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  • Writer's pictureTheresa Capra

Find a Friend: How to Support High-Need Students in Remote Classrooms

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Addressing the needs of at-risk students requires specific instructional techniques. Community college professors are particularly skilled in this area due to the high number of underprepared entrants. As courses move remote, an important question to consider is: can academically vulnerable students be successful in virtual courses? And if so, how? A simple start might be to help them find a friend.


Remote learning will likely be a challenge for the majority of students because it is completely different from traditional instruction. Moreover, the majority of college students do not have adequate experience with instructional technology, or independent learning. When academic struggle is inevitable for the majority, usually the vulnerable minority stand to suffer the most. In higher education, that vulnerable minority is frequently found at community colleges due to open enrollment.

Community colleges tend to enroll students with multiple circumstances that impede their academic success leading to non-completion. These circumstances, or factors, range from low socioeconomic status to academic deficiencies. Accordingly, community college professors are quite accustomed to working with underprepared students. We’ve tailored our teaching to support and engage at-risk students. We’re particularly adept at spotting early struggles. We know how to build rapport for retention and if an unsuccessful outcome is unavoidable, we quickly direct students to the proper channels for future success.

In light of the expansion of remote instruction, important questions to consider are: how can community college professors continue this level of support, and which strategies are best to support at-risk students in virtual classrooms? The starting point is to acknowledge that an instructor cannot support dozens of students alone--it takes a village. With this in mind, here are two easy strategies that can support high need students in remote courses.

Plan learning communities

The term learning community is used interchangeably in education. In a casual sense, it can simply mean people engaged in a shared learning experience. In a more formal sense, it means the purposeful structuring of curriculum and courses to build a cohort of learners with similar goals. In traditional classrooms, an informal learning community is established immediately when students select a course. They may have different reasons, but they all desire similar outcomes.

Not much planning is needed--the instructor already has an established learning community in front of her and as rapport is built through face-to-face contact, the learning community will flourish. Additionally, students usually develop relationships with their classmates through interactions. Can this be achieved in a remote class when there are no physical meetings? The answer is yes, but a more deliberate approach is needed.

After a week or so into the course, create small teams of learners. Administer an early semester assessment to ascertain course level abilities. This will permit the option to draft teams that balance individual strengths and weaknesses. If that is not appropriate for the course, then consider surveying students about their academic goals and placing them in communities with students who are similar. This may facilitate more camaraderie. Of course teams can be established in a random fashion too--the goal is to create an environment where relationships can form.

The learning communities do not necessarily have to collaborate on a project or summative assessment--the goal is a low-pressure forum. For example, allocate time for the teams to collaborate during synchronous sessions on problems, prompts, and activities. Rather than ad hoc groups or random breakout rooms, learning communities are formed at the outset and remain stable. This is particularly effective for at-risk students who benefit from consistent support beyond the instructor.

Furthermore, peer support has proven to be a powerful predictor of college success beyond GPA. Study groups, peer mentoring, and small cohorts alleviate the pressures of college for at-risk students. Therefore, learning communities in remote classes can achieve achieve these goals.

Try the buddy system

Community college students are very attracted to fully online courses because they are typically nontraditional learners who need a flexible schedule. Despite their attraction, retention and completion are issues--partly because of competing responsibilities, but also because of perceived isolation. It's is much easier to become completely overwhelmed if you feel alone.

The image below shows how activities such as discussion boards facilitate social interactions and cognition. Research shows that underprepared students struggle in fully online courses when the social and peer connections are weak. In that case, learning outcomes are largely tied to the instructor and if that connection is weak or broken, a student’s personal obligations, depicted in the image as personal factors, consume perseverance. That’s a tall order for an online instructor--to carry the learning experience for each student separately--like leading multiple independent studies. That's why learning communities are vital for distance education.

Learning Experience in Fully Online Courses for Community College Studets

The same is true for remote courses--social and cognitive experiences must be properly designed and cultivated by instructors to ward off the social abyss. Learning communities can bring students together during synchronous sessions to foster fellowship. However, the overall lack of experience with remote learning may call for an even more contrived and intimate approach. One strategy is to develop a buddy system, even if it sounds elementary.

Early in the semester, pair students up as class buddies--they can lean on each for questions, opinions, feedback on assignments, lessons, etc. A remote homework buddy of sorts. This is also a great way for an instructor to keep tabs on students and develop a sense of classroom trust. If a student begins to flounder, it may be easier to intervene.

Inevitably, some students may withdraw so the buddy roster is unlikely to remain clean. Pairs may have to be reassigned and shuffled as needed, but it is still better to establish those early relationships even if they do not always endure--many will. Moreover, differentiation of the social dynamics can increase the success of at-risk students in remote courses, especially ones who do not have prior experience with virtual learning.

The goal is not to create a best friends forever club. The idea is to plant social interactions throughout the course to support students in virtual classrooms. It might even make your job easier!


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