Some critics of distance learning say face-to-face classes give students a better learning environment, but a recent Indiana University study found that online learners reported deeper approaches to learning than classroom-based learners.

Deep learning, researchers said, is a type of learning that goes beyond rote memorization and focuses on reflection, integrative learning, and higher-order thinking–analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which was conducted by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, collected information from nearly 380,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 722 four-year colleges and universities across the United States. NSSE explored the experiences of online learners through a set of additional questions given to more than 22,000 students from 47 institutions. The results were released Nov. 10.

“Critics of distance education assume that face-to-face classes have inherent advantages as learning environments,” said Alexander C. McCormick, NSSE director and associate professor of education at Indiana University. “But these results indicate that those who teach classes online may be making special efforts to engage their students. It may also be the case that online classes appeal to students who are more academically motivated and self-directed.”

Bob Gonyea, associate director of the Center for Postsecondary Research, said the survey did not collect data that could concretely determine why online learners reported deeper approaches to learning.

“I believe one part of the explanation is that online learners tend to be older students who are somewhat more motivated and responsible in getting things done,” he said, adding that there are a disproportionate number of older students who take online courses because of the convenience.

“I also think that people who teach online classes don’t take engagement for granted. They have to structure assignments that get students connected,” Gonyea said.

According to the survey results, 37 percent of first-year online learners and 45 percent of seniors said they participated in course activities that challenged them intellectually “very often,” compared to only 24 percent of first-year classroom-based learners and 35 percent of seniors. The survey also found that online learners reported slightly more deep approaches to learning in their coursework.