Helping Online Students Be Successful

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Mental HealthOnline LearningStudent Success
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Marie Guest is an experienced online educator and instructor at North Florida College


Through much trial and error after teaching online and web-assisted courses for over 15 years, I have learned a simple truth—in the online classroom, instructors become less the “sage on the stage” and more the “guide on the side.” We prepare a media rich learning environment, teach students how to navigate it and then we must let them explore. We provide the tools and students will pick what works best for them. Whether it be using traditional textbooks, videos, simulations, flash cards or adaptive quizzes, each student learns differently so we must let them choose the road to their own success.

A “Map” for Learning Online

I believe that to successfully learn online, students must first learn how to use the instructional technology and understand how the course is designed. So, I start each semester with a carefully designed orientation to my course. Students must complete each step in the orientation to move forward to the course content. Starting with a tour of our learning management system—including course announcements, finding and opening a posted file, completing an attendance/syllabi quiz, posting in an introductory discussion board, registering for their textbook/online platform and sending an email to establish the teacher-student lines of communication—students prove they are ready to learn the course material. After completing this orientation, I rarely get a question from a student about how to complete any task, so I can then focus on teaching content. However, our job as online instructors is not done just because we have built a great online class and shown students how to access and complete the work, we must still be available to help with both content mastery and instructional coaching.

Getting to Know Students

Making a genuine connection with your students is essential for their online success. Starting with the introductory discussion board, I ask questions and point out common interests and goals among the students and start giving advice on how to be successful in the course. I gather information about each student—including all they’ve shared concerning career goals, past experiences, hobbies, etc.—and then use this information to help motivate them throughout the course. I continuously add to these notes as the semester goes on and use it to personalize all of my communications to show students that I care about them and their success. I also regularly send progress updates to students which include compliments or suggestions for different study strategies for areas of concern and offer online video office hours for additional support to cement a more personal teacher/student relationship.

Coaching a Team of Learners

By coaching, I mean helping and guiding students throughout the course—ensuring motivation to succeed, pointing out relevancy, providing regular success points and ongoing, personalized encouragement. But successful coaching must be done on each student’s own timeframe while also creating interaction between students, so they can learn from each other. To bring the students together as a community of learners, I use multi-week discussion boards that focus on overarching subjects with multiple participation points. These discussions provide relevancy for students as they see how to apply what they are learning to the real world. Examples include having students post how to explain a complex economics news article to someone not taking economics, or results from interviewing family and friends about personal finance advice. Some other coaching strategies I use are reminder texts to help keep students on schedule and study guides and instructor notes embedded in assignments so my help is readily available to my students night or day.

Success All Around

I have found that it is not just the student who benefits from these attempts to engage and motivate in an online course, but it also helps me find joy and satisfaction in my job as an online educator. For example, in her first introductory discussion board posting, one timid nontraditional student told me about a superhero t-shirt her husband bought her to celebrate her college acceptance. Whenever she became frustrated or disappointed and needed a pick-me-up, I would tell her to put on that t-shirt and then suggest a new strategy to try. This t-shirt was referenced so many times during the multiple classes she had with me that she even wore it to graduation under her gown! It goes to show that even online, we can get to know our students and be the mentor they need to succeed.


To gather more tips and ensure you’re ready for success in your course model, check out our Empowered Educator professional development series.