Strategies for Mentoring Online Students

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In this month's Mentor Forum, we hear from Debbie Lynch, our Outreach Coordinator for Mentors about the important role that mentors play in online learning and some strategies for connecting with and supporting online students.
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Mentors play a critical role in helping online students navigate through their virtual learning journey.

In fact, research shows that students who are assigned a mentor are twice as likely to pass their online courses (Roblyer, Davis, Mills, Marshall, & Pape, 2008).

Why is this?

Because the mentor is the eyes and ears of the online instructor, and frequently the mentor knows the students better than anyone else.

To help online learners succeed, it is imperative that mentors communicate on a consistent basis with online instructors regarding student progress, and it is also the mentor’s responsibility to communicate with parents.

When the mentor, instructor, and parents all work together, it’s a much more powerful student support team. Each party needs to work together to help the students in their journey to become self-directed, independent learners!

In this article, we share tips and tricks for how mentors can establish clear expectations for their students, keep students on pace, set up their classroom, and communicate with their students.

Establishing Clear Expectations

What are some ways to help your students succeed?

  • Setting the tone at the beginning of the year by establishing clear expectations of your students and what they can expect from you is a great place to begin.
  • Passing out a syllabus on day one is a great way for students to understand their online class is just as important as their face-to-face classes with similar expectations.

Teenagers are very tech-savvy, but they often view technology as entertainment, so when they take an educational online course, they may struggle in the beginning.

This is where a mentor can really help the students understand how to navigate their course in the first few weeks and help get them on the right path.

Helping Students Stay On Pace

Most online courses have a pacing guide so the students know what they should be working on daily and weekly. Having other stages of accountability or goals, in addition to pacing guides, is another way to help students succeed.

Break it down into goals

One way to accomplish this is to break down your trimester or semester into four goals.

For example, let’s use Weeks 4, 7, 11, and 15 as goal weeks. Set a date for each of the four goals and have an expectation that the students be at a certain place in their pacing guide or course by each goal.

This will allow the students to know they are on pace to finish the course on time and alleviate any scrambling at the end of the term. Established goals can also be communicated to parents for extra reinforcement.

Help them manage their time

Some schools allow students the right to work off-site if their grade is above a certain percentage, such as 80%. This is a great incentive for students to stay on pace and do well in their courses.

Students frequently struggle with time management and self-directed learning. As a result, making sure students are logging in daily and spending quality time in their class is essential to their success.

Meet with them weekly

Meeting with students once a week to discuss their pacing and progress in their course is another way to hold students accountable and a great way to build relationships! During these weekly meetings, ask the student what they need to help them be successful.

To a student, having several months to complete a class can seem like an eternity.

Thus, it is important for mentors to make sure the students have a clear understanding that they need to work in their online course every day just as they would for any of their face-to-face classes.

In some online classes, a student’s gradebook will show all of their assignments in one giant list and this can be very overwhelming and even stressful for some students. In a face-to-face class, the students don’t see how many assignments they have to complete for an entire trimester/semester. This is where the online course pacing guide and other accountability steps you put in place will help alleviate that stress.

Setting Up Your Classroom

If you’re fortunate enough to see your students every day, it is important to create a welcoming and supportive learning environment for your students.

Why?

Because most students will be taking different online courses, so their needs may be different.

Some students will have certain technology requirements such as headphones, webcams, and/or software programs. It is important to make sure these requirements are taken care of right away.

Seating students together that are taking the same course can be very beneficial as I found my students started asking each other for help, which was very powerful to watch!

Communicating With Your Students

If you don’t see your students on a regular basis, how are you communicating with them?

There are several tools available to use.

I found that using Remind was a great way to keep in touch with my students individually or as a whole group.

I communicated with my students using Remind about upcoming deadlines or if I needed to send an individual student a message. I almost always received an immediate response as Remind goes to the students’ cell phones as a text message.

This tool can also be used for your weekly communication with your students to discuss pacing and progress and when collecting count day information for those 2-way communication logs!

As a mentor, advocating for your students is important, and it also teaches your students to be an advocate for themselves.

In today’s world, we make it very convenient to go about our business without having to speak to another human being. As mentors, one of the most important things we can do is to encourage students to contact their online instructors when they are struggling or have a question (if they have an online instructor teaching their course).

If your students are struggling in their online course, it’s important to teach them to send a clear message about the difficulties they are having so instructors can help them more efficiently.

These are best practices taken from research and mentors from the field. There are many ways to create a positive learning environment to help your students become successful online learners!

For more on supporting online students, visit our blog on Setting Up Online Learners for Success or download our Mentor Guide for Online Learning.

References

Roblyer, M. D., Davis, L., Mills, S. C., Marshall, J., & Pape, L. (2008). Toward practical procedures for predicting and promoting success in virtual school students. American Journal of Distance Education, 22(2), 90–109.

The Mentor Forum

In our new Mentor Forum blog series, we lead a discussion each month about the role of mentors and mentoring in K-12 digital learning. Our hope with this series is to highlight the importance of mentoring, provide valuable resources, and further the discussion on best practices for mentoring online learners. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

Debbie Lynch

Debbie Lynch

Debbie’s passion is teaching and mentoring! She joined Michigan Virtual in January 2010 as a part-time instructor. She taught business and technology at the high school and college level for 33 years. She was also a mentor and online coordinator for 8 years at the high school level.  Debbie has a Bachelor of Science and Master’s degree from Central Michigan University. Debbie is excited to be able to affect even more students in her new role as Outreach Coordinator for Mentors.

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