Factors for Student Persistence in Doctorate Programs

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Factors for Student Persistence in Doctorate Programs 

Abstract

The purpose of this literature review is to investigate the factors that are associated with the ability of students to persist in online doctorate programs in business. Studies show that a lack of persistence in online education can contribute to non-completion of the program and attrition. Additionally, studies show that there are facilitators and barriers that can significantly impact doctoral persistence. There are several factors associated with student persistence in an online program. These factors include but are not limited to time management skills, satisfaction with online learning, a sense of membership in a learning community, peer and family support, increased communication with the instructor, and internal motivation. One factor that is not  related to knowledge incorporates the ability to obtain support, which can allow students to overcome hardships in completing an online degree. This paper addresses those issues and looks at the studies associated with the above factors. 

Keywords:  doctoral, persistence, online, education, attrition

Doctoral Persistence: Literature Review

Introduction

     The concept of doctoral persistence generally refers to the continuance of a student’s progress toward the successful completion of a doctoral degree despite obstacles, interferences, or adverse circumstances. Researchers have discerned that there are several distinct factors that can act as both facilitators and barriers to persistence in successfully completing a doctorate degree, whether residential or online. Depending on the circumstances, these factors may either positively or negatively affect a doctorate student’s ability to complete the program. Facilitators are considered to be those factors that positively correlate to persistence in completing a degree. Alternatively, barriers are those factors that negatively correlate to persistence, and can cause a student to drop out or withdraw from the program (Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012).

Time Management Skill as a Facilitator

     Holder (2007) deemed time management skill as an essential facilitator and a major academic ability that has a positive effect on doctoral persistence. The author’s study found that the main aspects of time management skill contributing to doctoral persistence are awareness, planning, and monitoring. Awareness of expectations helps students to be clear about their obligations and goals so that they can get prepared. Planning provides a short and long term view of prioritizing and implementing daily and weekly tasks within a schedule. Monitoring allows students to establish what works and to control distractions and time wasters.  Thus, time management skill yields to persistent students who display better study habits and complete work in a timely fashion (Holder, 2007). 

 

 

Flexibility In Time Management

     Moreover, Dews-Farrar (2018) purported that the flexibility of an online doctorate program is very attractive to students attempting to manage time with balancing work and family demands. The study reported that doctorate students participating in an online program find the convenience and flexibility of the schedule to be a positive characteristic in their learning experience. The online format allows students to have more control over their schedule and course work, which helps them to accomplish tasks with less disruption. Although several participants favored in-class experiences in education, all students noted that convenience was imperative to completing coursework and managing family and work demands (Morris, Finnegan, & Wu, 2005).

     Nash (2005) supported this finding. The study reported that the flexibility of an online education provided the means of obtaining a degree of higher education to some students who may not have otherwise been able, due to demanding schedules. Additionally, Bunn (2004) noted that a heavy workload is not automatically a problem as long as students have a realistic expectation of what will be incorporated in the program. The author also noted that students who take action in planning to accommodate an expected workload tend to be persistent in completing a degree.

Task Completion and Time Management

     Holder (2007) asserted that students with the ability to successfully manage time, the ability to stay on task with assignments and readings, and good study habits have a better chance to persist in comparison to those who do not. Stanford-Bowers (2008) agrees with this assertion. The author deemed that students, administrators, and faculty acknowledge the importance of time  management in persistence of completing a degree. Ultimately, time management is a necessary skill for completing tasks in a specific amount of time and reaching important deadlines. It helps students reach their goals.

Goal Commitment as a Facilitator

     Goal commitment, refers to the degree to which an individual is determined to achieve a desired or required goal. Ivankova and Stick (2007) purported that goal attachment and commitment to graduation is a characteristic found in all levels of online or residential students except the ones who withdrew from a course when facing difficulties. This was especially true for doctoral students. Graduates were deemed as the most motivated in terms of goal attachment and commitment. However,  students who stick it out through a tough course were also positively motivated. Thus, students who made the decision to withdraw from difficult courses were found to be the least motivated to complete their degree. The study also found that persistent students viewed their education as important to goal attainment and valued the career or financial results of their education accomplishments (Ivankova & Stick, 2007).

