Helping Online Students Succeed

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When students do poorly on an assignment, faculty generally chalk it up to either a) lack of effort or b) lack of intelligence. But problems in product are usually problems in process, and often students lack the “self-regulated learning strategies” needed to be successful (Wandler and Imbriale, 2017). Self-regulated learning strategies include goal setting, self-monitoring, and help seeking.

This can be a particular problem in an online class, where students must be more self-regulated than in face-to-face courses because they lack the structure of being required to be in a particular place at a particular time. It can be easier to drift away from a class without that schedule.

The good news is that students can be taught self-regulated learning strategies as part of an online course without distracting from the course content. Teaching these strategies as part of the course will not only help student achievement in that particular course but give them skills that will serve them will in future courses.

1. Self-regulated learning module

One thing an instructor can do to teach self-regulated learning skills is to simply incorporate a dedicated module to it at the beginning of the course (Wandler & Imbriale, 2017). An already-existing online module to assign to students would be nice, but I have not yet found one. Instead, you might be able to cobble together a module from resources that your librarian suggests. Such a module can cover study strategies, time management, and other skills necessary to succeed in an online course.

One excellent source of content for a module on learning strategies is Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski’s excellent course, “Learning How to Learn,” a free MOOC hosted on Coursera. Using videos with embedded questions, the instructors provide practical ways to improve learning skills. You can pick individual course modules to assign to students and, to ensure that they go through the modules, post some sort of simple quiz assessment at the end of each module.

You might also want to create your own learning content. For instance, I created a screencast tutorial for students on how to read academic work. See it at You might do the same for other skills your courses require.

2. Reflection journals

A wise man once told me that experience does not teach; only reflective experience teaches. How often does some activity that we try in a course bomb, and we promise ourselves to revise it the next time around? We need to reflect on what went well or poorly to improve on our performance, and we should approach our own learning skills in the same way.

A reflection journal can foster students’ self-evaluation of their learning skills. Students can be asked to answer quiz questions each week about their learning, which, although not graded, can nevertheless be a class requirement (Wandler & Imbriale, 2017). I would suggest the following questions as a starting point:

  1. What am I to learn this week? (completed prior to the activities)
  2. What did I learn this week?
  3. How well did I learn it?
  4. Is there anything that I still need to know, or know better—and if so, how will I seek the help I need to do that?
  5. What worked well—or not so well—in my approach to studying course material or preparing my assignments this week?
  6. What have I learned about my own study skills this week, and what will I do better in the future?

3. Student reminders

Wandler and Imbriale (2017) recommend sending students frequent text message reminders about upcoming deadlines or other pertinent information. I have long thought that faculty do not do enough to remind students about course activities. Faculty tend to provide a syllabus at the beginning of the course and then rely on the students to keep that guide in their minds throughout the course. However, we all face a deluge of duties and information, and we all need to rely on reminders to stay on track.

Texting students individually is laborious, and email is passé among students, so I recommend using a texting app that pushes out texts to groups at once. Remind ( is probably the most popular push messaging app on the market and is specifically designed for education. Faculty can organize students into classes and simply text the class to get a message to everyone. Those texts can include images and other content, and the instructor gets a history of class texts.

ClassUpdates ( is a recent addition to the push messaging market that looks very promising. Whereas Remind is designed more for teacher setup, ClassUpdates is designed more for student setup. The student creates a profile and puts the teacher’s text number into it to get messages. This decreases the teacher’s burden of setting up students to receive messages. It also enables a department to expect all students to download the free app so that multiple teachers can use it.

4. Scaffolding

Scaffolding is another teaching tool underutilized by educators. In higher education, we tend to give students an assignment and send them on their way to figure out how to do it. Some faculty think that giving students step-by-step instructions is spoon-feeding them, but in reality, it is just good teaching. Wandler and Imbriale (2017) recommend scaffolding by breaking the work into smaller pieces, providing sample work and rubrics, setting up a peer collaboration network where students can ask questions of one another, and providing outside resources.

While these steps might help, they strike me as not addressing the central issue of providing directions on process. Describing the process of developing the work would benefit the students more. For instance, when assigning students to develop a Wikipedia article on a medical ethics topic in one of my classes, I told them to first learn how to develop articles by going to one site, then see what the rules are by going to another. I also gave them ideas on how to organize their group to parse out the required parts of an article, how to deal with required revisions, and how to put together a draft using a shared editing system such as Google Docs.

Discover how your online classes will go better by incorporating self-regulated learning strategies into your own teaching. 

This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor on October 26, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

John Orlando writes, consults, and teaches faculty how to use technology to improve learning.  He helped build and direct distance learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University, and has written more 50 articles and delivered more than 60 workshops on teaching with technology.  John is the associate director of Training at Northcentral University, serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board and is a regular contributor to Online Classroom and Faculty Focus.


Wandler, J., & Imbriale, W. (2017). Promoting undergraduate student self-regulation in online learning environments. Online Learning21(2). doi: 10.24059/olj.v21i2.881