Faculty Focus


Supporting Underprepared Students in the Online Classroom

laptop with wood background and person typing on computer

Engaging students through a computer screen requires a unique approach to pedagogy and innovative course design.  The feeling of “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 online learning (Bettinger & Loeb, 2017).

Common Student Challenges

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

  • Ghosting, students who disappear entirely or who 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
  • Those with a post-deadline emergency who contact their instructors with an excuse for a late assignment after the deadline
  • Freeriders, or students who ride in the wake of their hard-working teammates, contributing as little as possible to the group effort

Many of these problems are widespread; indeed, several of these issues align with the pattern of online student personality types described by Judy (2018).

Supporting These Students

Ignite early interest. For students who struggle with engagement, via ghosting, procrastinating, or minimal effort, 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 (Van Orman, 2018), 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.

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.

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.

Give students a reason to feel connected. An important concern for online learners is the feeling of isolation (Lehman & Conceição, 2014). 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 (Kelly, 2013). 

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? 

Another technique that has worked well for us is intensive peer review, requiring students to critique the work of their classmates using a very 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.

Finally, requiring students to seek the services of the campus writing center for a designated assignment or a certain number of times per semester can help boost the quality of written work. If your campus writing center does not offer online consultations, pushing for those is an important step in creating online student successes.

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.) (The Chronicle, 2019), 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 engage – and retain – students in the online classroom. 


The Chronicle of Higher Education. How one professor made her assignments more relevant. (2019, Feb. 21). Teaching. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-One-Professor-Made-Her/245743

Judy, J. (2018). 8 student personality types in distance learning. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/8-student-personality-types-in-distance-learning-part-1/ and https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/8-student-personality-types-in-distance-learning-part-2/

Kelly, R. (2013). Instructor strategies to improve online student retention. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/instructor-strategies-to-improve-online-student-retention/

Lehman, R. M., & Conceição, S. C. O. (2014). Motivating and retaining online students: Research-based strategies that work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Van Orman, K. (2018). The power of the naive task. Presented at the 2018 Designing Effective Teaching Conference, Bethesda, MD.


Lisa Borrero is associate professor in the Department of Interprofessional Health and Aging Studies at the University of Indianapolis where she teaches in both the Master of Science in Gerontology and Doctor of Health Science programs. Her research interests include the intersection of intergenerational learning and ageist attitudes, as well as the qualitative exploration of experiences affecting older women including self-concept, body image, and the meaning of retirement.

Amanda Jayne Miller is the director of Faculty Development and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Indianapolis. In addition to her work, which focuses on assessing faculty development and supporting particular student populations, she focuses on the intersection of gender and social class in romantic relationships. Her recent co-authored book, Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships, was awarded the William J. Goode book award.