Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Enhancing student strategies for online learning

Archie Zariski
School of Law
Irene Styles
School of Education
Murdoch University
    One of the cornerstones of successful student learning is the ability to use appropriate learning strategies. Awareness and orchestration of learning strategies are central to self regulation of learning - a key concept in explaining effective learning. Very little is known about how students go about learning online, and their perceptions of this new mode of learning. What strategies do students use when faced with learning online? What are their perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of this type of learning environment? What will enable them to make effective use of appropriate strategies in this new educational context?

    Using a qualitative approach, we examined the learning strategies of undergraduate students in a Legal Studies and a Law unit (first and third year units respectively) near the end of a semester. Results are discussed in terms of the range and diversity of reported learning strategies and student perceptions of online learning. Recommendations for the development of students' understanding and capabilities in relation to learning online, and for educational design, are offered with a view to improving the quality of teaching and learning in this mode.

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There is an extensive literature linking the use of effective learning strategies with academic achievement (Archer, 1998; Fuller, Chalmers, & Kirkpatrick, 1994; Hattie, Biggs, & Purdie, 1996; Pintrich & Johnson, 1990; Tate & Entwistle, 1996; Thomas, 1988; Zimmerman, 1998; Zimmerman, Greenberg, & Weinstein, 1994). Effective, self regulated learners know and use a wide repertoire of learning strategies and metacognitive strategies to manage themselves and their learning tasks (Zimmerman, 1994). Learning strategies include cognitive strategies such as basic and complex rehearsal, elaboration and organisation strategies (Weinstein, 1982) which are ordered in increasing "depth" of processing (Radloff, 1997). Learning strategies also include adaptive strategies such as time management and organising the learning environment, cue seeking, help seeking, and volitional strategies such as persistence in the face of obstacles to learning. Metacognitive strategies include planning, monitoring, adapting and evaluating learning and learning outcomes. These strategies are important in learning across all disciplines.

Although a great deal of knowledge about students' learning strategies has been accumulated in recent years, very little is known about their use in the new environment of online learning. Because of the nature of this new mode, it is likely that students need be highly self regulated and responsible for organising and reflecting on their learning. Indeed, this is one of the purported advantages of the online environment - it is thought to require and encourage self directed learning that is central to the concept of "lifelong learning".

However, studies suggest that many students - even at tertiary level - have limited understanding and experience of deep learning strategies (Radloff, 1997). There are a number of reasons why learners may not use appropriate learning strategies apart from not knowing what strategies to use or how to use them. One reason - particularly relevant to online learning - is that limited knowledge of technical procedures involved in learning may mean students have to concentrate their efforts on developing such knowledge rather than on high level cognitive strategies. It is, therefore, especially important that students develop an understanding and appropriate use of effective learning and metacognitive strategies when learning online. It is also important that educators are aware of how students perceive and use online learning so they may provide adequate assistance to students in developing the capability to use deep learning strategies online.

This paper addresses the tension between ideal strategy use and what students actually do by investigating two classes' perceptions of learning online. We also inquired into students' use of strategies to manage their learning tasks, themselves, and their online learning environment.


In weeks 12 and 13 of semester a group of 16 volunteers in one first year Legal Studies unit and one third year Law unit was interviewed in regard to: Both units were taught substantially online using the WebCT website platform. The interview data forms the focus of this paper.

Interview responses were coded according to a standard taxonomy of strategies (Radloff, 1997; Styles, Beltman & Radloff, 1998) modified to include strategies specific to learning online. Quotes from the interviews are used to support interpretation of the data.


Demographic information for all students in the unit groups and for the subset of interviewees is presented first, followed by an analysis of the interview data on strategy use.


Table 1 shows the composition of the two groups (first and third year units) as a whole and the subset of students interviewed, in terms of age, gender, and familiarity with computer and Internet use.

