When the Tide Goes Out: Identifying and Supporting Struggling Students in Online Courses

Tide crashes against rock in metaphor representing online students who are struggling

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

Students in online courses start with the best intentions—keeping up with the readings and assignments, engaging in discussion, and learning from their instructor’s feedback and comments. Once an online course begins, students can quickly become overwhelmed to the point where they are treading water in an attempt to stay afloat. It is only when the first grades are posted that the tide goes out and students realize they are in danger. This is where instructors can easily identify the students who are not succeeding. What can instructors do to support these struggling students?

The Online Learner

Students in online courses are unlike traditional students in many ways. Online learners are typically older and busier with work and family obligations than students on traditional college campuses (Roddy, Amiet, Chung, Holt, Shaw, McKenzie, Garivaldis, Lodge, & Mundy, 2017; Thistoll & Yates, 2016). To add to these challenges, online courses are often accelerated and demand a heavy workload and a set of technological skills (Roddy et al., 2017). In many ways, distance learning reverses traditional teacher/student roles and students are responsible for planning, organizing, and directing their own learning (Thistoll & Yates, 2016; Fetzner, 2013). Students must also manage the complex mixture of the learning management system (LMS), the internet, course materials, and their own electronic devices (Beins, 2017).

An online learner who procrastinates may experience technical difficulties, can become confused by course content, or may feel isolated and become unmotivated to meet course requirements (Roddy et al., 2017). As a result of these issues, online students have lower retention rates (Fetzner, 2013) and fail to complete courses at a higher rate than traditional students (Schroeder-Moreno, 2010).

The Online Teacher

Instructors who teach online courses also face unique challenges. Online instructors are tasked with delivering course content, helping students navigate the technology, engaging students in discussion, monitoring student progress, encouraging perseverance, providing timely and detailed feedback, and fostering interaction between students (Chen, Pedersen, & Murphy, 2011; Roddy et al., 2017; Watson, Castano, & Ferdinand-James, 2017; Zweig & Stafford, 2016). Online instructors must be flexible, responsive, and committed to engaging and retaining their students (Roddy, et al., 2017). Instructors must also update courses regularly to ensure that they remain relevant and interesting (Schroeder-Moreno, 2010).

The very nature of online learning places additional demands on both students and instructors. What can instructors do to identify and support struggling online learners who are being swept up in the tide? Consider implementing the following practices in your own online courses:

1. Implement Early Check-Ups

Think about the first time you taught an online course and consider the steepness of the learning curve. In addition to the LMS, many online courses require proficiency in additional technology tools and programs. Each course has its own rhythm, which may include discussions, homework, papers, projects, quizzes, and exams, and some students stumble early in the course. Many students assume that online courses will be easier than traditional face-to-face courses or underestimate the technological and organizational skills and the time commitment required to be successful (Fetzner, 2013; Schroeder-Moreno, 2010). Many students experience information overload when beginning an online course (Chen et al., 2011).

For these reasons, you should share expectations with students by phone or e-mail before the class begins (Thistoll & Yates, 2016). Within the course, include detailed instructions for accessing all course materials, auxiliary resources, and support services, and encourage students to ask you and each other for help. As a check to ensure that students can navigate the LMS and supplemental materials, have students post screen shots. A short multiple-choice quiz is also a good way to ensure that students can access the course procedures and policies.

According to Fetzner (2013), almost 20% of unsuccessful students claim they got behind and could not catch up. For this reason, monitoring student progress and addressing early signs of distress is a priority (Roddy et al., 2017).

2. Communicate Clearly and Frequently

Although online courses provide little to no opportunity for face-to-face interaction (Chang, Hurst, & McLean, 2015; Roddy et al., 2017), the typical online environment is equipped with areas for announcements, and private and group discussions. Indeed, these asynchronous forms of communication may actually benefit introverted learners who need time to synthesize their thoughts before responding (Self, Fudge, & Hall, 2018). Timely and clear communication about course expectations, requirements, and due dates is imperative (Roddy et al., 2017). Consider posting a master schedule that consolidates all due dates in one place. Because students identify redundant information as an obstacle to learning (Chen, Pedersen, and Murphy, 2011), point students to original postings in the LMS rather than repeating information. Chang et al., (2015) report that students are more satisfied with the course when instructors encourage frequent communication.

