Out of Order, Out of Reach: An Interview with a Researcher


In the ever-evolving landscape of education, online learning has become increasingly prevalent, offering students flexibility and accessibility to course materials. Recent research has delved into the dynamics of online coursework completion, particularly focusing on the sequencing of assignments and its impact on student success. Understanding how students navigate through their coursework, whether adhering to prescribed pacing guides or deviating from them, provides valuable insights for educators aiming to enhance student outcomes. 

The following interview shares some highlights from this research.

Is it common for students to go out of sequence when completing online course assignments?

Absolutely. Our study revealed that a vast majority of students, around 93%, tended to go out of sequence at least once when completing assignments in online STEM courses. This suggests that flexibility in pacing is a common practice among online learners.

How does the average number of assignments submitted out of sequence affect students’ performance?

We found that, on average, students submitted approximately 17.5 assignments out of order, accounting for about 38.15% of all course assignments. While some deviation from the prescribed order is expected, this trend indicates that a significant portion of students are not strictly following the intended sequencing of assignments. We observed that as students became increasingly out of sequence (submitted a higher proportion of assignments out of order) their grades dropped such that students with the highest number of assignments out of order had the lowest final course grades.

Could you explain the relationship between students’ course progression and their final grades?

Certainly. Our research uncovered a significant negative relationship between the proportion of assignments completed out of order, as well as the magnitude of these deviations, and students’ final grades. Essentially, as students submitted more assignments out of sequence, their final grades tended to decrease accordingly.

Are there noticeable differences in final grades between students who go out of sequence and those who stay in sequence?

Yes, indeed. We observed a clear distinction in final grades between students who adhered to the intended sequencing of assignments and those who did not. On average, students who stayed in sequence achieved a final grade of 89.2, whereas those who went out of sequence averaged 79.7. When we grouped students by how often they submitted assignments out of sequence the discrepancies in final grades were even more pronounced. Students in the bottom 25% for being out of sequence (the least proportion of “out of order” assignment submissions) consistently had the highest grades on average, and those in the top 25% (the highest proportion of “out of order” assignments) had the lowest, 86.8 compared to 74.1–a difference of 12.7 points. This sizable difference underscores the impact of following the prescribed order of assignments on student success.

What recommendations do you have for educators to support students in navigating online course assignments?

Educators play a pivotal role in guiding students toward effective online learning strategies. It is essential to emphasize the significance of following pacing guides and completing assignments in the intended order. Providing clear expectations, scaffolding course content, and explaining the purpose of assignments can help students grasp the value of pacing and organization. Moreover, supporting students in developing self-regulatory skills and effective time management practices empowers them to succeed in online learning environments.

The insights gleaned from this study illuminate the intricate relationship between assignment sequencing and student success in online STEM courses. As online learning continues to evolve, understanding how students navigate their coursework, the impact of pacing deviations, and the role of educators in guiding them toward success becomes increasingly vital. By embracing these findings, educators can empower students to effectively manage their coursework, enhance engagement, and ultimately achieve academic success in the digital realm of education. Be sure to check out the full research report for more information!

Picture of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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