Self-Efficacy and Motivation as Facilitators

     Holder (2007) found self-efficacy to be one of the most important criteria that can differentiate the persistent student from the one who will not complete a doctorate degree. The term simply represents one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations. Self-efficacy for learning and performance appears to correlate with higher confidence of the student to successfully complete the courses of a graduate program, as well as a higher expectation to do well. The author suggested that personal determination to succeed strongly contributes to persistence in a degree completion.

     Kemp (2002) extended that internal self-motivation yields to the resiliency that directly creates a higher level of self-efficacy. The author stated that a higher level of self-efficacy will positively affect a student’s effort expended on studies and increase resiliency in the face of obstacles to persistence. In relation, Ivankova and Stick (2007) hypothesized that persistent students are generally highly motivated to complete their program of study, while students who are less motivated will likely withdraw. Self-motivation, along with personal challenge and responsibility are as the intrinsic motivators that encourage students to complete a program. Thus, self-motivation becomes one of the factors used to differentiate between persistent and non-persistent students (Ivankova & Stick, 2007).

Quality Of Interactions And Feedback as a Facilitator

     Ojokheta (2011) found positive and encouraging feedback to be important to the persistence of students. In this study, the authors postulated that feedback provided by faculty would have an impact on student perceptions of course content. The qualitative findings indicated that in addition to promptness, the quality of feedback and the willingness of faculty to meet student needs are viewed as important to student persistence. Thus, feedback patterns had a direct effect on a student’s ability to successfully complete courses in online degree programs. This linkage of learning environment, motivation, feedback, and perceptions can directly lead to positive student outcomes (Ojokheta, 2011).

Support as a Facilitator

     Faculty feedback is a form of support, however emotional support is also seen as an important factor in doctoral persistence. Emotional support can be derived from the encouragement of family, friends, or peers. Park and Choi (2009) reported that persistent students perceived family and friends to be supportive of their educational endeavors, whereas non-persistent student reported to receive less support. Thus,  persistent students tended to score higher in having supportive partners and in maintaining healthy relationships (Park and Choi, 2009).

    Moreover, Bunn (2004) noted that a feeling of teamwork within the classroom can significantly contribute a sense of support and increase persistence. In this study, classmates and faculty were seen as  imperative to student persistence, because  feedback and social connections with peers and faculty contribute to the ability to complete a course despite hardships. In addition, technical support can influence persistence positively. Technical support consists of practical assistance with computer and technology. Since students have varying levels of computer skills, tutorials outside of the regular course can be helpful (Bunn, 2004).

Grade Point Average as a Facilitator

     Harrell and Bower (2011) reported that grade point average is a significant predictor of student persistence. The authors postulated that students with higher grade point averages are better able to maneuver within an online environment and display more successful academic behaviors as opposed to students with lower grade point averages. Furthermore, this finding is consistent with previous evidence that lower grade point averages are associated with higher rates of withdrawal (Harrell & Bower, 2011).

College Status and Graduating Term as Facilitators

      Levy (2009) proposed that college status and graduating term are related factors in persistence. College status refers to student placement within a program and graduating term indicates when the student expects to graduate from his or her associated program. Students who are at a higher status and closer to graduation are more likely to persist in their program of study. Thus, it is argued that that prior educational experience may augment confidence through increased familiarity with the an online or in-class environment (Levi, 2009).

Satisfaction And Relevance as Facilitators

     Levy (2009) also postulated that higher levels of student satisfaction yields to further progression in an online graduate program. The study found that satisfaction was a significant predictor of student persistence, as the withdrawn and inactive students reported a 20% satisfaction rate. When students are not satisfied with faculty or learning, they are more apt to be less successful than their persistent counterparts. The author noted that the association between satisfaction and learning suggests that institutions should place major emphasis on student  satisfaction as a means of promoting persistence. Park and Choi (2009) supported this finding with persistent students rating relevance and satisfaction significantly higher than those who dropped from an online program.

