Some students have taken to online learning like fish to water. For others, however, it’s been a bit of a struggle. Online learning isn’t the best fit for every student, and now that online is the only option some students may be seriously struggling in ways they weren’t when they were in the physical classroom due to learning preferences, increased stress, communication problems, lack of technical knowledge, or some combination of any of the former.  

While you can’t solve every online learning challenge, there are ways that you can help support your students through this and help even your struggling students to be more successful as online learners.

Lay out expectations and check in regularly.

It’s not uncommon for students to assume that online courses will be easier than face-to-face. As anyone who has taken an online course can tell you, this is hardly the case, as online courses can be a huge time commitment and require additional technological, self-motivation, and organizational skills for success.

Make sure to share your expectations for students at the start of the course, including how much time they should expect to put in, where to find their course materials and submit work, and where they can look for help. You should also ensure that students have a basic familiarity with any technology that will be used in the course (even Blackboard—our New Student Orientation can help with that—encourage students to complete it). Check back in with them throughout the semester to see how everyone is doing and give them a chance to ask any questions they may have.

Be proactive.

Is a student falling behind or struggling in your course? The sooner you reach out the better. Research has shown that when students are unsuccessful in an online course, it’s often because they got behind and could not catch up (20% report this as the reason they did not pass an online course).  Many students won’t take the initiative to ask for help on their own and need an instructor to help show them how to catch up or to explain parts of course content that they don’t understand but are reluctant to directly ask about.  

Encourage engagement.

Decades worth of research has demonstrated the importance of student engagement in online courses, but getting students there is easier said than done. Students need to feel connected to their peers, their instructor and the content being studied. How do you do it? While there isn’t just one way to do it, it helps to make sure that discussion posts are thought-provoking and interesting and that students have a chance to share their own experiences and perceptions. Work to build community through humor, calling students by name, and asking students to work together. Need more tips? Ask us for help!

Develop your online presence.

Faculty presence is one of the most important factors in student success and satisfaction in an online course. Let your students get to know you and see you as a person—not just a talking head or a name on a screen. Record short videos for them and spend time engaging in discussion boards. And while you don’t have to require synchronous sessions, they can be a wonderful way for you to connect with students. When your students feel they can trust and rely on you, they’re much more likely to reach out for help or to accept it when offered. They’ll also feel more invested in your course and in turn more likely to succeed.

Reduce tech overload.

Some of your students may never have taken an online course before. This means that they’re not only learning the content of your course but also the technology used to access it. While you can’t solve this problem entirely, you can help reduce the stress it puts on students by choosing your technology wisely. Try to keep everything integrated in one place so students aren’t going to a bunch of different places to complete course requirements. Take advantage of integrated tools in Blackboard, like Collaborate, Yuja, or discussion boards, so that students can stay in the LMS and not have to manage multiple tools.

Provide scaffolding.

Some of your students won’t require much scaffolding at all, but those who struggling may need the additional support this type of intervention provides. Scaffolding can include indexes, glossaries, formula sheets, templates, scoring rubrics,  samples for projects and papers, and short videos to supplement background knowledge. One common way that instructors can provide scaffolding is through having multiple drafts of an assignment due, allowing for feedback throughout the process. So how do you know how much and when to offer it? Just ask! Your students are the best people to tell you when they’re just not getting something or want a little extra guidance.  

Be flexible and offer options.

This has been a tumultuous year for many students. As a result, it’s absolutely key to be flexible about your expectations for the course. This doesn’t mean throwing pedagogy and standards out the window, just offering a little more leeway for students to complete their work. Consider giving students more options for participating in class or completing assignments. What would this look like? Not counting synchronous attendance as part of their grade, for example, or allowing several different formats for completing a final assignment.

Give students a lifeline.

When a student fails a big exam or gets a bad grade on a project, it can create a sense of “why bother” that can derail their success in the course and lead to a failing grade or dropping out altogether. To avoid getting there, consider allowing students some lifelines. That can be the ability to re-do an assignment, a deadline extension, or other way that they can correct their slip-up. Your goal is for students to learn and to improve, and allowing them the chance to grow and move on from their mistakes is one way to do that.


You may find that struggling students are often struggling because of circumstances outside of their control. They may not have a quiet space to do schoolwork. They may be balancing work and childcare. They may lack reliable internet service or access to technology. In these times, it’s important to simply listen to students and give them a chance to share what their circumstances are like. There may be ways you can help them through campus resources or they may just need someone to talk to (quarantine isolation is real!).

Ask for help.

While it might sometimes feel like it when you’re working from home, you’re not alone. There are loads of support staff out there looking to, well, support you. Reach out to the library, the tutoring center, Access and Accommodations, the TLC or us, Learning Technologies! Our support staff is there to help you help your students. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help, especially if you’re new to online teaching.  

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