Encouraging Student Success in Online Credit Recovery Courses

By Jason Neiffer
June 2016

In the past decade, online credit recovery programs have become an important strategy for helping struggling students get back on track for graduation. Along the way, we’ve learned some valuable lessons about how to help students succeed in these courses. Those lessons have primarily come from our own experience and our own data because the research base on online credit recovery has been slow in coming. That is starting to change.

As the assistant director/curriculum director of the Montana Digital Academy (MTDA), I’m pleased that a new study from REL Northwest looking at the population of students who take our courses and their rates of success confirms something we’ve known for a while: Online credit recovery programs bring many efficiencies—particularly to a state as large and demographically dispersed as Montana—but an extremely important element for student success is the personalized support students receive from caring adults on both sides of the computer screen.

MTDA is a statewide virtual school that provides digital learning opportunities to students through our partnership with local public schools. While we offer traditional online learning courses that expand the course options available to many students in the state, we also provide an online credit recovery program open to all students who have previously failed a course and need to restore missing credits. Since it was established five years ago, we have given much effort to the design and continuous refinements of the online credit recovery program based on student data and feedback from students, schools, and parents.

The students who take our credit recovery courses are among those who are the toughest to help. They often have a poor academic history and have failed more than one course. When they come to us, they frequently lack the independent learning and study skills it will take to pass a more traditional online course. Because independent learning skills are a key to success in an online course, we create an infrastructure of people around each student to provide them direct support. This takes careful planning and thoughtful decision making.

The eight schools participating in the REL Northwest study represent significantly different communities—from urban comprehensive high schools to rural schools to schools on or near Indian reservations. The finding from the report that interests us the most is that supporting students through a personalized approach is critical for their success in online courses. Montana’s most successful credit recovery programs have told us that from day one, and it has proven true in every context and in all areas of the state.

Here are a few of our other takeaways from the study and from our overall experience in operating this program:

There's No Magic Solution to Assist Students Who Have Failed a Course

While an online learning environment creates several efficiencies—such as allowing students to test out of content that they have already mastered or to work on assignments multiple times until they reach mastery—it is a labor-intensive process requiring much time and energy from highly qualified, caring adults. Districts and schools that view online credit recovery programs primarily from an economic standpoint—that they are cheaper or less labor intensive—may be overlooking the adult support that is necessary for students to succeed.

Students Don't Always Have Tech Skills to be Ready for a Digital Learning Environment

It’s frequently said that today’s students have grown up in the digital age and therefore have a high level of tech skills. That’s often been counter to my experience as a teacher and an administrator of a state virtual school. MTDA has found it very helpful to provide students with an orientation to online learning, including not only the structure and logistics of the courses we offer but also the basics of successful online learning—everything from email etiquette to how to upload documents.

Paying Close Attention to Data

Students change over time, and their online learning needs also change. One way we’re able to tell what’s happening with students is through the data we collect. We’re consistently analyzing and responding to what we learn from data in our efforts to provide personalized and effective support to our students.

Jason Neiffer is the assistant director/curriculum director of the Montana Digital Academy, Montana's state virtual school that provides supplemental online courses to students across Big Sky Country. A former classroom teacher, Jason is also a doctoral candidate in educational technology at the University of Montana and trains teachers across the United States on the best way to integrate technology in the classroom.