How Students with Depression Experience Online Learning: Tracy Orr’s Research Offers Pointers for Course Developers

The learning journey, with its mission of moving students from a place of unknowing to a place of mastery, is inherently challenging. When undertaken in a fully online environment, often alongside full-time work and family responsibilities, it takes on all new levels of complexity. When faced with so many challenges, learners frequently become overwhelmed, leading to increased levels of burnout and increased student attrition.

In this interview Dr. Tracy Orr, an educator and researcher from Alberta, shares valuable recommendations from her research into how women in online learning experienced and recovered from depression. As we head back into a new academic year, Dr Orr’s research provides a timely reminder how both educators and instructional designers can better structure the educational experience to be more human-friendly for all learners.

Can you give us a quick summary of your dissertation research? Including what is meant by “invariant constituent of the experience”?

My research explored how women in online learning experienced and recovered from depression. It was a descriptive, phenomenological study of 11 women, 7 undergraduate and 4 graduate students. This type of research does a deep dive into the experience of participants through long interviews and attempts to describe the experience as thoroughly and accurately as possible. This description results in what are called “invariant constituents” of the experience. Invariant constituents are the components of an experience that must be present for an experience to be what it is. In other words, if a constituent was removed from the description of the experience, it would no longer adequately describe the experience. In my research, women’s experience of, and recovery from, depression as online learners included seven invariable constituents: development of depression; the impact of depression on learning; treatment of depression; role overload; self-identity; and personal agency.

What was your impetus to study this?

Although I currently work as an educator, I’m also a clinical social worker and worked in the area of student mental health for several decades. Depression impacts large numbers of adults worldwide and women are approximately two times more likely to experience depression than men. Women, both historically and presently, are also highly represented as consumers of distance education in all of its iterations. And yet distance education contexts have not been adequately studied as sites of student experience of mental health disorders. In addition, I also had a personal experience of depression during graduate studies which both surprised me and made me wonder about what might be unique about the context of distance education.

You mentioned one of your invariant constituents of the experience was the impact of depression on learning. Can you briefly summarize the impact of depression on learning?

Depression is a word that is tossed about colloquially and is often understood to be synonymous with having a bad day or experiencing disappointment. As a mental health disorder, depression is the world’s leading cause of disability (WHO, 2017). In any given year in the United States, 7.1 % of all adults or 13.1% of adults aged 18-25 years will experience a major depressive episode (NSDUH, 2017). The women in my research experienced the most commonly diagnosed form of depression, major depressive episode. Major depressive episode is a specific diagnosis which involves a substantial change in an individual’s ability to function including a prolonged and daily experience of depressed mood and diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities. In addition individuals often experience changes in sleep patterns, extreme fatigue, feeling worthless, diminished ability to think or concentrate and thoughts of suicide (DSM V, 2013).

From a learning perspective, depression often disrupts students’ ability to concentrate so that reading and remembering what is read, writing coherently, pulling together ideas, and organizing oneself are severely compromised. Fatigue can also be extreme. Participants in my study used course extensions in order to “wait out” the most serious symptoms and hopefully recover from depression enough to complete their courses. When depression persisted however, some students lost a course, a semester, or full school year. My study did not investigate the experience of students who may have dropped out of their programs due to depression.

What recommendations do you have for course developers to better design to support these learners?

The women in my study spoke about their appreciation for clear and simple design. Because of the cognitive impacts of depression and lack of energy, it is important that courses are designed with essential elements clearly identified with minimal redirection or navigation. Care should be taken to emphasize clarity and readability. Courses that show potential schedules for review of content and assignment completion are useful especially when depression impacts students’ ability to organize themselves. Mental health supports available to students should be clearly advertised and accessed through each course’s main page. It was evident from my study’s participants that fatigue and the cognitive impacts of depression made searching school websites for support very difficult.

What recommendations do you have for teachers/instructors to better facilitate online courses?

Women in my research, for the most part, desired interaction with their peers for a few reasons:  to reduce isolation and, more specifically, to be able to commiserate with peers about the role of being a student. It was important to see themselves reflected in the experience of others. Whether courses being offered synchronously or asynchronously, it is important that students have the ability to connect with other students about the experience of being a student, for example, discussing assignments and sharing struggles. In addition, if mental health services are available to students, teachers can normalize the use of these services by talking about them openly and deliberately.

What’s next for you?

In addition to disseminating the results of my dissertation research, I continue to explore the intersections of distance education and student mental health. As an educator from a college in rural Alberta, Canada, I also am interested in blended learning models of post-secondary education that allow students from rural and northern areas to study, graduate, and develop their careers closer to their home communities. This is especially difficult for students in applied areas of practice such as social work.


Dr. Tracy Orr is an educational researcher and instructor in the Faculty of Social Work at Portage College in Lac La Biche, Alberta, Canada.  Her research interests include the intersection of distance learning and student mental health, blended learning environments that support rural and northern students, and social justice issues that impact rural and northern communities. In her spare time she may be found wandering trails in local provincial parks, knitting, or tending to her chickens. Tracy can be reached at


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)

World Health Organization. (2017). Depression and other common mental disorders: Global health estimates. Geneva: World Health Organization.

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  Comments: 3

  1. Michael Shaughnessy

    This is a very important study, a very important posting- and everyone who teaches online needs to read it—but more importantly administrators need to be aware of the very real challenges in terms of mental health and online learning, and oftentimes, the inappropriate self- disclosure–or the issues when a student stops attending classes or stops posting on the Discussion board or stops submitting assignments- instructors can send follow up e-mails ( often not responded to) but instructors really need to place a phone call ( if there is a phone number available ) or even send a certified /registered letter—Online learning requires a certain amount of self-initiative- and depressed ( and even anxious ) students do not always have the amount required -particualrly in an 8 week or 4 week class- or even a 15 week long semester for that matter. In this day and age, one is always concerned about suicide and drug/alcohol overdose or whatever.

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