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Editorís Note: This study was conducted by a student at Connecticut State College. It is based on twenty eight questions to measure the similarities and differences of certain phenomenological aspects of distance learning experienced by students. It is reproduced here with the original tables and graphics produced in the SPSS analysis.

Student Self-Efficacy and the
Distance Learning Experience

John DeCarlo



This paper is about the way students, who are mostly adult, feel about the distance learning experience and how it might affect their self perception. I will attempt to examine whether it is convenience alone that drives this segment of higher education or there are other, more intrinsic factors that effect studentsí decisions to pursue knowledge by this alternative method.

If there is a nomothetic group of personality traits that cause a predisposition to this relatively new field of on-line learning they have not yet been identified

This paper is written to take a non-parametric statistical look, from an idiographic perspective, at some of the reasons a person might choose to pursue their education through distance learning. Some possible reasons which are examined are perceptions of self efficacy, the studentsí learning styles and their perceived satisfaction with elements of the distance learning experience. In its most basic form the question that I ask is: Are there certain personality types, which can be delineated statistically, that choose to pursue education through distance learning methods instead of by more traditional face-to-face encounters? If so, does the experience have an effect on their self perception and their perception of the system?

Phenomenological and Related Aspects of
the Distance Learning Experience

Educational commitment to distance learning

The United States Department of Education (2002) reports that in 2000-2001 there were 2,810 regionally accredited institutions in the country that were offering purely distance degree programs to their students. Out of that number there were 1,570 (56%) undergraduate programs and 1,240 (44%) graduate programs. These numbers reflect actual degree offerings and do not take into consideration the literally thousands of credit courses being offered on-line by public and private, two and four year colleges and universities. Although Distance learning can take advantage of several forms of media the one that has experienced the most remarkable growth in the past several years has been the area of on-line, computer based delivery. In Connecticut alone, the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium (2003) posted an increase of almost 400 distance courses offered by its 37 member colleges between 1998 and 2003 (see figure 1).

Figure 1 Courses: Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium
(courtesy of CTDLC)

During that same time period students in classes offered by the consortium increased by almost 7,000, giving a ratio of around seventeen students to each class where none existed five years ago (See figure 2). To say that distance, and especially, on-line class offerings have become popular would perhaps be an understatement. The ability of adult learners to return to school due to the broad dissemination that this technology offers has caused a rise in the adult learner population at institutions offering on-line classes. Adults have thrived in the distant learning environment. Without the accessibility of this form of knowledge delivery many current students would not have been able to return to school. The non-traditional, distance learning pedagogical model, which defines most on-line learning, serves a population of mid-career, adult learners. Until these types of classes started being offered many potential students were unable to return to the (virtual) classroom, because of work and family constraints, no matter the intensity of their desire to do so.







Figure 2 Number of Students
(courtesy of CTDLC)

Multiple personality factors

It is possible that returning to school because of the convenience that on-line courses offer is merely one of the factors that need to be present to ensure educational success for the student. The return to college for many adult learners represents a self actualizing tendency. The opportunities to not only increase their knowledge, skills and abilities but also to engage in the development of increased self efficacy and esteem seem to be important elements in their back to school decision. A returning studentís ability to succeed is predicted in part by certain psychosocial and personality factors (Robbins et al., 2004). Achievement motivation, academic goals, institutional commitment, perceived social support, social involvement, academic self-efficacy, general self-concept, academic-related skills, and contextual influences are all contributing elements to success in the on-line learning environment.

Artistico, Cervone, & Pezzuti, (2003) have suggested that the way younger and older people perceive their self efficacy is different. They found that older people link their efficacy more with environmental inferences and how those interact with the personality of the individual. It was reinforced by Caprara, Caprara, and Steca (2003) that personality traits, self-efficacy, beliefs, values, and feelings of well-being are all affected to a certain degree by the age of the individual. This theory is consistent with the concept that andragogy brings with it its own special set of needs and reinforcements in educating adult learners. The way they learn both on-line and on-ground is different than the way younger persons do (Barrouillet, Bernardin, & Camos, 2004). It appears that institutions concentrating on adult learners must take these psychosocial and personality factors of their target population into consideration to both attract the students and then enhance their ability to achieve academic success.


This study is based on a survey consisting of twenty eight questions that were compiled to measure the similarities and differences of certain phenomenological aspects of the distance learning experience by students. (See Appendix A for the survey.) Charter Oak State College does not currently have an internal review board for research conducted by its faculty or students. Because of this I submitted my research proposal to the Academic Council for their approval in lieu of an I.R.B. After the Academic Council reviewed the proposal authorization was received to disseminate the survey instrument.


