Supporting Students Online is Essential for Success

Supporting students online requires different strategies than that of in-person teaching. Getting it right typically involves a good deal of testing and modification given the wide array of design formats and technology tools available, not to mention the varying needs of students, many of whom are underprepared for their sudden foray into online learning.

In online courses, certain student challenges tend to come up time and again, which disrupts learning or impedes completing coursework on time. Some examples of this include:

  • Ghosting, or students who either disappear entirely or don’t reach out to the instructor, even when they are performing poorly
  • Students for whom everything is seemingly negotiable, including due dates
  • Students who wait until the last minute to complete assignments, noticeably jeopardizing the quality of their work
  • Students who contact their instructors with an excuse for a late assignment after the deadline has already passed
  • Coasting, or students who ride in the wake of their hard-working teammates, contributing as little as possible to the group effort

Following are a few ideas that can help you safeguard against these behaviors and approve your abilities in supporting students online.

1. For students who struggle with engagement, techniques that spark their interest early on – and maintain it – should be prioritized. Opening up each lesson of the course week by week, instead of all at once, can help avoid overwhelming students. In doing so, begin each week with an engaging, naïve task which centers on the course topic but requires no prior knowledge, such as those that require students to work together to solve a problem relevant to the field. After the activity, have the students discuss their reasoning and follow up quickly with individual connections to the new material.

2. Assign leadership roles. Students can also be encouraged to engage in their courses and adhere to established deadlines by being assigned more responsibility. This can take the form of a leadership role, such as using forum discussion leaders that rotate weekly. For group projects, students can complete a team contract that specifies each student’s role, when and how the group will communicate, and how they will handle conflict. Additionally, students can be made responsible for reading the assigned course material by submitting brief memos on the weekly readings whereby they summarize, reflect, and offer a handful of analytical questions.

3. Use a mid-term evaluation. Also key to understanding student behavior to boost their success is a focused midterm evaluation. Students can be asked to rank class assignments according to their perceived value; gauge their reading habits (“How many chapters/articles did you read thoroughly?”; “How often did you take notes on the readings?”); ask how often they check their grades, and how the instructor – and the students themselves – could contribute to their success.

4. Give students a reason to feel connected. An important concern for online learners is the feeling of isolation. With this in mind, faculty can require proactive, rather than reactive, contact. For instance, incorporate synchronous individual student and group check-ins via a web conferencing platform. Instructors can also require individual pre-assignments for major course group projects, which detail individual contributions and outstanding questions or concerns. Additionally, faculty can consider adjusting deadlines to fall during the workday to encourage more proactive student contact.

5. Get ahead of poor writing. When student challenges lead to poor-quality written work, try examining the structure of the discussion forums. What are the requirements for writing quality in the forum posts and for the responses to classmates? What do our own faculty responses to forum posts look like?

6. Intensive peer review. This is an essential step to supporting students online. It requires students to critique the work of their classmates using a detailed rubric with required qualitative responses. Additionally, assignments can be scaffolded by linking individual assignments sequentially to build upon each other, with instructor feedback in between.

7. Help students see the relevance of their work. Students can perform poorly when they don’t “buy in” to an assignment’s relevance. For example, in their assignment guidelines, faculty can use examples to describe how the skills students will use to complete a given task are transferable to their discipline (e.g. critical thinking skills, communication strategies, etc.), and use clear, detailed rubrics to convey evaluation criteria. Faculty can also communicate at the beginning of the semester – via written explanation or, even more personal, using a video – outlining the particular value of the key components of the course as a whole.

Demonstrating this deliberate transparency should reduce student assumptions that certain assignments are pointless or irrelevant and, when combined with other strategies, help you in supporting students online.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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