Is Online Credit Recovery an Effective Way to Learn?

As schools battle learning loss that followed from remote learning during COVID-19, K-12 districts are increasingly relying on online credit recovery programs to get students back on track to graduation.

While self-paced online credit recovery programs often allow students to catch up on their courses outside of a traditional classroom setting, a recent report by EdResearch for Recovery suggests that many are simply completing classes without fully learning and digesting the material.

According to lead researcher Carolyn Heinrich, a public policy and education professor at Vanderbilt University and the chair of its Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations, questions still remain about how well credit recovery programs are working to help combat learning loss, despite their use in about 70 percent of high schools by at least 20 percent of students for at least one class.

“Schools have increasingly turned to online credit recovery to help students make up missed coursework, but research shows that even when students regain course credits, online credit recovery often leads to little substantive learning and negative long-term outcomes, including lower lifetime earnings,” Heinrich said in a public statement.

Since many students today are taking these programs after failing courses digitally, she suggested that schools should incorporate more instructional support for students in credit recovery. In an interview with Government Technology, she said many students in online credit recovery — usually in a lab setting with other students — have little individualized support.

“We wanted to dig into it and understand how it was affecting students and what they were actually learning,” she said. “I think these systems are helpful, and there are several reasons for that, but one of the things we observed through interviews with teachers [and staff] was that maybe students aren’t learning as much.”

According to the study, teachers have identified a “mismatch between student reading levels and the reading levels required for online course-taking” as a major barrier to learning in online credit recovery programs. It said students reading below grade level spend more time idle in online courses and are less likely to engage with instructional videos to successfully complete quizzes and tests.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the study is the need for more instructional support in credit recovery programs, according to Heinrich, who noted that students in face-to-face credit recovery settings tend to perform better and retain more material.

What’s more, the study noted that about 7 million student sessions in online courses taken primarily for credit recovery found “mostly negative associations between online course-taking and math and reading scores,” leading to lower earnings and skills needed in the workforce after high school.

“We also saw a lot of issues with students not really engaged in learning the material, but just kind of getting through the videos and doing other things while course instructional videos are playing. Then, when they test out of the modules and work towards completing the course, we found Googling for answers and that kind of stuff,” Heinrich said, noting the need for more supports for disabled students and English-language learners.

“Don’t just leave it to students in front of the computer monitor to do it themselves,” she later added. “Have a teacher in the classroom who actually knows the subject material that can help the students with some face-to-face interaction to make sure they’re actually learning, as well.”

In addition to a more hands-on approach to administering credit recovery, another simple recommendation was to encourage vendors and educators to partner with one another on training staff to facilitate synchronous credit recovery programming, according to Heinrich.

She said students who have difficulty grasping core course concepts would benefit by having instructors with subject expertise to help, and by being grouped with other students working on the same types of courses rather than in one large computer-lab setting — a common approach today.

“Don’t leave students on their own with the computer to try to learn because they’re going to disengage and get through the class and try to get the credits without learning the material,” she warned. “We saw a lot of teachers making sure students were connected to the system and sitting at their desks and monitoring them … We’re seeing teachers could be much more active.

“If we really care about students learning and their success after they leave high school, which is really [critical] to labor market outcomes, then we need to try to be sure they’re actually learning in the classroom.”

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.

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