Invitations were made to 54 Charter Oak State College students and 180 distance learning students at other on-line institutions. The survey was hosted at a web site and potential participants were asked to visit the URL provided in the invitation if they wished to take part in the survey. 112 students or 44% visited the survey website and actually participated. The sample group consisted of 20 Charter Oak students (17.8%) and 92 students from other institutions (82.2%). Of those answering the survey 33% were female and 67% were male, 66% of the participants were married and 33% were not. 50.9% of the sample did not live with children in their households, 19.1% had one child, 19.1% had two children, 8.2% had three children and 2.7% had four or more children living with them. 13.6% of the study group was unemployed or worked less than twenty hours per week, 11.8% put in 21 to 39 hours on their job per week and 74.5% spent forty or more hours working per week. The range of ages (table 1 & Figure 3) represented were 17 to 24 years old 6.3%, 25 to 30 years old 16.2%, 31 to 36 years old 23.4%, 37 to 42 years old 17.1%, 43 to 48 years old 18.9%, 49 to 54 years old 9%, 55 to 60 years old 6.3% and over 60 years old 2.7%.

Table 1


Valid17-24   7   6.3  6.3  6.3
 25-30  18  16.1 16.2 22.5
 31-36  26  23.223.4 45.9
 37-42  19  17.017.1 63.1
 43-48  21  18.818.9 82.0
 49-54  10   8.9  9.0 91.0
 55-60   7   6.3  6.3 97.3
 over 60   3   2.7  2.7100.0


111  99.1100.0 
Missing    1   0.9  
Total 112100.0  



Figure 3

97% of the individuals had taken at least one distance learning class and out of that group 50% had taken ten or more Distance Learning classes. When it came to having taken challenge exams like CLEP or DANTES exams 41.8% of the students reported having tried at least one. 48.6% of the group of distance learning students that participated in this study said that on average they study between five and ten hours per week per on-line course followed by 23.4% of the students who study between eleven and sixteen hours per course every week. (Table 2 & figure 4)

Table 2

40.9% of the study group does the majority of their studying during the week days and 59.5% report that they take distance learning courses exclusively. Fully 60.6% of the sample said that if all else were equal they would prefer to study by distance with 24.8% stating a preference for on-ground courses and 14.7% not having a preference. It would be interesting to reexamine this figure again with a wider sample group that included traditional students as well.

Table 3



Figure 4

Figure 5



The distance learners that participated in this study answered positively to every aspect of phenomenological measures of increased self efficacy. When asked if they could figure out a problem on their own in a course, 87.2% of them strongly agreed or agreed that they could. When responding to a question on whether distance learning helped them to think critically 93.6% answered positively with 37.3% strongly agreeing, 37.3% agreeing and 19.1% agreeing somewhat. 100% of the respondents answered affirmatively to the question on whether they could handle obstacles in their studies effectively. Another 95% of the sample reported that distance learning increased their overall confidence level. The people who thought that distance learning made them a better computer user was at a smaller percentage (about 50%). This was possibly due in part to the fact that this population was already facile with computer technology and specifically on-line classes, before experimenting with distance learning.

One hundred percent of the students surveyed believed that they could succeed in any course they registered for. About another 67% believed that DL courses helped them on their job and another 94% believed that they used their study time effectively while taking distance learning courses.

In addition, the distance learning students in this study had a strong tendency to report positively on measurements associated with a visual learning style. Based on surveys designed to show positive correlation between traits of visualization, direction and orientation (Kolb, 1984) (Smith & Kolb, 1986) respondents answered consistently over 90% positively in each of the three measurements. (See figures 14, 15 and 16 in appendix B)

Chi Square correlations

To supplement the findings above chi square tests for independence were calculated to find if there were any differences in the confidence levels of males and females. A Pearson Chi-Square of 4.316 with a p = .29 was calculated. Since, to be statistically significant, the alpha would have to have been .05 or less, it was found that males and females did not feel substantially different in the area of confidence.

Table 4

Interestingly, the number of children in a studentís household and the amount of study time that that student spent on each of their classes did not seem to be linked. The dependent variable of hours studied held steady across when the independent variable of number of children changed. The last chi square test that was conducted was to examine if hours of study were affected by hours worked in a week. No correlation was found. Students who worked full time were able to find time for their studies in the same percentages as were students who worked less. (See tables 15 and 16 in appendix B)


In summary, distance learning students are an independent group who are high in confidence, have positive feelings of self efficacy, and possess visual learning styles. In general, they would rather pursue their education via distance learning even when more traditional alternatives are available.

