Dawn DiPeri

by Dawn DiPeri

A guide aimed at helping face-to-face instructors who have recently migrated online.


This article addresses the ways in which recently migrated online instructors can spot and help struggling students through the lens of the recent pandemic. I argue that prior to the forced migration of online courses, face-to-face faculty generally felt well equipped to spot struggling students, but may have difficulty in the online modality. If these newly minted online instructors can obtain proper professional development and training in online pedagogy, they can contribute potentially to student academic success. Students who struggle online need teachers with keen skills in observation, empathy, and direction to provide needed resources. 

This article will cover:

  • The struggling student
  • You can’t save them all, but you can try
  • Retention is in everyone’s best interest
  • Why students struggle 
  • How to tell if students are struggling 
  • What to do about a struggling student

The struggling student

I started teaching ground-campus courses before I received my first online assignment. Face-to-face, I could detect a struggling student with ease. Struggles in a face-to-face class are often obvious. Appearing disgruntled or disengaged, students may slouch in their chair, roll their eyes, or put their hoodie up to hide while they sleep. I once had a student who refused to do the assigned work, talked back, and was repeatedly late to class. One day I asked to speak to him outside of class. He shared how he had just transferred from a rigorous private school to a community college because of financial circumstances. He resented his parents for forcing him to transfer. 

Once I knew the root cause of his behaviors, I was able to plan how he could share his deep knowledge and skill with the class. I also allowed him to scaffold his work to build his portfolio. This gave him freedom to work in slightly different ways than his peers. Eventually he became one of the most valuable students in the class.

I tell you this story to demonstrate how face-to-face instructors can quickly spot and help a struggling student. We need to be alert, empathetic listeners and provide resources and solutions to meet students where they are. 

However, if you are new to online teaching, you probably realize the challenge of spotting and supporting students who are struggling. Fortunately, the Learning Management System (LMS) can offer visual indicators that detect at-risk students. 

In the online classroom, we rarely see behaviors that indicate disinterest, apathy, or anxiety unless we see it through video. If we give students opportunities for synchronous live chats, they may not attend or choose to turn off their camera. Before we can plan how to help a struggling student online, we need to know how to spot one. Then we need to ask what troubles them so we can offer resources and support. 

You can’t save them all, but you can try.

When I first started teaching eight years ago, my department head said to me, “You can’t save them all.” She meant I shouldn’t get discouraged if some students fail. Years later, I still don’t agree. I always strive to do better. I always ask learners for detailed feedback in surveys. I seek not only to teach but to calm their minds, boost morale, advise, and guide them to academic and vocational success.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that “not everyone is college-bound.” I have witnessed first-hand how education transforms lives, pulls students from the brink of poverty, and how they rise through career ranks. Not all my students will continue their education, but if we can work to retain students, we can improve their chances of a successful future. 

Retention is in everyone’s best interest: student, instructor, and institution

Student retention is critically important. I always consider how institutions profit through retention. More importantly, I think about student health and wellbeing. For colleges to serve students well, we need to do everything possible to address their psychological stress, academic challenges, and home issues. With COVID-19, students feel more stress than ever. Moving back home and taking classes fully online can be stressful, and detrimental to mental health. Anxiety and depression, common among college students, is rising because of the pandemic and political unrest. A student that fails a class is more likely to fail future classes and eliminate their chances of graduation. Retention is without a doubt in the student’s best interest. 

Newly migrated faculty must meet the challenge of navigating a LMS — learn new technologies, manage time differently, and a host of other new, different obligations. In the recent migration to online modalities, faculty have not prioritized the care of struggling students, but they should. Seasoned online instructors have been trained to spot and help students and can be a source of support to newly migrated faculty.

Retention rates are an important factor when students and their families select a college. When retention and graduation rates are low, they can lead students to reject a college. Institutions with high retention rates may see online students struggle to complete courses, programs, and degrees. The possible result: a lowering of brand quality and perception, and consequently lower enrollments. Higher ed, like all sectors, is undergoing change in an unprecedented time. Nobody knows when normalcy will resume. When face-to-face classes are offered again, colleges are unsure how many students will be comfortable attending. 

How to tell if students are struggling 

Your LMS may have an activated alert system. You may hear bells and whistles — oricons, messages, or acronyms appear next to a student name on the roster. A common component of online tracking is Last Date of Attendance (LDA). Face-to-face instructors take attendance regularly, but it is usually tracked automatically in the online classroom. So, when students have been missing for a few days or even weeks, the system should alert you of the last time the student contributed to your online class.

Just logging in usually doesn’t count as “present.” Students need to reply to discussion boards, turn in assignments, or post something within the classroom for their attendance to count. Online students usually aren’t penalized for missing class, but they must be present to be successful. The fast pace of some online courses makes it difficult for students to catch up on missing assignments — especially if they have been absent for days. 

I reach out after about four days if I have not seen someone in the course. Longer absences mean more time to make  up and can overwhelm students if they also must schedule time for their current week’s workload. Students may be flagged if they are late or behind on projects. When you grade work, you should very clearly be able to tell when there is a missing submission. This is a great time to reach out through multiple methods to remind students of missing work. Often, the failing assignment grade will prompt a student to reach out to you, but not always. They may feel ashamed and overwhelmed, or they may not realize they are missing the work. 

