PSU: Online Course Enrollment and Grades

By Dai Li, Director of Institutional Research and Planning, Pittsburg State University

When Pittsburg State University surveyed stakeholders for their feedback regarding a new strategic plan, online education emerged as a most discussed topic. One concern is that increased online education will drive the university away from its traditional value of hands-on learning, which remains appealing to many enrolled and prospective students. Additionally, faculty is also concerned about student learning outcome through online education, especially for freshmen and sophomores. This visualization uses course enrollment and grade data over six years to address these concerns.

The first graph shows the number of online course sessions offered by course level (first row), the headcount of students who took at least one online course by student level (middle row), and the average online credit per student (bottom row) in summer, fall, and spring semesters from Fall 2009 to Fall 2015.

An overall increasing trend is shown across three measures, but the patterns by student level tell a slightly different story. The university offers more master’s level online courses than bachelor’s level, but the bachelor’s level course offerings increase faster than the master’s. This pattern is most obviously shown in recent summers. Because of the financial and course scheduling considerations, offering online courses in summer is not preferred at the master’s level. Moreover, junior and senior students have become the largest group of online course takers instead of master’s students. Although freshmen and sophomores are still the smallest group taking online courses, their average online credits per student in summers are close to the other two groups.

Taking Summer 2015 as an example, 55 lower-division courses were offered, more than two times the offerings of the same level in spring and fall. Only 133 freshmen and sophomores took the courses. However, the average online credit per student of the group is 4.8, which is even higher than the group of juniors and seniors (4.7) and very close to master’s students (4.9). The small number of freshmen and sophomores taking online courses may suggest online courses are not popular among them. But the intensity of their summer course taking is not different from the other two groups. 

 View larger, full version of graph images (PDF opens in new tab). 

This graph shows data extracted on the census day of the semester. The month of the census day is used to indicate the semester (a Tableau feature). February = spring semester; July/August = summer semester; September = fall semester.


The second graph compares grade distribution of online and face-to-face (FTF) courses by student level over six years. The percentages reflect the six-year averages of the A group (blue) and the drop-fail-withdraw (DFW) group (purple) respectively. The grade distributions of A, B, C, D of online and FTF courses among students in bachelor’s programs are not drastically different.

However, master’s students seem to be more likely to receive an A in online courses. The DFW rate in online courses among freshmen and sophomores is higher than FTF courses, which may lead to concerns that freshman/sophomore students do not perform well in online courses.




To add a comment, Sign In
Total Comments: 1
Jeff posted on 4/15/2016 9:51 AM
What you are illustrating here is important, and the comparisons across instructional level show important differences. Some visual display improvements are suggested. Always include a graph title, and perhaps a sub-title to quickly explain what is being shown and make the graphs more self-explanatory. Row and column labels should be bolder and larger so that they are more readable, and more helpful in explaining the graphs. In an area graph like the above, as space permits, use data labels for each of the areas and each point in time. On a technical note, the percent non-credit should be excluded from the graph since this is a mix graph of grades given. There may be a similar issue with DFW since this overlaps with the D grade areas. Overall, you may be trying to do too much at one time in a single graph. Consider breaking up each of the graphs above to show the patterns as separate graphs, but in a single-page dashboard (ideally with PDF hyperlink zoom-in capability). Your research here is important, so do everything you can to make your displays as perfect as possible.