distance learning, educational evaluation, academic achievement, education reform, curriculum development, student behavior


Critics of distance education frequently assert that completion rates are lower in distance education courses than in traditional courses. Such criticism comes despite sparse and inconclusive research on completion rates for distance and traditional education courses. This article reviews some of the existing research and then describes some of the caveats and complexities in comparing completion rates in traditional and distance education. Analysis reveals that numerous factors make comparison between these two formats difficult, if not impossible. Problems include limitations in the research design itself, differences in student demographics, and inconsistent methods of calculating and reporting completion. After exploring these issues, the article presents best practices for improving completion rates while emphasizing that distance education completion rates may be acceptable after considering distant learner characteristics.

Original Publication Citation

Howell, S., Laws, D., & Lindsay, N. (2004). Reevaluating course completion in distance education—Avoiding the comparison between apples and oranges. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 5(4),243–252.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


Permanent URL


Quarterly Review of Distance Education




David O. McKay School of Education


Instructional Psychology and Technology

University Standing at Time of Publication

Associate Professor