Usually there are visual indicators on both the faculty and student side to alert you of missing assignments. Get to know those indicators quickly. Do students turn in all discussion board posts on the last day of the unit, at the last possible moment? Do you see students posting beyond the due date? Are you consistently taking off late penalty points? An occasional late assignment is usually not a cause for concern, but chronic offenders may be hampered by a deeper issue. 

Instructors may see excessive messages from a student with multiple excuses for late work. These excuses may be legitimate, or a bigger call for help. Although we want to remain compassionate, we sometimes need to dig deeper to find the root cause. Letting students turn in assignments late doesn’t solve anything. Once three students in a class told me they’d had a death in the family. I want to believe them. But in the end, a struggling student is a struggling student. When we know the cause, we can dig deeper and offer customized solutions to help students succeed early in the course and all the way through. 

Why they struggle 

Online students can struggle for many reasons. Some find it difficult to stay motivated and engaged. Often, they may not receive enough detailed feedback. This makes it hard to meet expectations. Sometimes when students encounter an obstacle, they struggle alone instead of reaching out. Online education requires special, almost superhuman time-management skill. Online students intrinsically need to be motivated. Learners from face-to-face environments who were forced unwillingly into distance education may lack the motivation, grit, and determination to power through it alone at home. We want to avoid that. 

We want to establish an online learning community, to pull together students from the same cohort and to bring dialogue and discussion into the online space. Sometimes students need a phone call or a tutorial via a shared screen to set them up for success. Time-management apps can benefit those accustomed to multi-tasking online. Some students feel the need to answer texts, emails, or social-media messages. They may be lured by their favorite online game or be tempted to shop online. An app that shuts off those distractions by freezing them for a specific period is beneficial to productivity. Home life may be chaotic. We can at least guide students on how to quell and quiet their phone and computer apps. 

I juggle teaching online, running a graphic design and instructional design agency, and am a caretaker to three children. One time not long ago, I also was finishing my doctorate degree. I am no stranger to juggling a multitude of competing priorities and distractions. One tip I give students is to use the Eisenhower method. Do the hardest activity first. Another time-management solution is the Pomodoro technique. I have students work in short 25-minute bursts on one task, free from distraction. We are all guilty of multi-tab browsing. But if students can keep only the online classroom tab open at one time, they can make a dent in the assignment. 

I also share a calendar and give a suggested timeline on how to tackle what is due. 

Some students will tell you they struggle with anxiety or depression. But even if they don’t, teachers can often receive signs that a student is definitely struggling. The current pandemic has only made this pressure worse. Students may turn to drugs, alcohol, or other coping mechanisms. They may have lost their job or feel overwhelmed by obligations. Either way, if a student is struggling and in danger of hurting themselves or others, instructors can suggest they speak to the school psychologist or social worker or to their academic advisor for a referral. Often institutions have a policy on who and where to call in emergencies. Be aware of those policies and be ready to follow them quickly. 

What to do about a struggling student

I recently began to survey students prior to teaching so I can assess possible obstacles and act accordingly. Recently, I learned that 56% of my students were also working at least 20 hours a week. More than half my students also considered themselves to be a caretaker for at least one other person. These statistics helped me to customize guidance and support to help them manage competing priorities. 

Instructors need to discover ways to pull students in and engage them. Online instructors must embrace technology and use it to help attract and capture the students’ attention, pique their interest in learning, and show them how to interact with content in multiple ways. Hands-on activities, videos, discussion boards, lessons, and chats are just a few ways you can build memorable experiences that meet a variety of learner needs. 

A survey can be a tool to gauge student learning styles and to learn their preferred communication mode. Outreach will be a regular part of your job as an online instructor. So, before you send a hundred emails, find out if that student even checks email. You may have better luck engaging them through the app or a text message. Keep track of outreach and preferred methods. Pinpoint why students struggle and quickly offer the resources they need to overcome their obstacles. For example, if students are having a hard time viewing recorded live chats on their phone, give them the tech support number. Then ask them to provide you with the help-desk ticket number so you can follow up and advocate on their behalf. 

I have coached students by phone and found they often just need a bit of confidence, some technical help, or advice on managing time. Instructors can offer an empathetic ear and be ready to point students in the right direction. 


Online students can be hard to spot, but using the information in this guide and reaching out in a timely way can help them adjust to an online modality. In addition, new online instructors should use campus resources to help struggling students. Institutions often have centers for teaching and learning and can train faculty to create, revise, and teach their online courses, and acquaint them with the learning management system and software. Professional development can be found in a variety of sources, but recently migrated online instructors can benefit greatly by seeking out training and support that help them to retain students and enhance their success.

Check out The Center for Higher Education Leadership — we offer simple online faculty development, online courses, mentoring and coaching!

About the author

Dr. Dawn Lee DiPeri, MFA, DM has been teaching, writing, designing, and developing courses for the online, face-to-face, and hybrid modalities since 2012. She has taught courses ranging from graphic design, interpersonal communications, and new media. Dawn is a current and active researcher as well as co-owner of East End Advertising, which is a graphic and instructional design agency that specializes in the education, non-profit, and healthcare sectors. Dawn has written for academic journals, newspapers, and magazines mainly on the topics of education and workforce development.

Join to newsletter.

Curabitur ac leo nunc vestibulum.

Thank you for your message. It has been sent.
There was an error trying to send your message. Please try again later.

Continue Reading

Get a personal consultation.

Call us today at (555) 802-1234

Request a Quote

Aliquam dictum amet blandit efficitur.