Research study: Do orientation modules contribute to student success in the online classroom?

illustration of an online class

Learning online can be an adjustment for many students. It is widely believed that providing students with an orientation to online learning helps them better understand the novel challenges and expectations of learning online.

This was the guiding assumption behind a joint research project by the Education Development Center, Michigan Department of Education, and Michigan Virtual, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. 

The study included data from over 1,700 first-time online students enrolled in an online course with Michigan Virtual in the fall 2018 semester. Students were randomly assigned to either the control group or the treatment group.

Students in the control group received the typical Michigan Virtual course supports including support of a live teacher, an onsite mentor, technical support through the customer care center, a course pacing guide, help resources that connect to a live teacher, and a unit on navigating the LMS.

In addition to those supports, students in the treatment group were also given access to an online learning orientation, titled Strategies for Online Success

Strategies for Online Success

The Strategies for Online Success (SOS) course consisted of three modules:

  • Module 1: Online Learning Basics
  • Module 2: Skills for Online Learning
  • Module 3: Online Learning Technologies

The three modules were sandwiched between a pre-assessment and post-assessment to understand what students knew before and after the orientation. The modules included interactive components such as videos, card sorts, self-checks, and additional resources for download. The orientation was estimated to take around an hour and a half to two hours to complete. 

So Is Orientation the Answer? 

Unfortunately, there was no significant difference in course outcomes between students encouraged to take the orientation and those with access only to typical supports. 

About half of the students in the orientation group completed at least one of the five orientation components and about a third completed all five components.

Students who completed the orientation did have higher 8th-grade achievement scores on average than those who did not complete it, suggesting some key differences in student characteristics between members of the treatment group. 

It may be that for highly motivated and traditionally successful students, encouragement to complete the orientation was sufficient; however, this same encouragement may not be enough for students who struggle academically.

In fact, these students would likely benefit from additional learning supports, such as targeted and specific communications from their online teacher and regular progress checks. 

In both the control and treatment groups, approximately 75% of students completed their course (earned at least 60% of the total course points). The remaining 25% either dropped their course early in the semester or did not complete their online course.

This meant that the orientation did not have a significant impact on students’ course outcomes.

Considerations for Implementing an Online Orientation

While the online orientation in this study did not have a significant effect on student outcomes, that is not to say that there is no value in an online learning orientation.

Instead, this study revealed that there are a number of considerations that must go into implementing an orientation. 

For example: Is it required? Is it designed for all students regardless of enrollment time or reason? These considerations may impact the student experience and the relative benefits of the orientation. 

According to the researchers, it is yet to be determined if having students drop their online course during the “grace period” (typically a few-week period early in the semester when students are able to drop their course without penalty) after completing the orientation is a positive outcome or whether the goal of the orientation is, in fact, to prepare and retain all students. 

In this study, being assigned the orientation had a different effect on on-time enrollers compared to late enrollers.

For on-time enrollers, being assigned the orientation resulted in an increased relative risk of dropping during the grace period as opposed to failing the course, whereas it decreased the relative risk for late enrollers.

Researchers hypothesized that this may be because the orientation may alert students that they are not yet ready for the rigors of their online course.

If the goal of an orientation is to prepare all students then additional supports beyond the orientation may be needed for these students.

Properly supporting online learners requires a multifaceted approach that targets learners’ academic, social, and emotional needs.

Results from this study suggest that while an orientation to online learning at the beginning of a course may not significantly impact student success, it is possible that it could contribute to a larger sustained onboarding and support effort throughout a course to keep students on pace and engaged in their online courses.

Success in Online Learning blog series

In our Success in Online Learning blog series, we discuss all things K-12 online learning in Michigan and across the nation. Our hope with this series is to provide a primer on K-12 online learning, cover established and emerging topics, and provide relevant research and resources. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!


Special thanks to Erin Stafford and Jacqueline Zweig of the Education Development Center for their partnership on this study.

This research was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305L170008 awarded to Education Development Center (PI: Jacqueline Zweig). The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education. This research result used data collected and maintained by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and/or Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI). Results, information and opinions solely represent the analysis, information and opinions of the author(s) and are not endorsed by, or reflect the views or positions of, grantors, MDE and CEPI or any employee thereof.

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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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