Over the past two years, my research for Innosight Institute has taken me to different parts of the United States to observe how various school districts are implementing online learning. During these site visits, I’ve had the opportunity to interview more than 100 high school students about their experience taking an online course. When asked if they learned more effectively from online learning or traditional classroom learning, most students expressed a preference for online learning. But there were always a few students at each site who told me that they learned more effectively from traditional classroom learning. This disparity led me to wonder why some students preferred one mode of learning to another. Keeping this question in mind during my site visits, I began noticing a distinct trend in the types of students who claimed to learn more effectively from each mode of learning. Here’s what I observed:

The group that claimed to learn most effectively from online learning was generally comprised of students who, in a traditional classroom setting, typically sat quietly at the back of the classroom without raising their hands or making comments. In describing why they preferred online learning, many of these students recounted instances in a traditional classroom setting when they did not understand a particular concept or lesson but didn’t ask their teacher for help because they didn’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their peers. Other feedback I received from these students about traditional classroom learning included, “the teachers went too fast,” it was “too stressful,” or they were “bored.” For these students, online learning is a welcomed solution to traditional classroom learning because it enables them to take control of their own learning by working at their own pace. This means that if students don’t understand a concept, they can go back and reread the lesson until they do. Or, if they have a question about the material, they no longer need to feel embarrassed about asking for help because teachers work individually with students rather than as a class.

In contrast, the group that claimed to learn most effectively from traditional classroom learning was generally comprised of students who, in a traditional classroom setting, typically sat at the front of the classroom and raised their hands frequently to answer questions. For these students, learning occurs as they speak their thoughts aloud and participate in class discussions. Although some online course providers, like FLVS, are social in theory because they include discussion boards where students can post their thoughts, this is an area where online learning could develop such that it provides students who need social or traditional offline opportunities with these experiences when they are appropriate rather than a one-size-fits-all model.

Although online learning might not work for all students, it certainly can help many students who are struggling to succeed in the traditional classroom setting by allowing them to work at their own pace. Conversely, placing students who thrive in the traditional classroom setting in an online course that does not provide sufficient social experiences can have an averse affect on their learning. Understanding what types of learning environments are most effective for different types of students can help administrators and teachers place students in the learning environment that will enable them to actually learn.

What observations have you made about how students learn best?


  • Katherine Mackey
    Katherine Mackey