Educational institutions have recognized the distance learning student population and are making strides in accommodating this more independent, adult group. It is uncontestable that learning at a distance is a more convenient route to higher education than more traditional, brick and mortar schools for some adults. It is also possible that the independence demonstrated by this group is also due to other, more intrinsic factors. The ability to study with professors who would not normally be available to them and to find classes and programs not in their reach traditionally are also factors that cause people to pursue distance education. The phenomenology that is manifest in these students and their individual pursuit for self efficacy suggests that there are multiple personality factors that affect the decision to pursue distance education as an alternative.

The last section of the survey asked how important to them and how satisfied they were with:

1.) The way distance learning allows them to pace studies to accommodate their lives.

2.) Instructors provide timely feedback.

3.) Adequacy of instructor interaction.

4.) Procedures for enrolling in distance courses.

In every case, the subject of the question was highly important to students. Also, in each case, students were generally satisfied with the outcomes. Instructor interaction and timeliness of feedback were reported as satisfactory but less so than satisfaction with overall flexibility and institutional procedures such as enrollment. It might be relevant in future research to compare these perceptions to those of on-ground students and to also conduct longitudinal studies to see if these areas change with further maturation and sophistication of the course environments. Adaptive pedagogies to accommodate this new technology along with the increasing population of distance students will offer many interesting opportunities for study. Both the subjective, phenomenological characteristics of this paradigm and the more objectively, intrinsic factors that seem to be driving the growth of this educational venue are as full of questions for researchers as they are answers for their students.


In summary, distance learning students are an independent group who are high in confidence, have positive feelings of self efficacy, and possess visual learning styles. In general, they would rather pursue their education via distance learning even when more traditional alternatives are available.

On-line Distance learning is adding a new dimension to higher education not only because it makes use of heretofore unavailable technology but because it makes education accessible. It has been suggested by Muchinsky (2003) that the computer is one of the ďdominant technological innovationsĒ regarding education in the last 50 years. The potential that computer based training brings to efficiently distribute higher education makes the supposition that that life-long learning will become much more common seem inevitable.


Note: Graphics in this paper were imported from SPSS.


Artistico, Daniele, Cervone, Daniel, & Pezzuti, Lina (2003). Perceived self-efficacy and everyday problem solving among young and older adults. Journal of Psychology & Aging, 18(1), 68-79.

Barrouillet, P., Bernardin, S., & Camos, V. (2004). Time Constraints and Resource Sharing in Adults' Working Memory Spans. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 133(1), 83-100 .

Burton, L., & Goldsmith, D. (July, 2002). Studentsí Experiences in online courses: A Study Using Asynchronous Online Focus Groups (). New Britain: Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium.

Caprara, C. V., Caprara, M., & Steca, P. (2003). Personality's correlates of adult development and aging. European Psychologist, 8(3), .

Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium. (2001). What Online Students Say About Class Organization. Retrieved February 1, 03, from CTDLC Web Site: http://www.ctdlc.org/Faculty/TeachingTips/studentsclassorganization.html

Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium. (2001). What Online Students Say About Assessment: Feedback. Feedback. Feedback. Retrieved February 1, 02, from CTDLC Web Site: http://www.ctdlc.org/Faculty/TeachingTips/studentsonlineassessments.html

Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium. (2002). What Online Students Want to Tell Faculty . Retrieved January 4, 2002, from CTDLC Web Site: http://www.ctdlc.org/Faculty/TeachingTips/tellfaculty.html

Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium. (2003). Growing number of online courses & online student enrollments. Retrieved April 12, 04, from CTDLC Web Site: http://www.ctdlc.org/Evaluation/factbook.html

Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (2002). SERVING ADULT LEARNERS IN HIGHER EDUCATION - PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVENESS (). Chicago, IL: CAEL.

Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, & Noel-Levitz (2003). National Adult Learner Satisfaction-Priorities Report (3). Chicago, IL: CAEL.

Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. (2002). Institutional Self-Assessment Survey [Brochure]. Chicago: Author.

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Dennett, Daniel C. (1991). Consciousness Explained (1st ed.). Boston: Little Brown.

Goldsmith, Diane (2001). Communication, Humor and Personality: Studentís attitudes to online learning (Originally published in the Academic Quarterly Exchange, summer 2001). CONNECTICUT DISTANCE LEARNING CONSORTIUM.

Hanna, Donald E., Glowacki-Dudka, Michelle, & Conceicao-Runlee, Simone (2000). Essentials of Web Based Education, 147 Practical Tips. Madison, Wisconsin: Atwood.

Klein, Richard, & Edgar, Blake (2002). The Dawn of Human Culture. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Kolb, David (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

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Palloff, Rena, & Pratt, Keith (2003). The Virtual Student. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Pinker, Steven (2002). The Blank Slate - The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York, NY: Viking.

Robbins, S. B., et al. (2004). Do Psychosocial and Study Skill Factors Predict College Outcomes? A Meta-Analysis. . Psychological Bulletin, 130(2), 261-288 .

