Online learning has gradually become more common over the past few years, but with COVID-19 triggering a temporary move away from the physical classroom environment, many teachers and students are experiencing it for the first time.
As with any method of delivery, online learning has both its advantages and challenges, and as schools have settled into the virtual classroom in recent weeks and months, some teachers may be noticing students begin to slip through the cracks.
Fortunately, there are ways to better support those who are finding online learning difficult. These strategies will not only help struggling students but will also create a better virtual environment in general, providing a more impactful and rewarding experience for all.
Make Yourself Available
One of the downsides of online learning is the perceived disconnect between students and teachers. Students can’t simply raise their hand for help the way they can in a physical classroom, and it can be harder for teachers to identify learners that are having problems. As a result, it’s easy for students to feel lost or overlooked in a virtual environment, especially those that are not inclined to speak up when they’re struggling.
To address this issue, it’s important to make yourself as available and easily accessible as possible. If you’re not doing so already, consider offering multiple ways for your students to contact you, such as text, chat and phone, in addition to email and Zoom. You could also schedule dedicated “office hours” outside of your usual classroom time where you will be online and available to respond to questions immediately.
Remember to continue checking in with your students as frequently as you will have done at the beginning of the move to online learning – circumstances change, and things that were fine in week one could be causing problems a couple of months on.
Ramp Up Gradually and Provide Scaffolding
As you probably experienced in the initial period, adjusting to a virtual classroom can be challenging. While the chances are that many of your students have hit the ground running and are thriving in the online environment, others may have had a slower start and some may be finding it increasingly disruptive as the weeks wear on.
It’s never too late to go back to basics, gradually ramp up the level of difficulty or provide extra scaffolding for students that need it – after all, incremental successes are essential for helping them build confidence and improve their online learning outcomes.
To create an environment that supports the success of struggling students, you can:
Break content down into smaller modules
Revisit easier concepts to reinforce the foundations of more difficult work
Be more flexible around deadlines and re-dos where appropriate
Provide extra scaffolding to supplement background knowledge, such as indexes, video tutorials, assignment examples, templates and glossaries
Keep in mind that finding the right balance of support is a shared responsibility, so when determining your approach, it’s important to ask students about the type and level of help they feel they need.
Facilitate Opportunities to Self-Direct Learning
A key benefit that online learning provides is increased opportunities for students to have agency in their learning process. As you will probably know, the most successful students are often the ones that play an active role in their own education, so engaging struggling students may mean looking for ways to get them more involved.
Some ways to facilitate self-directed learning include:
Providing extra resources that students can explore at their own pace
Enabling them to personalise their online interfaces where possible, such as with custom backgrounds, fonts, avatars and colours
Making past lessons and materials accessible so they can review them if they need to
A downside of online learning is that it’s more difficult for students to connect with their peers, which can lead to isolation and disengagement, particularly for those whose learning is stimulated by social interaction. To create an environment that supports good learning outcomes, building a sense of community and a solid support system to supplement your own role is key.
Encourage students to get involved in discussions by posting topics that will appeal to a variety of learners, and show them how to improve their online dialogue by commenting on a specific point made by a classmate, doing research, asking follow-up questions or providing an example from their own experience. Leading by example, rewarding engagement and ensuring the environment is non-judgemental will be important for getting students to speak up.
Another way to create community is to use humour, inclusive pronouns such as “we” or “us”, and personal anecdotes to help build relationships that extend beyond the educational context.
The nature of online learning is unique and can often be demanding on both teachers and students. By making yourself easily accessible, providing extra support as needed, enabling students to have some control over their learning and fostering a sense of community, you can not only those that are struggling but all your students to get the most out of the virtual setting.