Reducing drop-out rates in online degrees

Alexandra Pentaraki responds to our online piece.

I read with interest the article entitled ‘Online mental health – Revolutionary help in higher education?’ (The Psychologist online, 9 August 2017). The author, Erika Payne, correctly tackled the increasing need for more mental health services in HE while she proposed that online mental health services might be a potential solution for students seeking help. As a lecturer in online postgraduate degrees, I have also witnessed psychological distress that is related to online students’ drop-out rates. However, in online degrees, students may experience not only mental health difficulties but also certain negative emotional states that seem to be related to their studies. In a 2008 study in Distance Education, Zembylas showed that students in online environments experience anxiety around online learning, being higher at the beginning of the module, stress and guilt about their difficulties with balancing various roles and responsibilities. Gender differences are also related to the anxiety experienced by online students, as Conrad reported in 2002 in the American Journal of Distance Education; although both female and male online students experience fear and anxiety from the beginning of an online course, female students manifest more varied and negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety, compared with male students.

One of the most common factors that inhibit students from seeking help for their mental health difficulties is either the stigma surrounding mental health (see tinyurl.com/yb8j58ry) or, as reported in a research brief from the Healthy Mind Network (tinyurl.com/ycmouu2n), their belief that their mental health difficulties are normal due to the high-stress levels that are found in the university environment.

It is widely accepted that the promotion of a learning environment that values mental health and offers support and care to its students helps students to manage their mental health difficulties, improve their academic performance and decrease drop-out rates. Support services such as counselling, the promotion of mental health via campaigns and information sessions as well as having mental health experts and policies that can assist staff and faculty to be able to advise students on certain issues and at a certain degree (staff and faculty cannot provide treatment to students but with the proper training can guide students to seek professional help while their interest in promoting mental health can reduce stigma and assist students to seek help without fear) can be a significant investment of an institution that aims to help students progress academically, while taking into consideration students’ needs. Such practices can not only benefit students but also academic institutions, as the inclusion of mental health services in institutions can reduce drop-out rates significantly. Daniel Eisenberg (see tinyurl.com/y9x47drj) reported that the treatment of 100 students with depression during an academic year could result in six averted drop-outs and an average of $240,000 in additional tuition fees.

I would encourage online (and non-online) lecturers to think about their students in the modules that they are teaching and the possible mental health issues or negative emotional states that the students may experience and how these could be affecting students’ progress and possible drop-outs. A familiarisation of online faculty and management with the available research, future training on mental health and its association with online students’ academic progress, and a possible inclusion of online mental health services, can help students to continue their studies and reduce drop-out rates in online degrees.

Dr Alexandra Pentaraki CPsychol, AFBPsS
University of Liverpool   

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