Solving the Pacing Puzzle: Supporting Student Progress in K-12 Online Programs

In online learning, effective course pacing is crucial for student success. This blog explores how Michigan Virtual addresses course pacing challenges and develops effective pacing guides to support student learning.

One of the benefits of online learning is that students can work at their own pace. However, not all students have developed the time management skills to work through a course consistently. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research has shown that consistent course pacing results in higher student achievement (DeBruler, 2021). 

To explore course pacing through the lens of an online program administrator, researchers from the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) interviewed Andrea McKay, Director of Instruction for Michigan Virtual in April 2024. The transcript from our interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. During our conversation, we explored how through intentional decisions made by online program administrators and support from both online teachers and on-site mentors, students are guided and supported to stay on pace in their online courses. 

Understanding Course Pacing and Developing Pacing Guides

How is course pacing currently addressed in Michigan Virtual courses? For example, how do you ensure students keep up without feeling rushed?

We provide pacing guides within our courses that show students a week-by-week breakdown of assignments to complete. Our teachers can access and adjust the pacing guide if students get behind and need a new plan to help them catch up. Once students have enrolled, their start date remains the same, and the length of the term remains the same; however, we can adjust the pacing guide so students see what assignments they need to complete within the shorter working time they have as a result of falling behind. 

How do you develop pacing guides for your courses? 

After a course is designed, the pacing guide is developed by splitting up the content and assignments over the number of weeks in the length of the term. Subject matter experts who understand the content and assignment expectations evaluate the pacing guide to ensure the pace is realistic. In addition, our courses are regularly updated which includes re-evaluating the pacing guide and making necessary adjustments. 

Tools for Pacing, Progress Tracking, and Data Utilization

Are there any tools or platforms that Michigan Virtual uses to help students keep pace and track their progress?

Teachers send monthly progress reports to the student, mentor, and parent so everyone understands the student’s course progress. Progress reports are personalized to each student by pulling data from our LMS (Brightspace) and student information system (SIS) such as the number of complete and incomplete assignments, current grade, and total assignments in the course. Some teachers add information such as personalized comments or a reminder of the course end date. For example, “Are you on track to complete the course by [course end date]? With a few adjustments on the back end, this tool within our LMS allows teachers to send these personalized progress reports to their entire course roster. In addition, teachers use our SIS to sort students in a course by start date and, based on that, send timely communication to help keep students on pace. Being able to sort students within a course by start date is very important in terms of accurately tracking student progress as we offer many different course start dates within each semester to better meet school districts’ needs for course start dates to align with their school calendar.

Online Program Course Pacing: Challenges and Solutions

What major challenges do you run into regarding course pacing in an online setting?

One major challenge is grade reporting. A common request from schools is to know a student’s current grade to determine whether that student is eligible to play sports. Unfortunately, the way our systems report students’ scores does not give them that information. In our courses, students start with zero points and build up their total course points with every assessment submitted. We provide an accurate display of their overall score at all times, but it’s not the same as a weekly grade that schools may be more used to. However, adjusting our grade reporting process would result in far fewer start and end date options and reduced flexibility in submission deadlines.

What do you think are the biggest pacing hurdles for students learning online? 

While the flexibility to work at your own pace is a common reason why many students take courses with us, some students need help to learn how to manage their time effectively. If a student gets behind, assignments add up quickly, resulting in a poor learning experience and a mountain of assignments to submit. 

What challenges do teachers face with pacing in their online courses? 

If instructors are overloaded with a flurry of assignment submissions at the end of a course, they cannot provide the same feedback quality while also meeting grading turnaround expectations. The resulting assignment feedback isn’t as effective because those students procrastinating and turning in numerous assignments during the last few weeks are probably not as concerned about whether they didn’t quite meet a learning target, what content they might need to revisit, or how to use and grow from instructor feedback—they’re just trying to get through it. An additional problem when students leave so many assignments for the end of the course is that they might be tempted to take some shortcuts and plagiarize, which turns into another huge headache at the end of a term. We have found the number of plagiarism incidents increases drastically in the last few weeks of a course. As a result, teachers communicate progress regularly and try to keep students on pace. 

Given our recent finding that the extent to which students submit assignments out of order is associated with lower grades, what’s your take on getting students to stick to the order and pace you set out?

Teachers understand that students may choose to complete assignments based on which ones will earn them a higher score more quickly, otherwise known as cherry-picking. Unfortunately, this means that rather than working sequentially through courses designed to scaffold and build skills as students progress, students are sometimes more focused on points than learning. Our teachers recognize this and will reach out to students to get them back on track. 

Pacing: Mentor and Parent Roles

Do mentors and parents play a part in monitoring students’ pacing? What does that collaboration look like?

There is a triangle of student support between the teacher, mentor, and (ideally) the parent as they are a critical component in overall student success (Borup & Stimson, 2017; Borup et al., 2017). Both mentors and parents are copied on progress reports to remain aware of student pace. In addition, specific mentor reports and monitoring tools are available through our LMS, Brightspace, to help mentors support students most effectively. Teachers understand that parents and mentors may know students in ways that they do not, so we all value the roles and support they provide and work hard to establish and maintain open lines of communication. 

Looking Down the Road

Are there any big changes you would like to see or pacing challenges you are preparing for in K-12 online learning?

In addition to continuing to meet districts’ needs for different course start/end dates and providing the flexibility of an adjustable pacing guide, we would love to offer a different view of students’ scores based on current progress and performance as school districts so frequently request it. This is a current limitation of our flexible scheduling options and how they interact with the LMS; however, we are working to find solutions. Despite students having access to a pacing guide and inevitably tallying up points, my other hope is to get to a point where students think more about their learning rather than the points. 

Course Pacing Blog Series

In this Course Pacing Blog Series, we discuss pacing and how it impacts student success with input from several different subject matter experts. Our hope with this series is to bring to light how different organizations and experts approach course pacing, share their insights and struggles, provide relevant research and resources, and determine areas for future research. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!


Borup, J. & Stimson, R. (2017). Helping students be successful: Mentor responsibilities. Michigan Virtual University.  

Borup, J., Chambers, C. B., Stimson, R. (2017). Helping online students be successful: Parental engagement. Michigan Virtual University. 

DeBruler, K. (2021). Research On K-12 Online Best Practices. Michigan Virtual.


The author would like to thank Andrea McKay and Dr. Shannon Smith from Michigan Virtual’s Learning Services team as well as Dr. Kelly Cuccolo and Dr. Kristen DeBruler from the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute for their contributions and advice in developing this blog post.

Picture of Christa Green

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators within and beyond Michigan.

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