Face-to-face, Blended, or Online: The Impact of Course Delivery Method on Student Learning

Faculty members often apply for a DELTA grant seeking to improve a course using the latest technologies or research-based best practices and end up discovering that a blended or fully online course would be a great fit. When an instructor considers delivering a course in a new way, he or she often wonders about the impact this change could have on student learning. What does the research actually say about the effect of course delivery method on student learning? Are students likely to learn more using one method over the other?


Learning may be heightened by implementing elements from the online environment.

  • There is evidence that students perform as well or better online than in the traditional setting, and literally hundreds of studies reveal no significant difference between face-to-face and online learning outcomes (Academic Partnerships, 2011). Research shows that student success is more about having an instructor who implements key pedagogical principles: namely, multimodal learning (Jackson, 2014; Walker, Brooks, & Baepler, 2011; McCann, 2006) and high levels of interaction (Bidaki, Sanati, Semnani, 2013; Abdous & Yen, 2010), rather than the delivery method. This means the instructor includes content and activities that appeal to various learning styles (videos capturing a lecture along with transcripts in PDF or Microsoft Word format, for example). The author makes a poignant statement about delivery methods: “We have been focusing all along on the question: ‘Is DE suitable for all students?’ The results of this study may raise the inverse question: ‘Is F2F [face-to-face] suitable for all students?’” (Academic Partnerships, 2011). Indeed, these findings point back to the need (also noted above) for students to experience effective teaching in all delivery methods, whether learning occurs in a face-to-face, online, or blended environment.


Face-to-face, Blended, or Online: Which method best fits my course?

  • The course delivery method ultimately depends on the course objectives and activities, along with the student demographic. Research suggests that blended learning can enhance student success (Lewis & Harrison, 2012; Rausch & Crawford, 2012; Weber & Lenon, 2007). A meta-analysis found that instruction combining online and face-to-face elements is better in terms of student outcomes than purely face-to-face instruction or purely online instruction (U.S. Department of Education). DELTA researchers investigated the impact of redesigned courses on student success and found that redesigned courses, which involve flipping the classroom and providing students immediate feedback on assessments, have led to reduced rates of D & F grades and withdrawal (DFW) rates, fewer attempts among students to pass introductory classes, and increased student satisfaction with courses (Temple, 2013).

  • There is evidence that online and blended learning options are particularly helpful for particular groups of students, such as lifelong learners, new immigrants, and marginalized communities; the largest growth area in online teaching is in programing at the master’s level, and the two most popular programs are business and education (Academic Partnerships, 2011). One of the many studies finding no significant difference in student performance between online and face-to-face classes found that GPA, rather than delivery method, has a significant effect on exam performance (Trawick, Lile, & Howsen, 2010). This suggests the need for students to consider other factors when deciding whether to enroll in an online or blended course. Multiple studies suggest that gender plays a role in online enrollment and performance; females tend to be more likely to enroll in online classes and receive higher grades than male counterparts in the online environment (McCann, 2006; Friday, Friday-Stroud, Green, & Hill, 2006).


What issues should I be aware of regarding these delivery methods?

  • In many instances in which distance education courses fail to promote student learning, the cause is students’ sense of isolation or low level of self-directedness (Hanover Research Council, 2009). Educators can help combat these issues by offering technology training for distance education students, interactive teaching, out-of-class group activities, and email/course announcements to highlight interactive opportunities within the class (Hanover Research Council, 2009). There are numerous ways in which faculty members can help students with low levels of self-directedness, including allowing learners to take more responsibility for decisions about what and how they are to learn; teaching learners how to use the technology tools found on varied technology devices, such as phones, e-books, and microscopes; and encouraging learners to enjoy the chase for new knowledge or the thrill of discovery (Bryan, 2015).

  • Research shows that issues such as flexibility and rethinking the length of certain courses can improve student outcomes (Jackson, 2014). Keep an open mind regarding the timing, format, and scheduling of a course.

  • It might be best to not take withdrawals from online courses too personally; students are more likely to withdraw from an online class rather than a face-to-face class (McClaren, 2004; Lawrence & Singhania, 2004). However, when a course has been redesigned, instructors are likely to see fewer withdrawals (Temple, 2013).



Abdous, M. & Yen, C. (2010). A predictive study of learner satisfaction and outcomes in face-to-face, satellite broadcast, and live video-streaming learning environments. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(4) 248-257. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2010.04.005.

Academic Partnerships (2011). Research on the Effectiveness of Online Learning: A Compilation of Research on Online Learning [White Paper]. Retrieved from http://www.academicpartnerships.com/sites/default/files/Research%20on%20the%20Effectiveness%20of%20Online%20Learning.pdf

Bidaki, M.Z., Sanati, A. R., Semnani, M.N. (2013). Students’ Attitude Towards Two Different Virtual Methods of Course Delivery, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 83: 862-866. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.06.162.

Bryan, V. C. (2015). Self-directed learning and technology. The Education Digest, 80(6), 42-44. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1651361328?accountid=12725


Friday, E., Friday-Stroud, S.S., Green, A.L., and Hill, A.Y. (2006). A Multi-Semester Comparison of Student Performance between Multiple Traditional and Online Sections of Two Management Courses. Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management 8(1): 66-81.


Hanover Research Council (2009). Best Practices in Online Teaching Strategies.  Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.uwec.edu/AcadAff/resources/edtech/upload/Best-Practices-in-Online-Teaching-Strategies-Membership.pdf


Jackson, S. (2014). Student reflections on multimodal course content delivery. Reference Services Review, 42(3):  467 – 483. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/RSR-05-2014-0011


Lawrence, J.A. and Singhania, R.P. (2004). A Study of Teaching and Testing Strategies for a Required Statistics Course for Undergraduate Business Students. Journal of Education for Business, 79(6):333-338.


Lewis, J., & Harrison, M. (2012). Online Delivery as a Course Adjunct Promotes Active Learning and Student Success. Teaching Of Psychology, 39(1): 72-76. doi:10.1177/0098628311430641


McCann, B. M. (2006). “The Relationship Between Learning Styles, Learning Environments, And Student Success”. Journal of agricultural education, 47 (3), 14. 10.5032/jae.2006.03014


Rausch, D.W. & Crawford, E.K. (2012). Cohorts, Communities of Inquiry, and Course Delivery Methods: UTC Best Practices in Learning—The Hybrid Learning Community Model. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 60:3, 175-180. 10.1080/07377363.2013.722428


Temple, T. (2013, February). Focusing on Student Success: Assessment of Learning Outcomes in Blended Environments. Paper presented at the Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching, Greensboro, NC.


Trawick, M.W., Lile, S.E., and Howsen, R.M. (2010). Predicting Performance Students: Is it Better to be Home Alone? Journal of Applied Economics and Policy, 29:34-46.


U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (2010). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, Washington, D.C..


Walker, J.D., Brooks, D.C., & Baepler, P. (2011). Pedagogy and Space: Empirical Research on New Learning Environments, EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 34(4).


Weber, J. M. and Lennon, R. (2007). Multi-Course Comparison of Traditional versus Web-based Course Delivery Systems. The Journal of Educators Online, 4(2):1-19.