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Editorís Note
: The authors identified and compared experiences with ten difficult learner types. They looked at these from the perspective of learners at the beginning and the conclusion of their degree programs and discovered that there is little change in learner behaviors that define each type of learner.

Dealing with Difficult Online Learners:
Two perspectives, five best practices, and ten difficult learner types

Sharon L. Bender, Eileen Dittmar
United States

Two Perspectives

Two university professors have compared the characteristics of difficult online learners from their unique perspectives. Eileen Dittmar has worked with online learners at the start of their degree program and Dr. Sharon L. Bender has worked with them at the end of their degree program in the capstone project course. Bender and Dittmar have found that they can identify the same behaviors in learners regardless of whether the learners are at the start of their programs or at the end.

It is assumed that cognitive changes occur over time, increasing the learnerís ability to make more mature intellectual decisions and that self regulation is expected to result with increased ability. Bender and Dittmar agree that learners become more adept at processing information and at cognitive processes that foster self-monitoring. However, they see that the same challenging behaviors persist throughout the learnerís degree program. Potentially, if social interaction is also crucial for effective self-regulation, this experience is often inhibited in the online learning environment, which may account for the continuance in some difficult behaviors.

According to Bender and Dittmar, most difficult learners of all types do successfully complete their degree programs. Regardless of why they continue with difficulties, these challenging learners can be better managed if instructors are prepared to work more effectively with them. Therefore, Bender and Dittmar have devised solutions comprising five best practices to manage their ten difficult learner types. These core dimensions challenge and stretch the instructorís effectiveness and provide a meaningful approach to giving learners what they need to prosper in achieving their goals. The five best practices, as determined by Bender and Dittmar, comprise skill variety, task identity, task significance, freedom, and feedback. Without the application of the five best practices, learners will often join the ranks among one of the ten difficult learner types.

Five Best Practices

1. Skill Variety

Skill variety encompasses the degree to which assignments require a variety of tasks and activities involving the use of different skills and talents of the individual learner. This may include variety in the level of skill needed to complete assignments. Having variety of skill includes task enrichment activities and the opportunity to learn something the learner perceives as useful. Adults comprise the community of online learners and adults tend to have a high desire for growth through learning.

2. Task Identity

Task identity involves the degree to which assignments require the completion of an identifiable piece of work. This means doing significant projects or single assignments from beginning to end with a positive visible outcome. For example, a technology learner who can work on a software development related assignment that means something in a real life setting is more interesting and rewarding than one that is not related to any real application. Task identity is a matter of identifying the assigned work with something tangible and useful.

3. Task Significance

Task significance hinges on whether the learner sees the work as having a substantial impact on the lives or work of other people. An example may be working on a project or assignment that can have a sizable effect on how people in the learnerís environment will appreciate the knowledge that the learner is gaining.

4. Flexibility

Flexibility implies giving freedom, independence, and discretion to the learner in scheduling the work and in determining the procedures to be used in executing it. Learners want instructors to help them define goals, measure effectiveness, provide resources, and set deadlines. However, learners desire some flexibility to accomplish their objectives. All too often, online instructors exhibit a rigid methodology that deters the learnersí need for flexibility.

5. Feedback

Feedback is a necessary dimension that looks at whether carrying out the activities required by the assignment results in learners obtaining information about the effectiveness of their performance. Even if an instructor must give constructive feedback to learners, it shows you care about their effort. When learners know that their instructor cares, they are likely to put more effort into their work. Many online instructors do not give enough feedback, yet feedback is one of the easiest variables for instructors to provide in managing difficult learners.

Employing these five best practices can be a significant approach to motivating and managing difficult learners in the online environment. Bender and Dittmar have identified the following ten types of difficult learners from their combined online teaching experiences for which many if not all of the best practices can resolve.

Ten Difficult Learner Types

1. Arrogant Learner

The arrogant learner lacks appreciation. These learners barely meet assignment requirements, delivering late submissions that are deficient in one form or another. These learners do not respond to instructor suggestions or compliments and have a way of putting the instructor ill at ease with their arrogance. These learners are ones who truly do not think they need the educational experience that the course offers them. They will fight learning anything new or finding anything valuable in the course. Having no respect for the instructor or the course, these learners glance over the work and decide to do as little of it as possible, yet these learners expect to earn a respectable grade for their small amount of effort. They have mastered the criteria dialog and question everything that may go against their uncooperative posture.

2. Careless Learner

The careless learner lacks attention. These learners do not pay attention to details and often omit the necessary preparatory work to understand assignments. They barely bother reading instructions and messages from the instructor. The work these learners produce and submit is weak. All too often, these learners do not take the time necessary to revisit their work before submitting. As a result the work can be undecipherable. Sometimes this carelessness is a way to hide poor skills like the unskilled learner or lack of confidence like the surprised learner.

3. Delinquent Learner

The delinquent learner lacks devotion. These learners are chronically late with assignment submissions. They do not devote the time necessary to produce their course work. These learners are incessant procrastinators. Work is submitted at the 11th hour and the result is a rushed product. Furthermore, these learners do not take the course seriously, jeopardizing their potential success.

