Creating Successful Online Credit Recovery Programs

Over one million students drop out of high school in the United States each year (Pettyjohn & LaFrance, 2014). High dropout rates lead to schools and communities losing resources, as well as diminished life outcomes for students who drop out (Rickles et al., 2018; Nourse, 2019; Lowenberge, 2020). Dropout rates increase drastically when students fail to earn credit in a course, so supporting students in earning lost credit is key to keeping dropout rates low (Frazelle, 2016; Oliver & Kellog, 2016). Credit recovery courses help students quickly regain credits and increase the likelihood that they will graduate. Currently, over 90% of high schools offer credit recovery (CR) programs, and 71% of CR courses are delivered online (Pileggi et al., 2020). However, the efficacy and integrity of online CR is often the subject of debate. (Lowenberge, 2020).

Proponents of online CR cite the following benefits (Rickles et al., 2018; Pettyjohn & LaFrance, 2014; Nourse, 2019; Oliver & Kellog, 2015):

  • Online CR offers schools flexibility in terms of staffing, scheduling, and pacing for students.
  • Mastery-based learning designs shorten the time taken to earn lost credit, which engages and motivates students.
  • Online CR supports students’ other activities (e.g., employment), and reduces distractions. 
  • The inclusion of digital learning objects and resources within the materials can be helpful to students.
  • Real-time data collected by software assists instructors in supporting students’ success. 

Critics of online CR point to the following concerns (Pettyjohn & Lafance, 2014; Oliver & Kellog, 2015; Lowenberge, 2020):

  • In general, at-risk students may lack the self-discipline and other self-regulation skills needed to be successful in online learning.
  • Online CR materials may not provide the rigor or depth of knowledge needed for post-secondary success.
  • There is a lack of oversight of the quality and implementation of online CR courses. 
  • Inequities in access to technology impede students’ ability to complete online CR courses.
  • Poor digital literacy skills pose a barrier for online CR students. 

Judging whether the benefits of online CR outweigh the challenges is related to how one defines success. Current research around the efficacy of online credit recovery focuses on the differences between face-to-face and online delivery methods, but not a consistent definition of success (Rickles et al., 2018; Nourse, 2019). Success may simply imply that students gained the lost credit, or it may be tied to myriad other outcomes, such as the student’s preparedness to succeed in future courses. Heppen et al., (2017) found that online CR courses were generally less effective than face-to-face contexts in simply regaining credit because online courses were often more difficult and lacked scaffolds. Rickles et al. (2018) followed the same students from Heppen et al.’s (2017) study and found that there were no significant differences in the online CR and face-to-face populations in gaining future credits, enrolling in advanced courses, or graduating high school. In this example, if success was defined as earning lost credits, online CR was less effective; if success was defined as students graduating, the online implementation was successful. Similarly, Pileggi et al. (2020) found that 88% of online CR students who enrolled in future courses in the same content domain passed their future coursework. District and school leaders should carefully define success for their programs and then plan to take advantage of the strengths of online CR, while mitigating any challenges that might hinder student success.

Students are more likely to earn credit in online courses when instructors and staff provide consistent support (Nourse, 2019; Lowenberge, 2020). Oliver & Kellog (2015) noted that students were offered more support when school staff and instructors felt a deep sense of responsibility to the online CR implementation and when they offered students consistent feedback, differentiation, and strategies for success. Frazelle (2016) found that instructor buy-in was a significant factor in how much support students were offered. Buy-in can be fostered by selecting high-quality programs and providing teachers time to become familiar with the content (Frazelle, 2016).This can counteract teacher hesitation about the rigor of the CR content, as well as the companies that create them (Nourse, 2019). In short, training CR teachers to support students and fostering buy-in is key to student success.

Evaluating students for their suitability to learn online is another helpful strategy. According to Nourse (2019), online CR is better suited for those who have developed self-discipline and self-concept in their secondary experiences. Upperclassmen tend to be more successful in online CR courses, likely because their successes in high school bolster their self-concept (Darling-Aduana et al., 2019; Nourse, 2019). Lowenberge (2020) reported a positive correlation between socioeconomic disadvantage and enrollment  in credit recovery. Socioeconomically-disadvantaged students may find it culturally challenging to seek help, which could perpetuate inequities for these students (Darling-Aduana et al., 2019). Online CR may be appropriate for students with IEPs, but only when those students have the supports they need, including accessible technology, and it may be inappropriate for students who need extensive accommodations (Nourse, 2019). Norse (2019) recommends that students be screened for suitability for online CR, but cautions that no single criterion could determine if students would be successful.

In summary, well-designed online CR programs can be an effective tool in reducing student dropout rates. Each program should begin by defining success and then select software aligned to that definition. Leaders must foster teacher ownership and buy-in so that students receive the support they need. Finally, educators should evaluate students’ strengths and needs to ensure they will be successful in online CR courses. Designing with these strategies in mind will increase program quality and student success.


Darling-Aduana, J., Good, A. G., & Heinrich, C. (2019). Mapping the inequity implications of help-seeking in high school online credit-recovery classrooms. Teachers College Record, 121(11).

Frazelle, S. (2016). Successful strategies for providing online credit recovery in Montana. Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest.

Lowenberge, D. (2020). A digital path to a diploma: Online credit-recovery classes are a lifeline – and ripe for abuse. Education Next 22(1).

Nourse, D. (2019). Factors influencing student academic performance in online credit recovery. Journal of Interdisciplinary Teacher Leadership 4(1).

Oliver, K., & Kellogg, S. (2015). Credit recovery in a virtual school: Affordances of online learning for the at-risk student. Journal of Online Learning Research 1(2), 191-218. 

Pettyjohn, T., & LaFrance, J. (2014). Online credit recovery: Benefits and challenges. Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research, 1(1), 204–219.

Pileggi, M., Turner, A., Liu, L., Fontana, J., Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC), & Research for Action. (2020). Recovering credits in the school district of Philadelphia: High school student credit recovery utilization in 2018-19. Philadelphia Education Research Consortium.

Rickles, J., Heppen, J. B., Allensworth, E., Sorensen, N., & Walters, K. (2018). Online credit recovery and the path to on-time high school graduation. Educational Researcher 47(8), 481-491.

Choose your Reaction!