Supporting Students Success in Online Learning

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It is no secret that online classes differ from those with face-to-face instruction. Even the most well-designed and well-taught online courses will require students to develop a slightly different set of competencies. Students that thrive in online learning environments tend to be self-directed learners with strong technical proficiency and time management skills. But even those students who have little experience learning in the online space can be supported to become master learners. Below you will find strategies and resources to foster those skills in your students, along with some steps you can take to effective respond to the feelings of confusion and isolation that students can face in online learning.

Foster Technical Proficiency

For many students, this might be their first foray into online learning or their first time using a particular learning platform or software. Studies have shown that familiarity with the learning platform can be a predictor of student success, and that students who receive some form of orientation or introduction to their virtual classroom perform better on assessments than students who do not (Kruger-Ross and Waters, 2012; McKenna et. al, 2018). Moreover, make no assumptions about students’ technical skills. Not all of your students are digital natives and will know how to use tech tools.

Some ways you might foster technical proficiency in your students include:

  • Sending a poll or survey to your students, asking them about their level of familiarity and comfort with a tool, software and/or features you might use in class/tutorial. You can then use the feedback to develop an appropriate response to support all your students. This will help you create guides for students regarding readiness for online learning.
  • Students may have access to a range of technologies, but not all of them may be adequate for online learning. To help students navigate technological requirements, refer them to the Vice Provost’s Recommended Technology Requirements for Remote/Online Learning. Also keep in mind that students may have access to varying technological devices which may be impacted by families that are sharing devices at home for online learning.
  • Reflect on the selection of educational technology tools that you want to incorporate, to ensure that they are supported institutionally or at least divisionally/at your department. Explore the U of T EdTech Catalogue to select appropriate tools. Make sure to get approval from your CI before incorporating specific tools.
  • Direct your students to appropriate to instructional resources on a particular tool or software. YouTube and U of T offer lots of different resources, videos and guides. Help your students navigate these different resources by directing them to the Getting Ready for Online resources.
  • Alternately, you can create your own “how-to guide” for your chosen learning platform. Take a screenshot of several stages in the process of accessing your virtual classroom and send them out as a step-by step guide.
  • Create an introductory assessment (with little to no graded weight) that requires students to make use of one of the online features that your class will rely on throughout the course. If you expect students to collaborate on group work using Office365 tools, such as, for example, in PowerPoint, consider having each student create a single slide in a collaborative slide show, using their slide to introduce themselves however they see fit. If you will be relying heavily on the discussion board, consider asking them to make use of it prior to the first class, posting something about themselves and replying to at least one other classmate’s post.
  • Make it clear what technical trouble-shooting they can come to you with, and when they should direct their questions elsewhere, such as the U of technical support. Consider including the following resources in your course syllabus or tutorial syllabus.

Model Good Time Management and Study Skills

Online learning often means learning from home, where students may have other family and work obligations. Time pressure can be a significant cause of student attrition in online courses (Hyllegard, Deng and Hunter, 2008) but luckily, as a graduate student you likely have some time management strategies up your sleeve that you can use to help your students become self-directed learners.

  • What time management strategies have you adopted in your graduate studies? Do you use a timer? A journal? Share your strategies with your students. To take this idea further, a low stakes introductory assignment might ask students to draw up a study plan for the week and exchange it with another student.
  • What do you need to make your work environment comfortable? Encourage your students to separate their study/work space from their relaxing space, if possible. Help students prepare to be successful.
  • Model setting boundaries between work and personal time. Let students know your email policy (i.e, I will respond to all emails within 48 hours of receipt and I don’t check my work email after 6 pm and on weekends) and encourage them to set boundaries for themselves.
  • Encourage your students to take notes during online lectures and recorded lectures as if they were in a face-to-face class. Consider assigning weekly note taking “leads” to create collaborative documents that the rest of the class can contribute to, as a way of making note-taking both compulsory and collaborative.
  • If your course has asynchronous components, provide students with a timeline of when they would ideally be accessing these components. For example, prompt them that the lecture will be available on Monday and that you encourage them all to watch it by Tuesday so they have some time to develop their questions before your Thursday tutorial. Regularly scheduled points of contact like discussion board posts and virtual office hours can also help students get in the habit of engaging with your course content in a timely manner.
  • Be explicit about how long you expect certain tasks to take. Many students might be working from home for the first time and a weekly prompt that, for example, the upcoming reading is a little denser than the previous one and that students should budget an extra half hour or so to complete it, will help keep students on track.
  • Remember that students may face a range of different challenges in learning online. Build compassion and flexibility into your timelines. Consider making assessments available earlier or providing more time than you normally would to complete an exam/assignment.
  • If an assessment or exam is being posted for longer than it normally would be, continue to make expectations about time commitment explicit, i.e., “The exam will be available through Quercus for 4 days to allow for everyone to fit it into their schedules. Please set aside 2-3 hours over the course of those days to write the exam.”
  • Normalize the use of supports and resources for your students. Keep reminding students about ways to access services and supports available at the University:
    • Ask Chat with a Librarian to virtually chat with a librarian and receive research help.
    • Get students to Submit a question to U of T about Covid-19, so that their voice can be heard.
    • Direct students to CTSI – Five tips for Students Online, a resource for students studying online, developed by University of Toronto learning strategists
    • The Academic Success Module available through Quercus, takes students through strategies and resources for stress management, positive self-talk, study strategies, productivity, and connecting with other resources.

