How does temperament affect online student success and retention?

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Do certain personality traits increase students’ chances of success in the online learning environment? It’s an intriguing question that has not received much attention, an oversight that Ben Meredith, director of the Center for Distance Education at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, has sought to remedy.

“We hear all the time that online education is not for everybody. If it’s not for everybody, who is it really for?” asks Meredith. The answer to this question can help higher education institutions improve course design and, in turn, improve online learner success and retention.

The study

In 2009 Meredith surveyed 149 students at Olympic College, a two-year institution in Washington State, to explore the following research questions using the Keirsey Temperament Sorter II and a demographics detail survey:

Are certain online students more likely to succeed in the online format as a function of their personality factors?
Are specific online students more likely to have a higher retention rate in online courses as a function of their personality factors?
What is the demographic profile of a successful online student?
What is the demographic profile of a retained online student?

The Keirsey Temperament Sorter asks a series of questions that classifies each respondent into one of the following categories:

  • Guardians speak about duty and responsibility, follow rules, respect the rights of others, and are the most predominant group within the U.S. (as well as the largest group identified in this study).
  • Idealists speak about hope for others and imagine what is possible for others.
  • Artisans are rule breakers. “They are somewhat self-centered and see rules through the spirit of the law, not necessarily the letter of the law,” Meredith says.
  • Rationals are pragmatic and efficient and are the least common category in the U.S.

The courses in this study were largely what Meredith considers to be “low- and no-contact” courses. Artisans were the most successful (as measured by grades) in these courses, followed by a subset of the Rationals category (INFP—who are more introverted than extroverted and prefer intuition to sensing, thinking to feeling, and judgment to perception) and one of the temperaments within the Guardians category (ESTJ—who are more extroverted than introverted and prefer sensing to intuition, thinking to feeling, and judgment to perception).

Meredith says researchers have long speculated that introverts, due to their proclivity to think things through before responding, would be more likely to succeed in the online learning environment, as opposed to extroverts, who “like to think out loud.” However, this study found no statistically significant correlation between introversion or extroversion and online learner success.

As for retention, Idealists were more likely to be retained—enroll in more than one online course over a three-term period.

“I think the low- and no-contact courses play to the Artisans and Idealists,” Meredith says. “Idealists are going to build community. Artisans are going to take advantage of the lack of the instructor being present and interact as they need to.”

Compared to the general population, Rationals were disproportionately low in this study. “Rationals would need to have interaction with the authority figure—the teacher or expert. They see the purpose of community, but if there is no community, they’re not going to build it,” Meredith says.

The demographic questions were a side element of the research that validated the online learning demographic research of others and showed there are no demographic differences between the successful online learner and the retained online learner.

Implications

This study has several implications in terms of recruitment, advising, and course design.

“We see, at least in this study, that we’re being effective with the marketing,” Meredith says.

The demographic data in this study yield the following portrait of the typical online learner (which has been noted in other studies as well):

  • 26 years old (or older)
  • married (or in a committed long-term relationship)
  • white
  • female
  • has one or more children of day-care age
  • has an annual household income of $52,000 or less
  • accesses the course between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“We know this student. She is trying to get ahead and for one reason or another was not able to finish college and is now coming back to do that. And the only way she has to do that is online. Maybe that is not the person who is going to be the most successful to bring through the door. Maybe we should approach other students,” Meredith says, suggesting that perhaps the market for online learning extends beyond those who enroll strictly due to scheduling issues.

Meredith says that advising techniques need to be modified to take learners’ personality traits into consideration. “I’ve seen too many advisors who look at online as a way for students to fit a class into their schedules that they couldn’t otherwise [fit in]. I don’t think that’s the most effective way of advising students.”

Instead of automatically advising students to take online courses, Meredith suggests having students use the Keirsey Temperament Sorter or a similar instrument before enrolling, to let them know how others with similar personality characteristics fared in the online learning environment. “It would take just a few minutes for them to go through a temperament sorter of one type or another. The results could be stored in their records so the algorithms are pulled up for advising. We already matriculate for so many other things, such as English and math capabilities. This would add one more tool to our toolbox.”

As for course design, Meredith says that institutions are moving away from the “electronic correspondence course” model as more instructional designers are working with instructors to design online courses.

Meredith recommends a constructivist approach to course design. “From my perspective, a good online course has community building [and] instructor presence and involves students on nearly a daily basis—at least five days a week. I think that’s what makes online learning the most powerful.”

Instructor individuality is also an important factor, and students should be advised to enroll in courses taught in ways that suit their temperaments, Meredith says, recommending that institutions create algorithms that match students with instructors who are most likely to help them succeed.

Meredith says this approach may lead to courses being populated by like-minded students (who may have different opinions, but who are similar in temperament), which can help students learn. “When you get like-minded people into a room, it lowers the affective filter, which makes the students more comfortable. And the greater the comfort level, the more opportunity we have to bring in new ideas.”

The downside to this approach is that the interactions in the course with like-minded classmates will be quite different from the interactions they will have outside the course. Meredith acknowledges this but argues that creating this artificial environment will increase students’ potential for success. “While it won’t be what students face in the real world, many students have only one shot at education. Wouldn’t we want to maximize that one shot so they can get the most out of the course even if we have to establish a somewhat artificial environment?”

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