With online learning becoming a large part of studying as a result of the shift caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to understand and learn from the experience of online students.

Dr Gulcan Garip, Academic Lead in Psychology at the University of Derby, and graduate Sanju Rusara Seneviratne, explore the experiences of online psychology students engaging in online learning in pursuit of a career change, with educators having a responsibility to create opportunities, enhance motivation, and improve skills for students to become self-regulated learners.

‘Online learning’ refers to any form of learning and teaching through a primarily electronic medium (e.g. via Blackboard, Moodle, etc.; Yanuschik et al., 2015; Mayer, 2018). While online learning has made education accessible to those previously restricted by factors such as geographic location or employment, research has identified concerns related to student engagement (Prior et al. 2016), retention rates (Mubarak et al., 2020; Jo et al., 2015), and reported perceptions of missing out on traditional classroom experiences (Ragusa, 2017; Martinez et al., 2020).

Current trends indicate that a greater proportion of students engage in online learning than in the past (Li et al., 2019), which prompted us to explore the lived experiences of students studying psychology.

Our study was designed, conducted, and analysed according to the principles of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA; Smith & Osborn, 2008), which “invite[s] participants to offer a rich, detailed, first-person account of their experiences” (Smith et al., 2009, p. 56).

The ‘balancing act of online learners’ was identified as the overarching theme in our qualitative study. Here are our top three tips for students and educators to encourage self-regulated learning:

Creating an online learner identity

A sense of identity allows you to establish yourself as an online learner when approaching prioritisation of tasks and managing time with work and family commitments.

For example, students can establish clear goals and identify intrinsic motivators for pursuing an online degree. This sense of identity allows you to set expectations and regulate time and resources effectively from the perspective of being an online student.

Students who develop a strong sense of identity as an online learner tend to perceive their experiences as positive and are more motivated to complete their course.

Educators could, therefore, make this a focus in tasks for incoming students as a sense of identity is especially important when juggling multiple commitments.

For example, tutors can act as motivators to encourage clear goals and support students in identifying their personal motivators and how they can approach their online learning experience.

It is often the case that online learners without a sense of identity to promote self-regulation can struggle with time management and staying motivated.

Clarity and familiarity with online resources

There may be an expectation to compare or expect similarities to on-campus study. While there are some similarities, it is important to become familiar with the nuances of online study, i.e. how to use library resources, how to access support, where to post your discussion responses. All of these help remove the uncertainty and allow technology to be used to support and organise study rather than it being a big unknown and unfamiliar context.

Students typically use on-campus study as a frame of reference when approaching their online learning experience. Based on this, we recommend that educators focus on clarity and adapting to student needs and preferences when presenting online resources.

The expectations of online learning should be differentiated from those of on-campus study that students may be familiar with to avoid setting unrealistic expectations that can be demotivating and alienate new online learners.

Developing platforms for interaction with peers and tutors

Despite differing preferences in our participants regarding online interaction with peers and tutors, students were more fulfilled and had a more positive experience when they established a relationship with peers and tutors.

This was especially true for collaborative learning, wherein students supported one another with resources and encouragement. Despite hailing from varied backgrounds, there was a similarity that they shared in their experiences and struggles that was valued and allowed for better self-regulation of learning.

If you feel hesitant about what to ask and how to approach tutors, sometimes taking the first step with peers will help you overcome that difficulty.

The experience of online study can be isolating. With this in mind, it is important to create a platform for students to interact with peers and tutors.

This can be via social media or through discussion groups on the learning management system. Social interactions are important for students both with peers and with tutors. Students often struggle with how to approach tutors, what constitutes a stupid question, for example.

This can be focused on in supporting students make that leap as a close mentorship is important. Enabling students to take charge and support one another also contributed to improved experience.

Managing expectations and building confidence

Research has established the importance of the e-learning environment in creating and maintaining positive learning attitudes, specifically an environment that considers student preferences and is adapted to specific learning situations (e.g. Wongwatkit et al., 2020; Zhu et al., 2020; Larmuseau et al., 2018).

Interestingly, in our study all participants but one spontaneously used ‘on-campus’ study as a reference point when sharing their experiences and perceptions related to online learning.

Providers and educators that use campus-based learning as a reference point when presenting resources and opportunities in online learning may be contributing to unrealistic expectations of online learning and the fear of missing out on-campus-based learning.

The freedom and flexibility of online learning were viewed as facilitators, whereas feelings of isolation and the lack of face-to-face interaction with peers and lecturers were generally seen as a disadvantage of studying online.

Conclusions

The study identified several facilitators and barriers to studying psychology online. It was also suggested that educators may be able to reinforce and highlight these experiences as contributing to developing a self-regulated learner identity.

Online educators can design teaching and learning materials that create opportunities and foster capability and motivation, as well as setting expectations and putting contingencies in place to counter factors that might hinder students’ self-regulated learning experiences.

Dr Gulcan Garip, Academic Lead in Psychology at the University of Derby, and graduate Sanju Rusara Seneviratne

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