Journal of Nursing Education


Learning Patterns of Online Students

Joan E Thiele, PhD, RN



The virtual explosion of online education has prompted questioning of the quality of the learning. In addition, the effect of online learning on learner outcomes is receiving scrutiny. In this study, online students became more independent and selfdisciplined as learners. In addition, the students reported they learned to trust their own judgment and delve deeper into the content than they did in traditional lecture-driven courses. The effect of online courses on learning styles is described.



The virtual explosion of online education has prompted questioning of the quality of the learning. In addition, the effect of online learning on learner outcomes is receiving scrutiny. In this study, online students became more independent and selfdisciplined as learners. In addition, the students reported they learned to trust their own judgment and delve deeper into the content than they did in traditional lecture-driven courses. The effect of online courses on learning styles is described.

In recent years, Web-based instruction has virtually exploded. The number of courses and full-degree programs offered via the World Wide Web has increased tremendously. This rapid development of online education prompted questioning of the quality of the instruction and learning outcomes. In the majority of cases, the learning was equal to and often better than in traditional classroom, instructor-driven courses. This article focuses on the learners and answers the question, "How do online courses affect learners?"


Interaction in the classroom is directly related to improved learning (Oblinger & Rush, 1997). The most significant factor in online courses is interaction with instructors. In one study, students who reported the highest levels of interaction with the instructor also reported the highest levels of learning (Fredericksen, Pickett, & Shea, 2000). Without the structure imposed by regularly scheduled classes, students are forced to take an active role in their learning. Online students must do something to become "visible." Options include submitting an assignment, sending a question via e-mail, or posting information on a discussion board (Fredericksen et al., 2000).

Only one study examining changes in learners related to achievement in asynchronous online courses was found. The factors identified as contributors to success m online courses were time management, study skills (particularly attitude and ability to identify main ideas), and ability to focus attention on assignments (Loomis, 2000).


This study was conducted during two sequential semesters. During this time, 64 students in a baccalaureate program for RN students completed a three-credit research and informatics course. During each semester, three face-to-face class meetings were conducted. The remaining 12 classes were conducted in an asynchronous format. The first class meeting was the introduction to the course, students, and instructor. The second class was a question-andanswer session, and the third involved student presentations. Au other class interactions were conducted via e-mail, group discussion board, or telephone. All assignments were posted online and required use of Web resources for completion. Student-instructor interactions were primarily through individual e-mail messages.

Assignment Characteristics

Weekly assignments were posted online. Each assignment required approximately 4 to 6 hours of student time to complete. A typical assignment consisted of accessing current research articles from electronic bibliographic sources, reading the articles, and then answering questions about selected components of the articles. Students were introduced to analysis and interpretation of research articles one component at a time. For example, an actual "consent to participate" form from a faculty research study was posted online. Students were directed to use an online tutorial provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (n.d.) to learn criteria for evaluation of adequacy of a consent form, and then students evaluated the posted form. The online tutorial provided the instructional content.

For the majority of assignments, students posted their answers on a discussion board. This enabled them to read other students' responses and learn from them. Each assignment included parameters for responding. In this way, the instructor provided the framework or performance criteria that guided appropriate student participation and use of the learned content (Knowlton, Knowlton, & Davis, 2000).

Instructor Activity

The major role of online instructors is to guide learning and reinforce positive outcomes. The one factor that contributes the most to learning is frequent communication with each student (White & Weight, 2000). Usually, the instructor interacted with each student two to three times per week. Approximately half of the interactions were simply to clarify assignments or respond to questions. The remaining interactions provided positive support, encouragement, and suggestions for expansion of ideas related to the student's responses to assignments and posted materials.

Learning Outcomes

Two sets of data were obtained from the RN students. To determine factual learning of the course content, an online multiple-choice examination was used. At the same time, an almost identical test was administered to 42 students in a baccalaureate program taking a traditional, classroom-based and lecture-based research course. The same faculty members taught both courses and constructed the test. Eighty percent of the test items were identical.

The mean score of the RN students in the Web-based course was 90, and the mean score of the generic students in the traditional course was 70 (K-R reliability = .71). These results indicate the learned information component was higher for the online students than for the traditional students.

Although these test scores reflect a substantial difference, variation in the two methods of administering the test must be considered. The online students completed the test at their convenience using their home computers during a specified week-long time period. No controls, other than personal integrity, were placed on the students. Consequently, the online students may have treated the test as an open book test and obtained the answers to each question before submitting their final responses. The traditional students took the examination in a formal classroom setting with a 50-minute time limitation. The instructor was present throughout to proctor the test.

To determine perceived changes in the online learners, two questions were asked:

* How did you change as a learner through involvement in the asynchronous, Web-based course?

* How well did this format encourage your participation in the course?


Changes as a Learner

The change reported by the majority of students was becoming independent and responsible for their own learning. Of the 64 students who responded to the question, "How did you change as a learner through involvement in the asynchronous, Web-based course?," 58 (91%) students wrote comments indicating they "learned to be independent in learning." Students* comments included:

* Became more reliant on myself to figure out the answers.

