Defense Date


Graduation Date

Spring 5-11-2018


Immediate Access

Submission Type


Degree Name



Instructional Technology (EdDIT)


School of Education

Committee Chair

David D. Carbonara

Committee Member

Helga Stokes

Committee Member

Deborah Scigliano


Adult Learners, Motivation, Online Higher Education, Persistence, Phenomenology, Retention


The purpose of this study was to investigate the role of motivation in the persistence of adults enrolled in online higher education. Since the 1990’s, online courses and programs have proliferated across higher education, with adults (ages 25 and over) currently making up the largest portion of online enrollments. Online courses, however, suffer from a higher rate of student attrition than their hybrid and face-to-face counterparts. Although it is difficult to attribute the high rate of attrition in online education to any one factor, research has identified a lack of motivation as a primary cause of student dropout. Likewise, studies have shown that when motivation is present, learners are more likely to persist in their coursework. In order to develop a deeper understanding of this issue, a phenomenological approach was chosen as the most appropriate method for this study.

Participants for this study were at least 25 years of age and were enrolled in an online class at a large public university in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. In adhering to the phenomenological method, open-ended, in-depth interviews were used to investigate how adult learners experience motivation in online higher education. Transcendental phenomenological analysis was then used to determine the essence of this experience. During the first stage of this process, twelve distinct themes emerged from the data, including Relevance and Applicability, Communication, Flexibility, and Instructor Presence. During the next stage, three additional structural themes were identified: Relation to Self, Relationship with Others, and Time. During the final stage of analysis, the essence of this experience was revealed as the participants’ Goal Commitment and their Need for Guidance.

Key findings from this study include the confirmation of motivation as a critical component in the persistence of adult online learners. In addition, a number of factors were identified as key facilitators and barriers to persistence in adults learning online. In developing an in-depth understanding of the link between motivation and persistence in this particular sample of learners, the results of this study may potentially contribute to addressing the overall larger problem of high rates of attrition in online higher education.