Table 1: Constitution of the two groups as a whole and the sub-set
of interviewees in terms of background demographical information

Whole groupInterviewees
First year unitThird year unitFirst year unitThird year unit

Number of participants 7026115
Mean age (yrs) 23.15 (7.53)33. 84 (9.89)25.48 (9.11)30.13 (12.15)
Gender Male: 24.3%
Female: 75.7%
Male: 46.2%
Female: 53.8%
Male: 27.3%
Female: 72.7%
Male: 60%
Female: 40%
Length of time of
computer use (yrs)
5.47 (4.01)9.06 (5.41)7.16 (3.18)6.32 (4.90)
Length of time of
Internet use (months)
21.21 (21.91)29.42 (17.71)30.94 (23.54)21.82 (20.30)
Percentage of students
who had completed
previous online study

It appears that the interviewees are representative of their unit groups in regard to age and gender. Interviewees in the first year group tended to be more familiar with computers and the Internet than their group as a whole, and the third year interviewees tended to be less familiar with computer use than their group. Thus the interviewees were more similar to each other in terms of computer use than the two groups as a whole were. The third year group had studied online previously more often than the first year students, and had more years of experience with computer and Internet use.

Use of learning strategies

Table 2 shows the frequency and mean number of instances (in brackets) of use of different strategies as mentioned by students.

Table 2: Frequency and mean number of instances (in brackets) of
use of strategies by interviewees in the two groups at Weeks 12/13

Strategy Examples of
First year unit
Third year unit

  Basic Copy out000
  Complex Reread3 (0.27)3 (0.60)6 (0.38)
  Basic Read topic/text, go through
notes, highlight
21 (1.91)16 (3.20)37 (2.31)
  Complex Edit, select comments, draft,
make notes, choose questions
26 (2.36)17 (3.40)43 (2.69)
  Basic Concept mapping, 'tree'
0 (0.0)1 (0.20)1 (0.06)
  Complex Comparison and integration
of material
Completing activities
Do exercises on computer, do
readings in library
10 (0.91)1 (0.20)11 (0.69)
Logon every day/twice a week/
once a week/ morning/evening
14 (1.27)8 (1.60)22 (1.06)
Procrastinate01 (0.20)1 (0.06)
Select quiet lab time01 (0.20)1 (0.06)
Organise material26 (2.36)16 (3.2)42 (2.63)
Hard and software use14 (1.27)9 (1.80)23 1.44)
Interaction with students
(chat Room, in class, collaboration)
4 (0.36)7 (0.64)11 (0.68)
Adaptive strategies
Help-seeking47 (4.27)8 (1.60)55 (3.44)
Use of resources4 (0.36)04 (0.25)
Metacognitive strategies
Planning, monitoring, evaluating75 (6.82)40 (8.0)115 (7.18)

Strategies for coping with the technical demands of online learning (for example Help- seeking) tended to dominate student approaches to learning, especially (and understandably) for those students less familiar with computers and the Internet. Thus, the use of high level cognitive strategies was quite limited, although this pattern cannot be attributed solely to online learning - the same limited pattern has been found in students studying on campus (Styles, Beltman, & Radloff, 1998). However, technical difficulties seemed to preoccupy students and detract from the content of the unit, especially for first year students. Some comments in this vein were: "I have learned a lot about the Internet and computers, but I don' t think I have learned much about this unit"; and "(students) get frustrated because they're spending more time trying to learn the system rather than the actual subject itself".

All help-seeking strategies reported (a mean of 3.44 for the total group) were in relation to computer problems, especially using the website environment. Third years tended to report needing help with hard and software problems whereas first years had more difficulty in understanding what was required of them - what they had to do within the online environment. Both groups wished for more tutorials on the technical aspects of online learning held at different stages of the unit. A number of students used resources outside the university to cope with computer problems such as slowness, limited access time, incompatibility of software, and lack of technical help.

At week 12/13, no basic and few complex rehearsal strategies were mentioned, although some students referred to their intention of using some of these strategies in preparation for the examination. Most strategies mentioned were basic and complex elaboration. Writing was mostly done directly onto the computer with minimal editing and checking. More checking was reported by first than by third years. Reading of topic notes and texts was mostly done using downloaded hard copy. Reading on the computer was used only for quick skim reading to identify what was most relevant. After printing, material was kept organised in paper files, as is usual in on campus units. Third years reported doing this more than first years. The "strategy" of completing activities was mentioned most by first years. This is in line with findings of differences between relatively novice and more experienced learners in studies by Styles, Radloff and Beltman (1998) and Radloff, de la Harpe & Styles (1998). There were few reports of cognitive organisational strategies (0.06) or volitional (on-task) strategies (0.06), but time management strategies were mentioned more often. Some comments here were:

