Key Strategies for Supporting Disengaged and Struggling Students: An Interview With A Researcher


In an era where virtual learning is becoming increasingly prevalent, understanding the best practices for engaging students online is crucial. Researchers at the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) have conducted a comprehensive study to uncover effective strategies used by virtual educators, particularly those that help disengaged and struggling students succeed. 

The following interview shares some highlights from this research.

Why was it important to examine effective practices in virtual learning environments, especially for struggling students?

The shift to emergency remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a significant disparity in the success of virtual learning implementations. Schools with pre-existing, well-established virtual teaching practices fared much better. We wanted to identify what made these programs successful and how new virtual teachers and administrators could adopt these practices to better engage all students, particularly those who are disengaged or struggling.

What were some of the key strategies identified for engaging disengaged or struggling students in virtual environments?

One of the most frequently used and effective strategies was providing frequent and specific feedback, which was reported by nearly 79% of educators. This type of feedback not only supports academic progress but also helps in building strong teacher-student relationships. Additionally, involving other adults, such as onsite mentors and parents, was idenfied as being crucial. Around 69% of educators communicated with the student’s onsite mentor, and 61% encouraged parental involvement. These strategies help bridge the gap created by the lack of physical presence in virtual learning.

Communication seems to be a recurring theme. Can you elaborate on the importance of communication in virtual learning environments?

Absolutely. Communication is the backbone of virtual education. Effective communication strategies include maintaining regular contact through various channels like LMS messaging, phone calls, and web conferencing tools. Many educators also emphasized the importance of being available for students through scheduled office hours or drop-in times. Establishing clear communication channels helps ensure that students, parents, and educators are on the same page, which is vital for student engagement and success.

The study also looked at professional development for virtual educators. What sources of professional development were found to be most effective?

Our findings showed that optional opportunities provided by the virtual school or program were considered the most effective, with over 50% of educators endorsing them. Conferences and informal peer mentoring were also highly valued. These professional development sources are preferred because they are immediately applicable and foster a sense of community among educators, which is essential for sharing best practices and support.

What challenges did educators face in virtual teaching, particularly in connecting with disengaged students?

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of face-to-face interaction, which makes it difficult to read body language and establish personal connections. This physical separation also complicates identifying the specific reasons behind a student’s disengagement. Additionally, educators mentioned difficulties in effectively communicating with parents and guardians, who are crucial allies in supporting student engagement and progress.

Based on your research, what recommendations would you give to new virtual teachers working with disengaged or struggling students?

Focus on building strong relationships with your students from the beginning. Use frequent, specific feedback to show students that you care about their progress. Keep open channels of communication and be flexible with your teaching methods to accommodate diverse learning needs. Also, involve parents and onsite mentors whenever possible to create a supportive network around the student. Flexibility, patience, and a personalized approach are key.

The insights from this study underscore the importance of tailored strategies, consistent communication, and community support in virtual learning environments. By focusing on relationship-building, providing specific feedback, and involving parents and mentors, educators can significantly improve engagement and success for all students, especially those who struggle. As virtual learning continues to evolve, these findings offer a valuable roadmap for educators seeking to enhance their practices and better support their students in a digital age.

Picture of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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