Teaching Tips: Assessing Student Achievement in Online Courses



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Like many other post-secondary institutions, WSU is working hard to increase its number of online offerings. This is something that students want and something that many of our peer institutions, and yes, competitors, have been working on for quite a while. As a result, the University has made several investments in developing our online capacity over the last few years, including an annual summer workshop for full-time faculty who are interested in creating online courses and some College-level funding earmarked for online course development.

In the Department of English, we now have online courses in literature, technical writing, and in our general education courses, ENG 1020, 3010, and 3050. Last summer, Clay Walker and I designed Blackboard-based templates, or “shells,” for ENG 3010 and 1020 and together with a group of hard-working GTA’s; we’ve taught a handful of sections of each course over the past two semesters.

Because both WSU and the Department of English are relatively new to online teaching, I’m very interested in assessing the effectiveness of our online courses for students. Assessing student outcomes is a particularly important issue at WSU because of ongoing issues with low levels of student retention and graduation, particularly for students of color and for those students who are enrolled part-time. Based on enrollment data, we know that online classes are particularly attractive to part-time students and those who work full-time so it makes sense that we’d be concerned about how these students are doing.

This March, Clay and I, along with our colleague Joe Torok who is teaching ENG 3050 online, will present at the Conference on College Composition and Communication on research we’ve been conducting with some early assessment data from our online courses. Our research replicates work done by James Simon and David Sapp (2005) that reveals some worrisome patterns in the grade distributions of online students when compared to their peers enrolled in face-to-face sections of the same course.

Based on their data, Sapp and Simon noticed a tendency for students in online courses to “thrive or dive.” That is, students in the courses studied by Sapp and Simon tended to either achieve A and B grades with little support and direction OR to fail or withdraw from courses and by demonstrating low levels of course participation, homework completion, and interaction with instructors and other students.

Based on our early data, we have noticed a somewhat similar pattern. Of particular concern is the fact that we are seeing higher fail rates in our online courses compared to face-to-face sections of the same course. That data is represented in the table below.


ENG 1020 Grade Distribution: Face-to-Face vs. Online

Overall Face-to-Face Online Net
“Thrive” (A, A-, B+) 48% 50% 22% -28%
“Survive” (B, B-, C+, C) 31% 30% 40% +10%
“Dive” (C- and below, incomplete, drop) 21% 20% 38% +18%
n 1296 1201 (93%) 95 (7%)


Our early data also suggests that students who fail the online versions of ENG 1020 and 3010 also have lower rates of retention than their face-to-face peers. That means that students who fail ENG 1020 or 3010 are less likely to register for any course the following semester. Retention of undergraduates at the freshman and sophomore level is critical to advancing students to graduation so this early data is concerning.

So what do we do? First, it’s important for us to remember that online education is here to stay. While not all courses are a good fit for online teaching, our early experiences with ENG 1020, 3010, and 3050 have convinced us that students do want online options and that for many students, online courses can result in positive learning and experiential outcomes for a range of students.

Second, we need to do a better job of giving students the tools to figure out if an online course is right for them. We know that not all freshmen have the technological skills and academic habits to ensure successful online experiences. At the current time, however, online enrollment is still, by and large, an open system in which students decide for themselves to take an online course. As such, our advising and course orientation systems need to be better.

Third, there is a growing body of research describing effective online teaching practices for supporting struggling students and those students who are at risk for failure in online environments. These strategies also benefit higher achieving students and include prompt feedback on student work, high levels of redundancy in course design (i.e., students experience course designs as predictable and reliable), and a high number of quality contacts between students and instructors in both face-to-face and electronic conferences.

WSU has a long way to go to catch up with our peers who have been at online education for a while now. But we have to do it right and we have to make sure that our efforts with online education don’t hamper the progress we’re making in increasing levels of student success, retention, and graduation. That’s another reason why assessing student outcomes is so important and while we’ll keep doing it.

Thomas Trimble is a Senior Lecturer at Wayne State University and teaches FYC, Community and Writing, and the graduate Pedagogical Practicum for the Composition Program. He is currently involved in research projects about assessing programmatic outcomes and student learning.

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