it was an on-going thing so you sort of had to go on regularly you couldn't set aside two hours and do the work because you had to go on, you sort of had to, to keep up with the postings and all that you really had to go on every day If I set aside like an hour to actually sit and go through the study topics each week, but it's all self-discipline, people who don't have any just kind of fail it

with the discussion forums, because there was no deadline that's kind of a bad thing, especially with first years, me anyway. I don't know about other first years but we kind of need deadlines because in high school /or people coming straight from high school we always had deadlines. If you don't set deadlines/or us then we will leave if till the last possible week

There was very limited and selective use of the range of options available on the unit Homepage - some were seldom or never accessed by students in either unit. The Unit Guide was used only at the beginning of the unit; the Chat Room was not considered to work as intended and the Help button was not helpful - students preferred to obtain help from people. A very small proportion of students used the Get Pages (only one student interviewed knew what it was), Latest Links, the Student Homepages and the Dictionary and Library options. In regard to the Chat room, students considered it was too difficult to set up a time when people were present in the Room; others were concerned that tutors could monitor what was said.

The bulletin boards were the focus of much of the students' concerns because they were assessed. Most students were, or became selective in their reading of other students' contributions to discussions, although a few said they tried to read everything that was written. Students tended to select on the basis of whether they considered a particular contributor was competent or had something interesting to say. This they judged from performance in on campus tutorials (in the online unit or others). Some students would not read anything longer than a paragraph and many thought contributions ought to be limited in size and that the bulletin boards should not be used for jokes and personal messages. Some felt excluded (and acknowledged this could be a problem with on campus tutorials as well).

A number of students commented on the lack of feedback and monitoring by tutors when the online mode is used for discussion. As a result they could go off track, be "highjacked" by a few dominant contributors, or personal animosities let pass. Many saw the bulletin boards and message facilities as too ponderous, slow and inflexible to allow explanation, especially if some problem arose. The third years saw the online discussions in a more positive light than the first years but also enjoyed the opportunity to meet in on campus workshops.

All students were glad to have had the opportunity to become more computer literate. They recognised the usefulness of learning how to use the Internet both for their future jobs and their learning. They recognised the usefulness of the online environment for specific purposes such as research and (in the case of mostly third years) discussion. However they also considered some aspects of learning were better if they were campus based, for example, discussion of problems (especially first years), simulations (third years) and clarification of concepts (both units). Most would consider completing an online unit again although some felt it was better for more experienced learners rather than first years. They also recognised it might be better for those students who work full time or who are completing postgraduate studies.

All students interviewed preferred to study on campus rather than online. This was due mainly to the perceived lack of communication with tutors, the coordinator and other students for the purpose of obtaining immediate feedback and support.. Some also mentioned the lack of opportunity to practise "talking on your feet".


The findings of this study indicate that students were very strategic in their learning. Faced with a new mode of learning, most were excited, apprehensive but willing to try. As the semester progressed, they picked out the essentials of learning online (as they interpreted the intentions of the coordinator and tutors) and tailored their use of the online environment to try to maximise their assessable contributions and minimise problems. Almost all problems were technical ones. Even when familiar with computers (most students were), and the Internet (a smaller proportion), students were sometimes surprised that the online learning environment presented different challenges.

For most interviewees the online learning environment significantly lacked what they called "interaction" by which they meant face to face communication. The value they set on "interaction" appears to be related to opportunities it affords to obtain immediate feedback; to engage in spontaneous exchange of information and ideas; and to seek cognitive and affective clues from the coordinator, tutors and other students to guide their learning. Most of these students were saying in effect that learning is a social rather than a solitary pursuit and the online environment dose not provide the same social structure and support they were used to and expected to have. For example, some students referred to learning online giving them a feeling of 'unreality':

Yeah, Just the strangeness of the lack of human contact. I find that a bit, I always feel, when we have a live lecture I always come away feeling, oh, yes I'm in this unit and there's other people in it and that's comfortable and yes it's all achievable, you know, at a distance I feel like I'm not really connected and maybe I'm slipping behind or I've got no idea what's going on but you, know. I think if you examine that though it's ok, it's all there on-line, I know that. But I just always feel better after I've had some live contact.
Based on this evidence we make six recommendations that may enhance student learning in the online environment.