Social Connectedness Or Presence as Facilitators

     Social connectedness and presence can also be positive facilitators. Studies assessing social connectedness found that persistent students believe social relationships can be established in an online environment. Liu, Gomez, and Yen (2009) reported that persistent students were comfortable with the discussion format of an online course, and non-persistent students were the least satisfied with their  comfort level in this environment. The authors reported a strong positive correlation between social presence and retention. Their findings indicated that students who are more adept in forming positive social relationships in the online environment will likely be persistent. Students with stronger social connections to peers will derive support and encouragement to persist. This sense of a virtual community contributes significantly to a model used to distinguish between persistent and non-persistence students (Liu, Gomez, & Yen, 2009).

 

 

Isolation and Decreased Engagement as Barriers

     On the flip side, isolation and decreased engagement can be barriers to persistence, especially in an online environment. Morris, Wu, and Finnegan (2005) cited two types of isolation. The first type is isolation from faculty, and the second type is isolation from fellow students. Engagement activities represent the time spent reading and responding to posts as well as viewing discussions and content pages. The study found that non-persistent students were less satisfied with an online environment, reporting a lower comfort level compared to persistent learners. The study also reported that there were statistically significant differences in the amount of time spent in engagement activities between students who withdraw from a course and successful completers. Participation was held to be a distinguishing factor between withdrawers and completers (Morris, Wu, and Finnegan, 2005). 

College Status and Graduating Term as Barriers

     In contrast to facilitating factors, college status and graduating term can also be considered barriers to persistence. Levy (2009) postulated that students who were at a lower college status and further from graduation were more likely to drop out from a program of study. The author concluded that students with less experience in online learning are more apt to withdraw than students who are nearing completion of a program of study. It was also observed that when students are faced with less than an optimal grade, they may electively withdraw from a course and retake the course at a later time (Levy, 2009).  

Poor Communication as a Barrier

     Aragon and Johnson (2008) noted that students strongly view incomplete or ineffective communication as a barrier to persistence. Late or non-existent communication regarding changes, slow feedback, difficulty in contacting faculty and staff, and limited communication with faculty were specific issues reported in the study. These issues were deemed as negative contributors and obstacles that hindered effective and timely completion of assignments. The study also reported that negative student perceptions of the level of instructor responsiveness can lead to a decision to withdraw from an online course (Aragon & Johnson, 2008). 

Lack of Computer Accessibility as a Barrier

     Stanford-Bowers (2008) found that administrators, faculty, and students view computer access and accessibility as necessary for persistence in an online course. This finding is a practical concern, as the nature of an online course logically demands the ability to access and interact with course content via the computer. Due to this fact, computer accessibility is seen as a major concern in a consensus of administration, faculty, and students (Stanford-Bowers, 2008).

Difficulty in Accessing Resources

     Nonetheless, difficulty in accessing resources though the electronic library, can be problematic for students and negatively affect persistence. Bunn (2004) reported that when students have a negative experience with the electronic library, they are often reluctant to problem-solve and typically make alternate plans. Furthermore, dissatisfaction with resources also causes difficulties in obtaining course materials. Thus, the author found that lack of a single point of contact was viewed as contributing to dissatisfaction with support (Bunn, 2004).

Non-Academic Issues as Barriers

     Lastly, balancing work and family obligations is a recurring barrier to student persistence according to Aragon & Johnson (2008). Many students use coping measures such as decreasing leisure activities or socialization with friends to complete schoolwork. However, the authors noted that the computer format of online courses does help in allowing students to maintain family and work schedules. Nonetheless, the study found that personal time constraints are a common theme among those students who were unable to successfully complete an online course (Aragon & Johnson, 2008).

Conclusion

     In summary, doctoral persistence is a concept that represents the compilation of skills, attitudes, and behaviors that are essential for a student to successfully complete an online doctorate degree. It is important that the factors that may enhance persistence or create barriers to completion of a program be researched and understood in order to improve persistence among students. Information collected through continued research can strengthen the phenomenon of persistence for online students and also be valuable to educators (Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012).

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