Factors Influencing Adult Learners' Decision to Drop Out or Persist in Online Learning

Ji-Hye Park
Hee Jun Choi


The number of adult learners who participate in online learning has rapidly grown in the last two decades due to online learning's many advantages. In spite of the growth, the high dropout rate in online learning has been of concern to many higher education institutions and organizations. The purpose of this study was to determine whether persistent learners and dropouts are different in individual characteristics (i.e., age, gender, and educational level), external factors (i.e., family and organizational supports), and internal factors (i.e., satisfaction and relevance as sub-dimensions of motivation). Quantitative data were collected from 147 learners who had dropped out of or finished one of the online courses offered from a large Midwestern university. Dropouts and persistent learners showed statistical differences in perceptions of family and organizational support, and satisfaction and relevance. It was also shown that the theoretical framework, which includes family support, organizational support, satisfaction, and relevance in addition to individual characteristics, is able to predict learners' decision to drop out or persist. Organizational support and relevance were shown to be particularly predictive. The results imply that lower dropout rates can be achieved if online program developers or instructors find ways to enhance the relevance of the course. It also implies that adult learners need to be supported by their organizations in order for them to finish online courses that they register for.


Adult dropout/retention/persistence, Online/distance learning, Theoretical framework for online dropout


This paper summarizes and builds upon previous theories of persistence among distance education learners, especially those of Rovai (2003), Kember (1989), and Bean & Metzner (1985). Most significantly, Park and Choi modify Rovai’s theory of persistence by questioning validity of the learner skills construct because of a lack of empirical support. They also move the external factors identified by Rovai as influencing persistence only after admission to influencing the persistence decision both before and after admission.

The paper tests this modified theory by surveying 147 students in three distance education classes at a large Mid-western university. The survey asked questions designed to gauge the internal and external factors influencing the persistence decision, specifically dealing with the support the student receives from their family and employer as well as their satisfaction with the course and the course’s perceived relevance. The experiment found that there was a statistically significant difference across each of these four factors between students persisted and those who dropped out. Using a logistic regression, the study also found that employer support and student perceptions of the course’s relevance predicted persistence at statistically significant levels.

APA Citation

Park, J. H., & Choi, H. J. (2009). Factors influencing adult learners' decision to drop out or persist in online learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 12(4).

About the Study

Links to Article https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C50&q=Factors+Influencing+Adult+Learners%27+Decision+to+Drop+Out+or+Persist+in+Online+Learning.+Educational+Technology+%26+Society%2C+12%284%29%2C+207-217.&btnG=
Mode Online
Publication Type Journal Article
In Publication Journal of Educational Technology & Society
Type of Research Quantitative
Research Design Survey research (qualitative or quantitative)
Intervention/Areas of Study Student motivation, Student readiness, Student support
Level of Analysis Student-level
Specific Populations Examined Age groups, Undergraduates
Peer-Reviewed Yes
Specific Institutional Characteristics of Interest 2-year institution, 4-year Institution, Bachelors-granting
Specific Course or Program Characteristics Arts and humanities, Formal sciences, Natural sciences, Social sciences, STEM
Outcome Variables of Interest Course completion, Degree attainment, Learning effectiveness, Persistence, Retention, Satisfaction
Student Sample Size 100-199
Citing Articles https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites=18268883835087660282&as_sdt=5,50&sciodt=0,50&hl=en