3. Encourage Engagement and Build Community

We all want our students to engage in our online courses, preferably through higher order learning such as applying the content to real world problems or situations, or sharing diverse opinions and forming personal perspectives (Buelow, Barry, & Rich, 2018). Buelow, Barry, and Rich (2018) report that students enjoy thought-provoking questions posed by the instructor, hearing the positions of their peers, and sharing their own perceptions. When a student posts generic, trivial, or redundant information in a discussion, gently remind them that peer responses are expected to move the conversation forward. Encourage students to improve their discussion posts by commenting on something specific about a classmate’s post, supplying an example from research or their own personal experience, or asking follow-up questions.

Self, Fudge, and Hall (2018) report that students who procrastinate with discussions tend to interact less and are often less successful academically. Students who are not engaging in the course may not understand the LMS, so reach out to the student’s advisor or to the student using e-mail, phone, or text messages. Encourage students to get involved early in the week by posting optional discussion items that appeal to a variety of learners. To build community within the course, Beins (2017) recommends using humor, first names, and pronouns such as “we” or “us.” Addressing the course as “team” also reminds students to work together toward the common goal of successfully completing the course.

4. Provide Scaffolding

An important role of instructors is to determine the right balance of scaffolding. If learners are highly motivated, possess a range of cognitive strategies, and have prior knowledge of the content, Dabbaugh (2003) recommends a low level of scaffolding. Higher levels of scaffolding are recommended for learners who lack prior knowledge and have high anxiety or low motivation (Dabbaugh, 2003). Too little scaffolding often leads to frustration, anxiety, and loss of motivation (Dabbaugh, 2003). Types of scaffolding include indexes, glossaries, formula sheets, templates, scoring rubrics, and samples for projects and papers, and short videos to supplement background knowledge. Instructors can also scaffold individual assignments by requiring outlines or rough drafts. Because finding the right balance for scaffolding is a shared responsibility and requires input from students, ask students to identify the level and type of scaffolding they need.

5. Be Flexible with Deadlines

How do you determine which students are permitted to submit work late? Some universities request faculty leniency to those affected by natural disasters, while students facing issues such as illness, injuries, family emergencies, and technology glitches are not given such leniency. A grade of zero on a high-stakes assignment may discourage students from completing further work (Wyre, 2019). When strict due dates are enforced, some students will turn in high quality work but receive lower grades due to lateness while other will receive higher grades for lower quality work that is submitted on time. Wyre (2019) states that denying a student the opportunity to submit an assignment denies them the opportunity to learn. Similarly, Cutler (2019) argues that the goal should be mastery, and some individuals may need more time to achieve mastery. Thomas (2019) reports that when the pressure of a due date is alleviated and students are permitted to complete an assignment, the work is often better.  

6. Allow “Re-Dos”

Student disappointment over a bad grade can fuel a feeling of futility. Allowing students to re-do assignments extends the learning window and allows students to use specific, corrective feedback to improve their work and their grades. Cutler (2019) allows retakes as a way of acknowledging that occasional slip ups should not get in the way of learning. Because the goal is improvement, Cutler (2019) allows any student who did not perform at their best the opportunity to re-do an assignment. Another option is to grant a small window of amnesty, allowing students to re-do one or more assignments to improve their grade. With amnesty, students must communicate with the instructor and make the extra effort to re-do an assignment. Some instructors average the original and the improved grade to encourage responsibility and discourage overuse of the re-do policy.

The nature of online learning is unique with strong demands on both students and instructors. By implementing early check-ups, communicating clearly and frequently, encouraging engagement, building community, providing support and scaffolding, being flexible with deadlines, and allowing re-dos, we are better able to identify struggling students early on and put them on the path to success, regardless of the tide.

Bio: Marie Revak has a BA in math and MA and PhD in Math Education. Revak taught middle and high school math before joining the Air Force as an orbital analyst. After three Air Force Space Command assignments, Marie returned to teaching at the Air Force Academy where she taught math, trained new faculty, and led the Academy’s academic assessment program. After retiring from the Air Force, Marie worked for Lewis-Palmer School District as the professional development and assessment director. Now retired, Marie co-leads a volunteer math tutoring program at the local library and teaches undergraduate math courses online.


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