact that they have a greater control over their own learning process.


Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., and Jones, K. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning. U.S. Department of Education: Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development Policy and Program Studies Service. Available online at:

Questions you may have about teaching online

How Do I Know It's the Learner Doing the Work?

Conquering the ContentOne thing you can do is to have learners turn in intermediate steps to the assignments so that you can learn the character and quality of their writing and work.  For example, if learners have to write a term paper, you might require that they turn in the following items at progressive dates along the way to the final paper:

  • Topic
  • Resources to use
  • Draft outline
  • Revised outline
  • Two to three draft paragraphs and additional subpoints for other sections of the outline
  • Three to six draft paragraphs and additional subpoints for the remainder of the outline
  • Bibliography
  • A rough draft of the paper
  • The final rewritten paper, including the bibliography

With all of these steps, the learner will have to show you work along the way.  You can do the same thing for a speech, oral presentation, or lab project by asking to see all the intermediate steps.  This also enables you to give feedback to the learners.  It helps them understand the development process for a major project, assists them with pacing themselves, and typically leads to their ending up with a much better final product than if they had not had to turn in these intermediate products for review.

How Do I Know It's the Learner Taking the Test?

Unless you have the learners use a webcam (and you watch each one individually), you really do not know that the correct learner is taking the test. In fact, the same situation exists in classes with large numbers of learners: you do not know that the correct learners are taking the test unless you check identification cards as they enter the room. Another option some faculty select is to have the learners go to a testing center for their exams, where they must present their identification.  However, relying totally on exams for grades is not a recommended practice.  Project-based assignments and other authentic assessments are more valuable.

How Do I Know They Aren't Looking at Their Books During the Test?

Unless you have them in a monitored environment, you don't.  You just assume that they are looking at their books.  Therefore, ask questions about concepts and ideas, not sentences from the book.

In a freshman biology course, I actually told my learners to have their books, notes, study guide, and everything else they'd done for class all filled out right in front of them for the test.  This policy encouraged them to do the exercises I'd assigned.  It did not punish those honest individuals who if I had said "no books" would have had "no books," while everyone else in the class would have had their books in front of them and thought nothing of it.  Except to clarify spelling or some small point, the books and other study aids were of little help (and I had told them this in advance).  I was testing concepts and ideas, and asking them to apply these concepts and ideas.  I was not lifting sentences out of the book and making multiple-choice questions out of them.

How Do I Balance Effort and Points?

You are trading one commodity for another with the learners.  The commodity you have to trade is points; the commodity the learners have to trade is time and effort.  Therefore, if an assignment takes a large amount of time and effort, it should be rewarded with a large number of points in your course.  Conversely, if an assignment or test requires a small effort and little time, it should earn a small number of points in your course. I know that this is mostly common sense, but sometimes it is helpful to state the obvious.  I had students complain once that a faculty member had only 10 points in the entire course.  A three-page paper was worth one point.  I know that is the same as 100 points out of 1,000, but it was disorienting to students compared to the amount of points they received for similar effort in other courses. If you want learners to spend a lot of time on an assignment, you signal that by the number of points you attach to it.

How Do I See the Lightbulb Turning On or the Blank Stare?

It is essential that you incorporate enough feedback and response opportunities from learners so that you will know how things are going.  Rather than being able to look into their eyes, you will now be using their work, their questions, and their conversations as your gauge for how learners are progressing with their understanding. In the face-to-face environment, you have daily opportunities to read their reactions; if you use only the major tests to gauge their understanding, you will miss opportunities to correct misperceptions, reteach portions of the course, and clarify difficult concepts.

How Can I Teach Online and Still Have a Balanced Life?

It is possible, and also really important to both you and your students.  Determine your availability and clearly communicate that to the students.  It may take a semester or two of teaching online to find the right pattern that you'd like to stick with.  In my first semester teaching online, I was available too much.  I quickly learned that if I ever answered a question after 11:00 p.m., I would be expected always to answer questions that late.  Learners will likely need more than what you would spend in class with them, as they may not be available at the same time you are.  So logging in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m. is not responsive enough to learner needs.  Determining the best availability frequency is a matter of considering how your course assignment due dates are structured, your learners' needs, and your own schedule.  After experimenting for several semesters, I developed a system that worked for my course, my students, and my life.  At 9:00 each morning I answered any questions that had been posted overnight.  At 4:00 in the afternoon I answered any questions that had been posted since 9:00 that morning.  One summer, the class members and I decided we wanted the weekends off, so I had Wednesday and Friday due dates, which meant that the learners could either work over the weekend or take the weekend off (for Wednesday assignments), and finish up whatever was due Friday before the weekend as well.

Reis, R. (2014). Questions for First Time Online Professors. Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter. Retrieved online at

Smith, R.M. (2014). Conquering the Content: A Blueprint for Online Course Design and Development, Second Edition. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

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