University of Tasmania
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Factors in the persistence of distance higher education students

posted on 2023-05-27, 07:12 authored by Rowlands, DL
Why some students successfully complete study through distance education and others do not is becoming an increasingly important question as distance education moves from a marginal to an integral role in the provision of tertiary education. The aims and purpose of this research were to: (1) compare and contrast the principal causes of attrition in distance higher education with a similar study conducted in 1986, (2) better characterise the contemporary experience of studying at a distance as a higher education student, particularly with consideration of online learning and (3) develop and test an updated model of student progress in distance education. A new model of student progress in distance education was developed by critically analysing models from the literature and reviewing the origins of these models. Common elements of the earlier models were identified and the applicability of each element was assessed by critically analysing its currently accepted significance in recent research. This resulted in the development of a hybrid model consisting of elements of the models that emphasised the inherent characteristics of students and those that emphasised elements related to the learning process. The resultant model drew substantially on the model of Kember (1995), though components were added to take account of the emergence of online learning and others were removed, such as grade point average and Kember's concept of a 'recycling loop'. The suitability of the new model was tested by surveying a group of 210 distance students at the University of Tasmania. The survey looked at study outcome (whether a student withdrew or continued/completed) and correlated this with the factors comprising the model. The data were interrogated through statistical analysis (SPSS). It was found that the majority of the factors within the model showed some correlation to outcome. The analysis also indicated that the model had reasonable predictive value. However, the research did find that some factors did not fit well. In particular, 'motivation type' (whether the subjects intrinsically or extrinsically motivated) did not conform to the assumption in the model that students who are intrinsically motivated were more likely to continue. It appears from the findings that the type of motivation is irrelevant -rather it appeared that it is the degree of motivation that is important. The collected data were subjected to factor analysis. This resulted in the identification to seven factors quite distinct from those used in the hybrid model developed for the study. Using this information, together with further analysis of the qualitative data collected for the study, an alternative new model was proposed and described. In addition, the study also found that the main reasons for student attrition in distance education have changed little in 20 years despite new technologies becoming available. Indeed while online learning has solved many of the problems surrounding communication and isolation felt by most students it has caused new problems. In this study, the technology appeared to alienate a small number of students. The technology also has the potential to create unrealistic expectations about the availability of academic staff. The qualitative part of the study indicated that poor institutional interaction (that is a student's communications, transactions and relations with university staff, systems and services) seemed to have a multiplier effect on the other factors, in that a student's negative institutional experience can exacerbate any existing adverse circumstances and cause students to withdraw. The implication of this finding was that even small improvements in students' institutional interaction could reduce attrition significantly.


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