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Stein, David (2004). Course Structure: The most important factor in student satisfaction. Distance Education Report, 8(3),.

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Appendix A

Distance Learning Survey


1. What is your gender?

o Female               o Male

2. What is your marital status?

o Married             o Not Married

3. Number of children under 18 who live with you at least part time.

o 0         o 1         o 2         o 3         o 4 or over

4. How many hours per week do you spend doing your job?

o 20 or under                       o 21 to 39                             o 40 or over

5. What is your age?

o 17-24 o 31-36  o 43-48  o 55-60
o 25-30 o 37-42 o 49-54 o Over 60

6. How many distance leaning courses have you taken?


o 1         o 3         o 5         o 7         o 9        
o 2         o 4         o 6         o 8         o 10       o Over 10

7. Have you taken challenge exams (like DANTES or CLEP?)

o Yes                    o No

8. How many hours per week do you study/work on each of your distance learning classes?

o Under 5             o 5-10                    o 11-16 o 17-20 o Over 20

9. If you are now an under graduate student would you prefer continuing on to a distance learning or a traditional grad school?

o Distance learning
o Traditional
o Donít think I will go to grad school in the near future
o Already in grad school

10. I study mostly on weekends

oStrongly agree
o Agree
o Somewhat agree
o Disagree

11. Do you also take on-ground courses at a college or university while you take DL courses?

o Yes                    o Sometimes        o Never

12. If all else were equal would you prefer distance learning or traditional courses?

o Distance           o Traditional        o No Preference

13. How satisfied are you with DL course selection over all?

o Very satisfied
o Satisfied
o Somewhat satisfied
o Not satisfied

14. Does taking DL college classes help you on your job now?

o Yes, very much
o Yes, sometimes
o Yes, infrequently
o No, does not help

15. Does DL learning increase your overall confidence level?

o Yes, very much
o Yes, sometimes
o Yes, infrequently
o No, does not help

16. I have a good sense of direction

o Yes, very good
o I have an ok sense of direction
o I get lost easily

17. DL classes have helped me learn to think critically

o Agree strongly
o Agree
o Agree somewhat
o Do not agree

18. DL classes have made me a better computer user

o Agree strongly
o Agree
o Agree somewhat
o Do not agree

19. If I get confused in a course I can usually figure it out myself

o Agree strongly
o Agree
o Agree somewhat
o Do not agree

20. I can succeed at almost any course I register in.

o Agree strongly
o Agree
o Agree somewhat
o Do not agree

21. I make good use of my time when I work on DL courses

o Agree strongly
o Agree
o Agree somewhat
o Do not agree

22. I am able to overcome obstacles that I encounter in my studies

o Agree strongly
o Agree
o Agree somewhat
o Do not agree

23. I am good at visualizing stories as I read them

o Agree strongly
o Agree
o Agree somewhat
o Do not agree

24. I easily form a mental map of my neighborhood.

o Agree strongly
o Agree
o Agree somewhat
o Do not agree

25. My DL program allows me to pace my studies to fit my life and work schedules
Important to me

o Not at all           o Not very           o Somewhat         o Very                   o Extremely

My level of satisfaction

o Not at all           o Not very           o Somewhat         o Very                   o Extremely

26. My DL instructors provide timely feed back about my academic progress.
Important to me

o Not at all           o Not very           o Somewhat         o Very                   o Extremely

My level of satisfaction

o Not at all           o Not very           o Somewhat         o Very                   o Extremely

27. The frequency of interaction with my DL instructors is adequate

Important to me

o Not at all           o Not very           o Somewhat         o Very                   o Extremely

My level of satisfaction

o Not at all           o Not very           o Somewhat         o Very                   o Extremely

28. Process and procedures for enrolling in DL courses are convenient

Important to me

o Not at all           o Not very           o Somewhat         o Very                   o Extremely

My level of satisfaction

o Not at all           o Not very           o Somewhat         o Very                   o Extremely



Appendix B

Charts and Tables

Table 5

Table 6


Figure 6

Figure 7


Table 7

Table 8


Figure 8

Figure 9


Table 9

Table 10


Figure 10

Figure 11


Table 11

Table 12


Figure 12

Figure 13


Table 13

Table 14


Figure 14

Figure 15


 Table 15


Figure 16


Table 16

Figure 17


Table 17

Figure 18

About the Author

John DeCarlo recently graduated from Charter Oak College in Connecticut with an interdisciplinary B.S. He enjoyed his distance learning experience so thoroughly that he is entering an MA program in Organizational Studies at Saybrook Graduate School in the fall.
His paper about phenomenological aspects of distance learning includes graphics imported
from SPSS.

John DeCarlo
Charter Oak State College

email: jdecarlo@snet.net


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