Characteristics of Distance Learning Students

Although it is not intended to identify distance learning students as a homogeneous group, research indicates that there are demographic and personality similarities among many of them that provide the basis for the description of a typical distance learning student. Understanding distance learning students can help you tailor your distance learning course logistics, syllabus, and course design to meet their needs.


Most research indicates that distance learning students tend to be, on average, older than typical students in campus-based programs. WPI is no exception.  The breakdown of age ranges for distance learning students in a 2011 survey at WPI is shown below.


In most distance learning programs in North America, distance learning students are predominately female, with different studies indicating that between 60% and 77% of students being female. WPI’s distance learning programs do not follow this trend.  Of the students responding to the 2011 survey, 25.7% were female and 74.3% were male.

Employment Status

Several studies indicate that more than half of distance learning students hold full-time jobs outside of the home, with some programs reporting as many as 90% of their students being employed full-time. WPI does not have employment statistics on its distance learning students, but it is likely that the 77% of students attending WPI part-time are employed (see Admissions Status below). The students are usually taking courses to help them advance in their careers.

Marital Status

Various studies indicate that more than half of distance learning students are married with dependents. This means that they are often juggling a family and a job with their coursework. WPI does not have any statistics on the marital status of its distance learning students.


Traditionally distance learning programs have attracted students whose geographic distance from a college campus prevented their enrollment in campus-based classes. This is changing however, with more and more distance learning students living within commuting distance of the college they are attending, but who choose to take distance learning courses because of their convenience. This trend is also found at WPI, where more than 50% of students are from Massachusetts.

Admissions Status

At WPI, 45.9% of distance learning students have been formally admitted to a graduate degree or certificate program, with the remaining just taking individual courses. 60.1% of distance learning students are attending WPI on a part-time basis. The remaining 40% who are attending WPI full-time are likely enrolled in a combination of campus-based and distance learning courses to provide them with more scheduling flexibility.

Affective Characteristics of Distance Learning Students

Students who are attracted to distance learning programs and succeed in their courses tend to have the following affective characteristics:

Internal Locus of Control

Research studies show that students enrolled in distance learning courses are more likely to have an internal locus of control than students in campus-based programs. An internal locus of control is the belief that consequences stem from one’s own behaviors and efforts.


Distance learning students are self-directed, able to manage their own learning and success in their courses. This, however, does not mean they are interested in self-directed learning, as a study of distance learning students at the Open College found. Students want explicit directions from the instructor and then are able to self-direct their efforts to follow those directions.

Other Personality Traits

Distance learning students tend to be more intelligent, emotionally stable, trusting, compulsive, passive, conforming, self-sufficient, introverted, and expedient than on-campus students (Thompson, 1999).

Learning Styles

Most studies have not found a link between sensory-type learning styles (that is, auditory, visual, or tactile) and the tendency of students to enroll and succeed in distance learning courses. However, some studies show that distance learning students tend to have less concrete learning styles, meaning that they can learn from a variety of content types and activities. Distance learning students also tend to have less of a need to relate to others in the educational environment than on-campus students.


As it was mentioned above, distance learning programs traditionally attracted students who lived too far from a college campus to attend on-campus classes. Today, the convenience of not having to be in a specific location is still a motivator for distance learning students, but the convenience of not being time-bound has become a more important factor. Distance learning students lead busy lives and they need to be able to fit their coursework into their schedules when it is convenient for them. In addition to the lack of time and location constraints, some distance learning students are motivated by the mode of instruction itself.

Implications for Instructors of Online Courses

Understanding the demographics and characteristics of distance learning students can help you related to them and provide them with information they need to succeed in their courses.

  • Distance learning students are committed to their coursework, usually for the purpose of advancing in their careers. For this reason, you can expect quality work and diligent participation from students.
  • Since distance learning students are usually busy with families and jobs, they don’t have a lot of time to figure out the details of assignments and course logistics. Make sure you provide a thorough, detailed syllabus.
  • Be flexible with student requests, within reason. Since distance learning students have so many obligations in their lives, occasionally something may interfere with their coursework. Be understanding and make reasonable accommodations.


Thompson, M. (1999). Distance Learners in Higher Education. Retrieved June 15, 2005.

University of Florida. (2003). Characteristics of Distance Education. Retrieved June 15, 2005.

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Instructional Technology Specialist at WPI

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  1. Loida Fure says:

    I’m currently in my 3rd year of an ECSE degree, and we haven’t had any lectures on microcontrollers either. We’ve had one where we studied C, one on FPGAs, and another where we studied real time OSs, and several where we studied the basic theory behind digital processors, but nothing specific to microcontrollers.We have, however, had one unit where we told to design a robot, given an Arduino and some basic lectures on mechanics, H-bridges, etc., and told “go for it”.