Notify Me When Page is Updated
Login To SchoolRackSign Up for an Account

Attributes of Successful Distance Learners

The following video presents the introduction and overview of the attributes of successful learners. According to Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, students learn best by "varying the presentation of materials to match different learning styles"(Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 129). You may watch the video, read the written transcript that appears below, or follow along in the transcript as you watch the video. Each of the four areas are further described and presented in the transcript.

Video Introduction

Many research studies have focused on the attributes of successful distance learners and discovered that they possess different characteristics and needs than the traditional student. Malcolm Knowles makes the following assumption in Andragogy or adult learning theory that adult learners are autonomous, self-directed, goal-oriented, and motivated (Gordon, 2010). With these characteristics in mind, the distance learning environment recognizes that certain attributes must be present for the learning to be successful at a distance. The attributes can be divided into four areas: access to technology, environmental factors, personal characteristics, and learning characteristics (Boyd, 2004, p. 33). The area of technology will focus on the availability, knowledge, and skills. Environmental factors will consider time, workspace, and support. The personal characteristics such as commitment, motivation, honesty, and integrity are innate while the learning characteristics including learning style, communication skills, and independent or self-directed learning can be developed and improved. All of these attributes can provide insight into the success of the distance learner.



Technology can be the largest hurdle for many distance learners. First, the learner must have the appropriate hardware and updated system to be effective in an online environment. Second, the learner must have the knowledge to contribute and to perform in an online environment. The distance learner must understand proper Netiquette for the classroom. This would include how to respond to a discussion thread or the use of humor, since facial expression, tone, and body language are not transferred in online situation (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009).  Lastly, distance learners need to have basic computer skills including sending emails, downloading files, installing programs, and conducting Internet searches. “Many adult students resist computer technology, perhaps because they frequently feel some degree of anxiety when they are trying to learn new technologies” (Smith, 2003, para. 9). Technology is an area that requires initiative and patience as well as assertiveness when problems arise for the distance learner (Iowa Learning Online, 2004). 



Environmental Factors

Environmental factors affect the success of the distance learner. Time management is one of the most important and key attributes. Distance learners must be able to schedule time for learning while maintaining work and family obligations.  Time management includes the ability to schedule class time throughout the week as well as prioritize obligations to complete assignments. The next environmental consideration is the distance learner’s work environment. The learner’s workspace must be conducive to studying, separate from distractions, well-organized, and comfortable. The study by Howland and Moore (2002) noted that “student responses reflected an emphasis on managing time and tasks, and organizing information retrieved from the Internet course” (p. 188). The last environmental factor that fosters success entails the support of family, friends, and colleagues. This support provides encouragement and understanding so that he or she can manage the school schedule, maintain obligations, and complete the online course. The distance learner must achieve or at least manage these environmental factors for the desired flexibility of an online program to be successful.


Personal Characteristics

The personal characteristics of the distance learner include a commitment to learning, a high level of motivation, and the qualities of honesty and integrity (Boyd, 2004). The commitment of learning can be found in the ability of the learner to be a self-starter and the concentrated focus as he or she approaches and understands the coursework.  The distance learner expresses a high level of motivation through “clear educational goals and a clear understanding as to why one is taking a particular course” (Boyd, 2004, p. 35). Motivation helps the successful distance learner to work individually with the resources to acquire the necessary learning. Dabbagh (2007) states that studies indicate “that intrinsically motivated learners possessing a high internal locus of control, coupled with a positive attitude toward the instructor and a high expectation for grades and degree completion were more likely to succeed in a distance education course” (p. 218). Lastly, the distance learner must possess the personal characteristics of honesty and integrity to overcome the temptation for plagiarism and cheating within an online environment. The elements of commitment, motivation, honesty and integrity are the basic foundation for the distance learner’s success. 



Learning Characteristics

Learning styles, communication skills, and self-directed learning are learning characteristics that define and promote success within the online environment. The distance learner who “gains power and control over their personal learning styles and the learning process” will be more successful (Zapalska & Brozik, 2007, p. 12). Communication skills, including basic writing skills, provide the distance learner with tools to collaborate, discuss, debate, and learn successfully (Iowa Learning Online, 2004).  Success of the distance learner is most evident when the learner becomes “more adept at transforming learning into meaning and life application” through self-directed learning (Cunningham, 2010, p. 89). Research studies suggest that all of these attributes found in the four areas of technology, environmental, personal characteristics, and learning characteristics contribute toward the success of the distance learner.



Boyd, D. (2004, Spring). The characteristics of successful online students. New Horizons in Adult Education, 18(2), 31-40. Retrieved from

Cunningham, J. (2010). Self-direction: A critical tool in distance learning. Common Ground Journal, 7(2), 89-100.

Dabbagh, N. (2007). The online learner: Characteristics and pedagogical implications. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 7(3). Retrieved from

Gordon, A. (2010). Instructional design and online course development. Retrieved from

Howland, J., & Moore, L. (2002, October). Student perceptions as distance learners in Internet-based courses. Distance Education, 23(2), 183-195.

Iowa Learning Online. (2004, August 19). Characteristics of a successful distance learner. Retrieved from

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance:Foundations of distance education. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Smith, N. (2003, Spring). Characteristics of successful adult distance instructors for adult learners. Inquiry, 8(1). Retrieved from

Zapalska, A., & Brozik, D. (2007). Learning styles and online education. Campus - Wide Information Systems, 24(1), 6-16. doi:1190548381

Photo credit: Microsoft®

© Deveise Gregory 2011. All rights reserved.