A Comparison of Student Outcomes in Traditional and Online Math Courses

Siamack Bondari and Jacci White

Department of Mathematics

Saint Leo University

University Campus-MC2188

Post Office Box 6665

Saint Leo, FL 33574-6665

Phone: (352)588-8279

E-mail: siamack.bondari @saintleo.edu

In recent years the demand for online programs has tremendously increased. As a result, a number of higher education institutions have started offering technology based courses through distance learning. There are many obvious differences between online delivery and traditional in class teaching. Furthermore, the vast majority of the students taking online courses are nontraditional students who have been away from school for many years. Naturally, nontraditional working students return to school in the hope of getting a promotion or a more prestigious higher paid job. The employers must decide between online and traditional graduates and must make a judgment about the validity of online degrees. Educators must also face their own conscience and respond to similar questions before making a commitment to online teaching. Thus it becomes essential to make sure that the level of education that online students receive is equivalent to the level of education received by traditional students who take the same courses on campus.

This study is based on information and data collected by the authors teaching the same two courses both online and on campus many times in the stretch of the last seven years. It is not an easy task to make a direct comparison of students with very different backgrounds who are enrolled in completely different education systems. For example, the traditional students are in general better test takers, while the nontraditional online students tend to relate the concepts to real life problems and usually do better with project and essay type assignments. Before we compare the grade distributions and the so called "success rate" for the two groups, it is important to get a better understanding of the differences and the similarities between the two teaching models.

The most important and obvious difference between the two systems is that online teaching is regarded as a form of independent or directed study. At the beginning of the term online students are provided with a detailed weekly schedule that they need to follow and complete by end of the term. Online students have to study the text and the watch the lectures on videos by their own and learn the concepts with very limited guidance from their instructor. The main means of communication in an online course are the message boards and email. If a student has difficulty with the course material, he or she will have to send an email to the instructor or post a message on the message board. Sometimes it takes a few days before student gets answer to a simple question. If an online student gets a slow start with the course, the chances are that he or she will not make it through the course. As a result, the withdraw rate for online classes during the first few weeks of classes is usually much higher than the on campus classes.

Another major difference between the online and on campus classes is the fact that most online courses are offered at a much faster pace. A typical online course runs for six to eight weeks. As a result, online students have to learn the course material independently and in a much shorter time frame. This leaves very little margin of error for the nontraditional students who normally have to wait until the weekends to study for the course. Taking an online course requires a lot more effort and determination than an on campus course. Experience shows that for a regular 3 credit course which runs for approximately 16 weeks on campus, students should spend a minimum of 6 hours per week studying the course material and working on the problems. If the same course is offered in an eight week session, then students should spend roughly 12 hours of studying per week. Unfortunately, since in an online course students have to do all the work independently, one may need to increase the 12 hours that is recommended by another 7 or 8 hours, and that certainly is a lot of work! Online students must develop their own study techniques to succeed and find a way to learn the concepts in depth to do well in the tests. Just like on campus students, online students need to work out a lot of problems and be able to work on the assignments without referring to the book examples.

The final major difference between the two delivery systems that we shall analyze is the format of the exams and the assessment methods used in the two models. For years the security of exams for online models has been a topic of debates. In recent years with the advance of technology more sophisticated online randomized testing has become available. For example, there are test bank systems with a feature that allows instructors to group similar questions together, and then instructor can program the system to randomly select X number of questions from each group. Without any doubt randomized testing has greatly reduced the chances of students passing the exam questions to their classmates. There is also the question whether students receive any outside help while taking exams. Many of our online students are those who can not attend regular traditional on campus classes due to their busy work schedule. They live in remote locations and away from universities and often have a difficult time even finding a tutor. It may be easier for them to find someone to take an exam for them in the lower level course, but very few can find outside help for upper division courses like statistics. Most of the online students are highly motivated students who realize that to pass an upper division course they need to have a good understanding of the lower level prerequisites. Therefore, we believe that academic dishonesty cases for online students are rare and do not have a great impact on our data.

Regardless of the course policies, online students always have the luxury of using their notes and book for the exams. Does this give them an unfair advantage over the on campus students? Online students should not be fooled by fact that they can use their books and notes during the exam. If they do not know how to do the problems, the book is not going to help them during the tests. Of course, they can always use their books and notes as a reference and they may even decide to write down the important formulas and definitions neatly on a few sheets of paper, but once again the bottom line is that there are no shortcuts. They simply need to know the material well before taking the an exam. If during a test, a student is paging through the book and looking for similar problems, that means he or she is not ready for the test!

The main similarity between the two methods has to do with what we expect of the students. If the amount of material covered in the two models and the expectations from the students in the two groups are not the same, then the comparison would be unreasonable. Therefore, it is up to the instructors to follow a standard curriculum guide and make sure that students in both groups will be tested over the same concepts.

So far we have discussed some of the major differences and similarities between the two teaching delivery systems. It should be clear that despite all the differences between the two models, it would be fair to compare studentsí outcomes in the two groups provided that the expectations are the same and that the online students are subject to similar assessment methods.

We collected and analyzed the final exam scores, as well as final course grades, for finite mathematics and elementary statistics for a number of sections of the two courses taught by the authors since the fall of 2000. For finite mathematics, the scores were collected from 23 online sections (576 students) and 19 on campus students (368 students). For elementary statistics, the scores were collected from 19 online sections (529 students) and 14 on campus students (282 students). The approximate grade distributions for the four groups were as follows.

Online finite mathematics: 16% A, 32% B, 24% C, 14% D, 14% F

Traditional finite mathematics: 14% A, 16% B, 26% C, 20% D, 24% F

Online statistics: 16% A, 24% B, 27% C, 18% D, 15% F

Traditional statistics: 15% A, 17% B, 27% C, 23% D, 18% F

It appears that the overall grades for the online classes are somewhat higher than the overall grades for the traditional classes; however, the difference is rather insignificant. It is important to notice that the percentage of the As in both groups are almost the same. This is an indication of the fairness of the assessment methods used in the two models. Students who have a strong background and are willing to put the time and effort into the course will be awarded with the highest grade regardless of the format of the course. The biggest difference in the grade distribution is that there are more failing grades in the tradition classes in comparison to the online classes. This could be attributed to the fact that an average online student is more motivated than an on campus student. If an online student has difficulty with the course due to weak background, he or she will probably withdraw from the course early in the semester. Furthermore, most of those online students with weak background who decide to continue on with the course will put top effort to pass the course. This is not case with on campus students. In fact, there are a number of traditional students with great potential who put very little effort into the course and end up failing or passing with a low grade.