How to Give Struggling Students a Boost

Even in normal circumstances, students can start to fall behind (or even disappear) by this point in a semester. If only a few of our students consistently participate or turn on their cameras, it may be harder than ever to tell whether they’re with us. Especially in an asynchronous course, students may feel like we’re not with them , either. One student remarked that she feels less motivated to do her work, put effort into it, and turn it in on time when she doesn’t feel the instructor’s presence online.

Because many students are taking multiple remote or online courses this semester, they may be struggling more than usual with time management and self-regulation. It may be more difficult for them to juggle all of the varying due dates and expectations in their courses. Of course, students may also be struggling with the material itself, and would be in a face-to-face class as well.

Some students—when they’re falling behind, or need an extension on a project, or were surprised by a lower than expected grade on the midterm—don’t hesitate to contact their instructors for help. Your inbox right now may be a testament to that. But for every student who is brave enough to reach out or ask a question, there are likely many more who are not. Some students struggle in silence and may eventually give up, withdrawing, failing, or disappearing from the course. But there are steps that we can take to help them stay on track, or to reach out to them if they’re struggling.

The first thing we can do is make sure students (and we) have an accurate sense of where they stand in the class. Students often don’t have enough information to assess their own progress, or they have misconceptions about how they’re doing. To ensure that they have a clear sense of whether they are achieving the learning goals throughout the semester, we need to create a cycle of practice and feedback.

These opportunities for regular practice and feedback are also called formative assessments. Compared to summative assessments, like exams and large projects, formative assessments are usually low-stakes activities meant to help students get a sense of what they are doing well and should continue, and what they need to improve on or practice more or differently. These can include quizzes, homework assignments, reading responses, concept maps, reflections, in-class activities, practice problems, components of larger projects, and more. (You may already have a variety of formative assessments in your courses.)

In addition to needing regular practice and feedback, many students also need help to calculate their course grade. Sometimes the way the Canvas gradebook calculates things is not actually how you grade, so students might have a wrong impression (and take actions based on it). You can clarify whether or not they should check the Canvas gradebook, how to interpret what they see there, and how to get a more accurate sense of how they are doing. One of our colleagues even offers an extra credit quiz that leads students through the steps of calculating their current grade.

When students and faculty both have an accurate sense of how students are doing—what goals they’ve accomplished, and what they might need help with—it’s easier to communicateabout getting or staying on track. Even with a clear sense of what is and isn’t going well, some students are still uncomfortable to reach out . They might not want to admit they’re confused, or concerned about their grade. But if their instructor reaches out to them, they’re likely to respond, and to be grateful for the support.

Reaching out to students doesn’t have to be awkward. You can send them an email or message through Canvas, simply saying, “I noticed you might be having some trouble. Would you like to connect?” For many students, it is easier to talk one-on-one. A brief Zoom meeting gives them an opportunity to ask questions and share concerns. It gives us an opportunity to show care, to correct misconceptions, to clarify instructions, to share resources, and to explain our intentions—students don’t always understand why the goals are what they are, why we teach the way that we do, or what the purpose of an assignment was. Sometimes they just need a morale boost that we might not even realize that we can easily provide.

When a class is difficult or foreign to students, a note of encouragement from the professor can be the difference between persisting or dropping the course. There are many good reasons to reach out, but in a large course, the logistics of doing so may feel like a constraint. If you have teaching assistants (graduate students) or learning assistants (undergraduates), they can help to identify students who are struggling, and in some cases, they can be the ones to reach out. Some colleagues use mail merge and email templates that they create in advance and use every semester to reach out to groups of students in different circumstances: letters of congratulations, letters of encouragement, and letters of concern with an invitation for support. You can also use Canvas, which allows you to send messages to students based on certain conditions, such as quiz or exam scores.

If you’d like support to add formative assessments to your course, or with making a plan to communicate with students who are struggling, please contact us at We look forward to working with you!