* Embraced the opportunity to take responsibility for my own learning as an adult learner.

* The Web-based course definitely promotes self-starting and self-discipline.

In addition to independence, several students indicated their way of thinking about learning changed. For example, students wrote:

* [I] became more open to another way of learning.

* I learned to trust my judgment and draw on my own insight to do assignments without verbal input.

* I found I was more on task because of the weekly assignments.

Ability of the Format to Encourage Participation

Many students attributed changes they perceived in themselves to the course format. Four themes emerged from the question "How well did this format encourage your participation in the course?" First, the course format increased students' participation in the course. Second, the convenience and flexibility of the course were advantages. Third, prompt feedback from the instructor was crucial to students' learning. Fourth, the regular use of e-mail increased students' ability to communicate effectively.

The majority of students viewed the increased participation required for the course positively. Eighty-eight percent of the students (n = 56) positively addressed the effects of participation in the course on their learning. Student comments included:

* Participation was constant and mandatory. This was very different from classes where you can get lost or daydream through class discussions.

* Ability to compare data with other students was very educational. The majority of the time, no one had the same information, unlike reading from a required text.

Participation was a beneficial aspect of the course and greatly contributed to Student learning.

Another important aspect identified by students was the convenience and flexibility of the course. Online courses enable learners to complete course assignments according to their own schedules. This was commented on by 25% of the students. Their written statements included:

* [I] enjoyed the freedom to do the work whenever I was able and not be restricted by class hours.

* [It was] a real treat not to attend class every week and to attend at my own convenience (even in my bathrobe and slippers).

* [I was] able to control my learning environment by working when it was convenient for me, in the comfort of my own home.

Prompt feedback from the instructor was identified as a contributor to student learning. Students reported the promptness of the instructor's feedback guided them in their knowledge development of the course content. Students wrote the following comments:

* Quick response from the instructor made the format work.

* [1] feel that prompt responses to questions is a vital component to a successful learning experience.

* Feedback from the instructor and fellow students was very helpful in reinforcing my efforts.

Negative Comments

Students wrote seven negative comments. Six of these addressed the same component - the absence of class sessions and lack of social interaction with other students. Students stated:

* [I] would have preferred having class every week rather than having that time to do assignments.

* I learn more when information is presented by an expert on the subject.

* The classroom makes me feel much more involved and keeps my attention.

* I still need lectures and live discussion with other students to have a better understanding and retain what I try to learn.

Although the value of the classroom should not be negated, the comparison of learning outcomes speaks well for online courses. However, the classroom provides the discipline and live interactions some students need.


This investigation compared results from two methods of offering a nursing research course (online versus traditional classroom) in a single setting. Students in the two groups were dissimilar. One group consisted of RNs obtaining a bachelor's degree in nursing, and the second group consisted of undergraduate students in a traditional, classroom-based and lecture-based course. Both age and experiential differences between the groups may have contributed to the success of the online students.


As the number of online courses continues to increase, identifying the factors that contribute to student success is critical. Comparisons of test scores between traditional and online courses reveal the strength of learning from asynchronous classes. One investigator reported that 94% of students who completed an Internetbased course believed they learned as much as or more than they would have in a classroom-based course (Fredericksen et al., 2000). In addition, many students perceive online courses to be more difficult than traditional, classroom-based courses (Fredericksen et al., 2000).

The roles of the instructor and instructional designer must be emphasized. Prompt feedback and initiation of communication with learners are vital and must be considered part of the time commitment of online instructors. Instructors not only respond to questions but also accommodate learners by providing resources, motivation, and questions that stimulate learners to seek their own answers (Wegner, HoUoway, & Garton, 1999). Additional research with controlled comparisons between traditional and online courses is needed to expand the knowledge of the effects of Web-based education on learners and learning outcomes.


  • Fredericksen, E., Pickett, A., & Shea, P. (2000). Student satisfaction and perceived learning with online courses: Principles and examples from the SUNY learning network. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 4(2), 1-29. Retrieved September 9, 2000, from
  • Knowlton, D.S., Knowlton, H.M., & Davis, C. (2000). The whys and hows of online discussion. Syllabus, 13(10), 54-57.
  • Loomis, K.D. (2000). Learning styles and asynchronous learning: Comparing the LASSI model to class performance. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 4(1), 23-32. Retrieved September 9, 2000, from: http://www. asp
  • Oblinger, D.G., & Rush, S. C. (Eds.), (1997). The learning revolution. Bolton, MA: Anker.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Human participant protections education for research teams. Retrieved August 18, 1999, from
  • Wegner, S.B., Holloway, K.C., & Garton, E.M. (1999). The effects of Internetbased instruction on student learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 3(2), 98-106. Retrieved September 9, 2000, from: http//www. asp
  • White, K.W., & Weight, B.H. (2000). The online teaching guide: A handbook of attitudes, strategies, and techniques for the virtual classroom. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


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