Recommendation 1: Address perceived deficiencies in the online environment

There is a need to address the drawbacks students see in learning online. Such perceptions do not seem to be due to a lack of knowledge or familiarity or misunderstanding of the purposes of learning. Without exception, students regretted the lack of personal, face to face contact with staff and students. They did not see bulletin boards or chat rooms as replacing this aspect of learning, or any possibility that they might in the near future.

Ways should be sought to incorporate the beneficial aspects of personal "interaction" in the online environment. These should address both the cognitive and affective dimensions of student learning. One concrete suggestion is to structure some tutorials so that students meet together to go online at one or more shared terminals.

Recommendation 2: Acknowledge the affective dimension

The feelings of students engaged in online learning need to be recognised, discussed and addressed. Online learning, because it involves the use of computers, can be (and often is) very frustrating as students attempt to discover computer procedures, what they need do, what software and hardware they need, and cope with the vagaries of the server, and unreliable home or office systems. Ideally, learning should be an enjoyable rather than a frustrating experience. Ways should be found to stimulate students' positive feelings towards the online environment.

Perhaps more opportunities should be provided for students to express their negative feelings online and thus share them with others who may be feeling the same. The coordinator and tutors should be encouraged to express online their own positive feelings towards the subject matter and the learning environment.

Recommendation 3: Streamline online structure

Unit homepages should be streamlined. This will help reduce anxiety and learning load. Most students do not make use of many of the options typically presented in the online environment. If these options are deemed important, then they need to be integrated to the unit or developed differently. For example, a Chat room should, in theory, be useful, but it does not appear to work as it is currently set up. Students find it preferable to meet in person.

Recommendation 4: Encourage student reflection

The purpose, advantages and disadvantages of online learning should be discussed with and amongst students. Students will have a more self regulatory and more sympathetic approach if they have the opportunity to discuss these aspects of online learning.

The prevailing view amongst the students in this study was that online learning is not student centred, and that it is done purely for the benefit of the university. This is a view that needs to be addressed if teachers are concerned about the quality of their teaching and the students' learning. Frank discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of learning online should therefore be encouraged. In particular, the perception that teaching and learning can only occur in a face to face environment needs to be addressed.

Recommendation 5: Provide initial and ongoing support

Even when students are familiar with computers and the Internet, using the computer as a learning mode requires new strategies and skills that cannot be taken for granted. Being familiar with one type of use does not mean other uses will not be problematic. This should be addressed by the use of (preferably) pre-unit workshops (using computers) in general Internet use, plus workshops geared to specific units and held at optimal times though the first half of the semester.

Technical advice needs to be available at all times - this could be done using student expertise, if they have the time. Students need time to understand how the online learning works and what is expected of them. This is true of all units in whatever mode, but the problems and the anxiety seem to be exacerbated in online learning, possibly because students are less sure of how to find answers to their questions, and the use of computers to provide those answers is not working well.

Older students in our study tended to feel more competent with and adjusted to online learning even if it was a new experience for them. This is contrary to other findings and may be because this group of older students had often used computers and the Internet in their jobs or elsewhere. Work related use of computers and the Internet may be a better background for students adapting to online learning than experience with other types of computer usage.

Recommendation 6: Mix modes

At this stage in the development of the online learning environment units should not be totally online. The online mode should be used for what it is best at, which for these students is for linking material, for researching the literature and for (in some instances) discussion.

For the students in our study the online environment is not seen as optimal in providing feedback, explanation, lectures or background information, or interaction with other students on supportive social and cognitive levels.

Mixing online components with face to face tutorials, workshops or seminars seems to be called for at this point in the development of online education.


We acknowledge the support of a Murdoch University Innovative Teaching Development and Research Grant in conducting this research. We also thank the students who took the time to participate in this research for their input.


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Please cite as: Zariski, A. and Styles, I. (2000). Enhancing student strategies for online learning. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/zariski.html

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