My proposed theory of causation for online learning success

After reading the Dooley (2001) reading about theories and constructs, I decided to draw up a mock theory based on my own proposed research question. Below is the result:


Steps in making & using theory – adapted from Dooley (2001)

In Figure 1, the straight single headed arrows assert a causal link. In my example, academic ability and effective learning strategies would affect online learning success – ie a causal link – but a learner could have either one or the other to be successful and not necessarily both. This is indicated by the curved double headed arrow that indicates there is no claim that academic ability and effective learning strategies are necessarily related.  Motivation and online learning success have reciprocal causation as learners would be motivated if they are successful online learners and also if their motivation is what causes their online learning success. Support provides learners with indirect causation as it might motivate (intervening variable) to obtain online learning success.

In Figure 2, I have taken one theoretical variable, effective learning strategies, to propose that these can lead to success in online learning. The square boxes indicated the constructs made concrete so that they can be observed. For learning strategies, qualitative data can be gathered by asking learners what learning strategies they used. Quantitative data can be gather in the form of grades and course completion to indicate online learning success.

Should I use this proposed theory, I can see how pragmatism would be the most suitable paradigm as I would be able to gather qualitative and quantitative data. Based on the results propose effective learning strategies are incorporated into online design as one practical result of the theory.


Dooley, D 2001, ‘Theory : tentative explanations’, chapter 4 in Social research methods, 4th edn, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, pp. 58–72.

Philosophical assumptions

Following on from the question “why am I doing research?” the next logical step is to align this to a philosophical belief. Using Creswell (2013) excellent chapter on Philosophical assumptions and interpretive frameworks, I realised the philosophy I wanted to use, pragmatism, is better for research where practical actions are taken during the research. Pragmatism appealed to my sense of “reality is what is useful, is practical, and ‘works’” (Creswell, 2013, p.37). However, my research question might work better using social constructivism (or interpretivism) as I am trying to find out the realities that are constructed through lived experiences and interactions with others. Pragmatism would be a great paradigm if I wanted to act on the results of the research.

Social constructivism philosophical beliefs:

Ontology: Multiple realities are constructed through our lived experiences and interactions with others.

Epistemology: Reality is co-constructed between the research and the researched and shaped by individual experiences.

Axiology: Individual values are honoured, and are negotiated among individuals.

Methodology: More of a literary style of writing used. Use of an inductive method of emergent ideas (through consensus) obtained through methods such as interviewing, observing, and analysis of texts.

Pragmatism philosophical beliefs:

Ontology: Reality is what is useful, is practical, and “works”.

Epistemology: Reality is known through using many tools of research that reflect both deductive (objective) evidence and inductive (subjective) evidence.

Axiology: Values are discussed because of the way that knowledge reflects both the researchers’ and the participants’ views.

Methodology: The research process involves both quantitative and qualitative approaches to data collection and analysis.

(Adapted from Creswell, 2013, p.36-37)

After reviewing both paradigms I am still in a quandary but leaning towards pragmatism as I am keen to use both qualitative and quantitative data measures.


Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. London: Sage publications.

Why am I doing research?

I have just finished reading Dawn Darlaston-Jones’ excellent reading Making connections: the relationship between epistemology and research methods. Not only has Dawn provided me with a clear understanding of why I should be investigating a research question but also how this clearly connects with our world view as human beings.

I have struggled to come up with a research question that I was happy with as I had not connected it to my view of reality. As Dawn suggests by asking why we are investigating a particular issue, we can get to core of what we believe and how the world works. The why will show my view of reality and whether I assume that others have the same view that we cannot necessarily perceive (realism) or that there are multiple realities that are contextual and socially constructed (relativism). Reading Dawn’s article made me recognise that I am now closer to researching a question that I am truly interested in as it fits in with my view of the world.

Why I am doing the research?

To progress successfully a real passion for the subject is required, a way of truly understanding a gap in your understanding of the world that you hope to understand by doing the research. My specialisation in the Masters of Education is Online and Distributed Learning and this is also my full-time job as an Online Educational Designer. My own interest in this area was sparked by not having studied myself for over 10 years when I started on this fully online external degree. I quickly recognised that it was only my persistence and determination through a huge effort that enabled me to succeed and not the way the course was delivered. I was disappointed by the lack of teaching and engagement from other students. Essentially, I was learning on my own using some curated content.

Even though I have been successful, I only recently recognised that I have been studying very inefficiently using inadequate learning strategies that meant that I spent huge amounts of time and effort without very good learning outcome. This was a factor I was not aware of that might contribute to the high attrition rate and stress of online study and adds to other factors such as a sense of isolation online students feel, lack of time and support. I noticed in myself as well as others that my study skills, learning strategies were ill informed. I did not know how to effectively study independently. I was spending large amount of time on study to the detriment of my family and social life. The fact that I did well, I cannot attribute to the ‘teaching’ of the online courses but rather to my doggedness. Working in a university myself I know that there is a greater push for students to study independently and online. The students who choose to study online often do so because they are already in full-time employment and may wish to advance or change their career.

I thus want to focus my research on successful online learning and before reading Dawn’s article had been looking for a paradigm that has an ontology and methodology that would fit. Instead I should have been going the other way around – understanding why I am doing the research, why I have asked a particular question which then informs the epistemology – how I will know what I know – which then informs the methodology. This is where Jonathan Grix’s article on social science terminology was particularly useful in understanding the relationship between all the elements and that we must start at the top with ontology. For me, what is my view of reality regarding online learning = why am I doing this research?

With all this in mind I now think I am closer to investigating a topic I am truly interested. From this and Dawn’s own research question I now pose a very similar question:

Why are some students successful at online learning while others are not?


Darlaston-Jones, D. (2007). Making connections: The relationship between epistemology and research methods. Special Edition Papers19(1), 19-27.

Grix, J. (2002). Introducing students to the generic terminology of social research. Politics22(3), 175-186.