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Marshaling Resources: A Classic Grounded Theory Study of Online Learners

, Northcentral University, United States

Northcentral University . Awarded


Students who enroll in online courses comprise one quarter of an increasingly diverse student body in higher education today. Yet, it is not uncommon for an online program to lose over 50% of its enrolled students prior to graduation. This study used a classic grounded theory qualitative methodology to investigate the persistent problem of attrition in the online educational environment. The theory marshaling resources emerged from data to explain patterns of behavior of struggling students and how obstacles to degree completion are overcome. It elucidates the integral role institutions play in maintaining student enrollment. Data were coded and analyzed from interviews with 18 students from 14 US-based online higher education programs. These data revealed a hypothetical probability statement: The more online support students perceived the fewer additional personal and psychological resources were required to sustain their persistence effort. Institutional responsiveness to student needs was a reliable predictor of online success. Constant comparative analysis of data illuminated causal factors in students' retention or attrition decisions. Prevalent unmet student needs were (a) belief that they mattered to the institution, (b) stable and supportive institutional policies, and (c) a sense of belonging to a group. Stated supports were (a) opportunity to learn or interact with peers, (b) thoughtful timely answers to e-mails, (c) confidence in teachers' willingness to provide relevant non judgmental feedback and structure, and (d) flexible policy that accommodated non-traditional students. Students who marshaled resources succeeded in enlisting help from one or more of three areas (a) a higher power, (b) family and friends outside of the college, and (c) friendships and alliances with fellow students and instructors. In contrast, students who were unable to find supports were more likely to drop out. Future research on the theory of marshaling resources, building on the current finding of differential responses from students whose circumstances seemed similar, might be well served to investigate such personal characteristics as emotional intelligence and grit. Other areas that warrant further study are effects of personal learning networks and feedback on persistence efforts of struggling students.


Yalof, B. Marshaling Resources: A Classic Grounded Theory Study of Online Learners. Ph.D. thesis, Northcentral University. Retrieved October 22, 2019 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

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