Make Engagement Expectations Clear

There are many synchronous (i.e., occurring in real time) and asynchronous (i.e., not occurring at the same time) ways in which students with engage with you, each other, and the course content. Make sure to be clearly communicate to students the different forms of engagement and how their contribution will be evaluated. This may require a conversation with your CI.

  • Consider first how you are evaluating engagement. Is it through weekly quizzes, large group discussion, partnered discussion, or discussion board posts? Likely it will be a combination of many different formats. Lay the options for participation out for your students. Consider making and distributing a grading rubric to further clarify your expectations. (Get approval from the CI to use a rubric.)
    • IDL6543 Discussion Rubric this rubric, designed by the Instructional Design Team at the University of Central Florida, provides an example of what a rubric specifically created for grading participation in online discussion boards
  • Clarify for students when and how engagement will take place, especially in the synchronous sessions.
    • Do students need to have their cameras on? For a brief check in at the beginning or whenever they speak? You don’t want to overload the bandwidth with everyone’s video, nor do you want to surprise a student who wasn’t expecting their room to be on display.
    • When contributing, do you prefer students to type their question/contribution into a chat window? To raise a hand and wait to be called on? To speak with audio only or also with video? Ensure there are participation options for people who are using public/library computers and thus may not be able to contribute orally, or to have their webcam on.
    • How will the size of your tutorial affect student contributions? Can students contribute in asynchronous ways as well?
  • Each virtual classroom platform offers a variety of ways for students to participate and collaborate – consider how you might make use of some of these features.
FeatureMicrosoft TeamsBB CollaborateQuercus
Discussion BoardX (through "channels" feature)XX
Screen SharingXX
Instructor can create break out groups within lectureX
Students can hold video meetingsX
Virtual White BoardX
Chat window accompanies video/lectureXX
Record lecturesXX

Combat Isolation and Promote Well Being – Build a Genuine Community of Learners

Distance learning can leave students feeling isolated, both from their fellow students and from the instructor (Mokoena 2013; Roberts 2004) but as an teacher, you can model ways of collaborating and communicating with your course/tutorial learning community.

  • Foster a sense of community in your online class. Make sure to begin the course with a community-building activity that promotes genuine connections between students. Make sure to help students learn how to engage in meaningful conversations in the online environment and do so in an equitable and inclusive ways. Develop a Community Agreement and help your students Create an Inclusive Online Environment.
  • Incorporate group work and engagement where you can. Remember that distance learning can (and should) still involve active learning.
  • Mix synchronous and asynchronous components. Build time into your class or tutorial for students to talk to each other. This can involve anything from having a low-stakes “check in” question at the top of class to having extended periods of collaborative work in small break out groups.
  • If most of the learning happens asynchronously, consider moderating a synchronous chat room study session.
  • Encourage students to visit you in office hours, which you can conduct via teleconferencing or over the phone (if students sign up individually).
  • Consider making participation in threaded online discussions part of the participation mark, especially for those students who face technical challenges to connect to synchronous sessions.
  • Offer feedback on discussion board posts and reward meaningful engagement that goes beyond perfunctory responses like “good post”. Model what this should look like for your students.
  • Highlight the following mental health resources for students.

Created by Lisa Aikman and Nakia Lee-Foon, TATP Trainers ©2020
For more TA teaching resources.

Works Cited

Hyllegard, D., Deng, H., & Hunter, C. (2008). Why do Students Leave Online Courses? Attrition in Community College Distance Learning Courses. International Journal of Instructional Media, 35(4), 429-434.

Kruger-Ross, M. J., & Waters, R. D. (2013). Predicting online learning success: Applying the situational theory of publics to the virtual classroom. Computers & Education, 61, 176–184.

McKenna, B et al. (2018). The Effect of a Multifactor Orientation on Student Performance: Organizational Skills, Goal Setting, Orientation to Classroom, and Academic Support. Online Learning, 22(4), 265-276.