4. Disjointed Learner

The disjointed learner lacks direction. These learners do not know where to begin oftentimes. It is difficult for these learners to see the big picture or how to break down the big picture into manageable chunks of work. They cannot visualize the outcome and they do not have a plan for the long haul. These learners have a challenging time throughout their course. They seem to constantly struggle and ask questions that may have been answered several times previously. These learners suffer from a lack of direction, resulting in poor time management and poorly completed work that is submitted late or not at all.

5. Irresponsible Learner

The irresponsible learner lacks accountability. These learners are unable to cope with the outlined responsibilities and resort to complaining. They blame everything and everyone for their inabilities. Oftentimes, these learners come around out of respect for the instructor and the school. However, these learners have the greatest likeliness to withdraw from the program. They may have too many unaccountable matters to overcome to reach a success level. These learners tend not to follow directions and they do not realize that this can oftentimes be the route to their problems.

6. Overachiever Learner 

The overachiever learner lacks patience. These learners are exceptional performers, but they can be insistent on doing their own thing, not following prescribed systems. They will often request the flexibility to do things a new way or in a way that they are comfortable. These learners can be as much a pleasure as they can be a challenge to satisfy. They may read more into the assignments and have additional questions on top of questions. These learners place an enormous responsibility on themselves and on their instructor. They need constant feedback and to know how they are doing every step of the way. They will often advise the instructor on ways to do things better or more effectively.

7. Stubborn Learner 

The stubborn learner lacks flexibility. These learners are not willing to cooperate because they perceive that they know a better way to do something. They oftentimes do not realize that the instructor has experience with the course content and knows how and why the deliverables need to be met as outlined. These learners often produce work for which they are unwilling to make required iteration. They do not understand or appreciate any changes or deviations from their perceived norm or to the course according to the instructor. These learners have a trust issue and they question any deviations from their expectations.

8. Surprised Learner

The surprised learner lacks self-confidence. These learners are not prepared for the online method of instruction and they find it difficult to impart from what they perceive to be the traditional approach. They do not realize that they need to posses the ability to work independently. These learners often do not put the effort into examining a new process in order to be prepared to meet what is expected of them. These learners may not be comfortable expressing their need for help and risk falling behind. They fail to take advantage of learning opportunities. Oftentimes they take far longer to understand and be comfortable with the process of each new experience.

9. Unmotivated Learner

The unmotivated learner lacks enthusiasm. These learners are not very enthusiastic even though they may produce work on time and perhaps may even meet most of the assignment expectations. They do not reveal the matter of their lack of enthusiasm because there is no enthusiasm for doing anything above or beyond just what is assigned. These learners are silent and give little input to classmates. They seem to just be doing the time without any heart because of their lack of motivation. These learners wait for the instructor to do something to get them to act. They make a minimal effort to be involved. They may submit assignments diligently for a time and then disappear due to not having a sense of perseverance.

10. Unskilled Learner

The unskilled learner lacks prerequisites. These learners do not possess the necessary background or skills to manage the course work. They are not qualified to participate in the course, but they are hoping they can manage it somehow. Oftentimes these learners are open about their inabilities and they seek help. Sometimes these learners lack the basic skills of university-level reading and writing. They typically spend more time doing the work than other learners. However, with perseverance and willingness to put forth the time, these learners can deliver and succeed. These learners tend to appreciate any help they can garner and do not hold back any praise they have for all who helped them be able to deliver.  


All of these behaviors show up in the traditional classroom, but online they present an extra special challenge. Learners can hide out in essence. And without seeing them in person, the instructor is not very real to them. This is something that online instructors need to overcome. All learners present some sort of challenge even those that are expressly talented. Hopefully by identifying the ten difficult learner types and using the applicable best practices, learners will respond appropriately. Compromised or difficult learners abound in both the traditional and online learning environments, but they may have unique complications depending on their learning platform. 

In addition to applying the five best practices, Bender and Dittmar believe that learning can be made much more enjoyable if learners are better prepared. Bender and Dittmar have revealed that difficult online learners are likely to be experienced at any time. Perhaps the self-assessment would provide a starting advantage or a way to get a tune up along the way. In any event learners may experience a less challenging journey if they are more versatile and prepared for the learning venture in addition to working with instructors who are equally prepared to manage the challenges in dealing with difficult online learners.

About the Authors

Dr. Sharon L. Bender has served as an online professor since 1999, largely facilitating the Capstone Project course and serving on an Institutional Review Board (IRB). She holds the Doctorate in Organization and Management, the Master of Science in Information Management - Technologies Focus, the MBA, and the Graduate Certificate in Social and Community Service. Her publications concern a range of exploratory topics. To see more about Sharon, please visit her Web site at www.sharonbender.com.

Eileen Dittmar has served as a faculty chair at Capella University where she facilitates the First Course for Bachelor Degree learners. She is also a DigiTools workshop leader and trains teachers to use and teach voice recognition technology. Eileen is an accomplished author with published works in the field of classroom technology integration and workforce career development. She is an IT Curriculum Specialist advising state agencies, schools, and teachers. Eileen is a recipient of teaching awards for contributions to students, teachers, and schools. To see more about Eileen, please visit her Web site at www.eileendittmar.org.

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