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Key Strategies for Supporting Disengaged and Struggling Students in Virtual Learning Environments

Published on June 3, 2024
This study delves into effective strategies used by virtual programs and teachers to support disengaged and struggling students, noting significant overlap with strategies for all students and highlighting the critical roles of parental and mentor support, intervention, and communication. The report covers strategies employed by experienced virtual teachers, programmatic supports, professional development sources, and considerations for supporting virtual learners.

Suggested Citation

DeBruler, K. & Harrington, C. (2024). Key Strategies for Supporting Disengaged and Struggling Students in Virtual Learning Environments. Michigan Virtual. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/key-strategies-for-supporting-disengaged-and-struggling-students-in-virtual-learning-environments/

• Experienced virtual educators use a variety of strategies to support struggling students but place particular emphasis on providing frequent and specific feedback. These educators also report leveraging the on-site support of mentors and parents to help re-engage students.

• When asked to provide advice for new virtual teachers, experienced virtual educators emphasized keeping lines of communication open and focusing on building relationships with students. Educators also encouraged flexibility and working with students and their families.

• As in previous reports, educators reported a preference for professional development that included interaction with their colleagues. Optional school-provided professional development, in-person conferences, and informal peer mentoring were rated as the most effective forms of professional development for virtual teachers.

Abstract

This study identifies effective strategies that virtual teachers and programs employ with disengaged and struggling students. Virtual teachers reported using a variety of strategies with struggling students, among the most often used were providing frequent and specific feedback, and leveraging the support of adults close to the student. Virtual educators also provided advice for new virtual teachers and discussed the challenges they face online. The report concludes by highlighting programmatic considerations for effectively supporting virtual learners.

Introduction and Need for the Study

During and following the shift to emergency remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at Michigan Virtual identified that schools and districts that had already implemented effective virtual teaching and learning practices before the COVID-19 outbreak experienced greater degrees of success in this transition than their counterparts. Teachers and school leaders of established virtual schools and programs had already invested time and energy in the development of effective pedagogical skills needed to help students achieve success in virtual or remote learning environments. Following this observation, researchers set out to identify these effective practices used frequently with teachers and students. 

The first study, conducted by researchers at Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI), further aimed to provide promising practices for teachers and school administrators new to teaching and leading in a virtual or remote learning environment to understand how they could better engage students.

The present study is a continuation of that work, digging deeper to identify effective strategies that virtual programs and teachers employ with disengaged and struggling students. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap between strategies used for all students and those frequently used with disengaged students–with a few caveats, including but not limited to the pronounced role of parental and mentor support and intervention as well as the profound effectiveness of communication. The following report discusses strategies that experienced virtual teachers use with struggling or disengaged students, programmatic supports for said students, sources of professional development for virtual teachers, and concludes by highlighting programmatic considerations for effectively supporting virtual learners. 

Methodology

This qualitative study utilized an online survey to collect data from 296 virtual educators (269 teachers and 27 supervising administrators) representing 10 statewide virtual schools or programs with considerable experience delivering virtual courses and serving thousands of students annually. As with our previous reports, it is important to note that the participants in this study were employed by virtual schools with well-established virtual learning programs, professional learning processes, and teacher supervision practices developed and refined over several years. The findings of this study represent an immense collection of knowledge and experience related to virtual teaching and learning across the United States.

The online survey was developed in the summer of 2023, and data were collected in the fall and winter of 2023. The data were compiled and analyzed throughout the spring of 2024, responses that came in after the survey collection cut-off point were excluded from the analysis. The resulting report was made publicly available to all schools and districts in the summer of 2024.

A vast majority of educators (74% of teachers and administrators) served students at the high school level (grades 9-12). Approximately half of the educators surveyed had 10 or more years of experience as a teacher or administrator, and an additional 23% had between 6 and 10 years of experience. A majority of educators (79%) were part-time teachers, 12% were full-time, and 9% were administrators. Most educators (88%) reported that they primarily provided asynchronous instruction. 

Limitations of the Study

​​As with the previous reports in this series, the findings of this study represent the perceptions of teachers and supervising administrators of well-established statewide virtual schools and programs. While the study intends to share promising practices with teachers and administrators new to teaching and leading within virtual learning environments, the practices are not generalizable to all schools in the United States as the participants of this study are working within mature virtual learning programs that have formal structures and supports for teachers and administrators to serve students and families in virtual learning environments.

Discussion of the Findings

Student Engagement Strategies 

Educators reported using various strategies in their online courses to support disengaged or struggling learners. Over 55% of educators reported using 13 of the 22 strategies listed, with at least a quarter of educators reporting that they use all but two of these strategies. Similar to previous reports, the most common strategy is providing frequent and specific feedback. In our report on engaging students in virtual learning environments, we discuss how feedback serves dual purposes of being the primary method of communication and relationship-building and supporting students’ academic progress. 

Two strategies that more than 60% of educators reported using involve communicating with and leveraging the support of adults close to the student. Nearly 70% of educators report that when faced with disengaged or struggling students, they communicate with the student’s onsite mentor, whereas 60% indicated that, in these cases, they encourage parental involvement. This is intuitive as even the most engaged and effective virtual teachers may have difficulty reaching severely disengaged students given the lack of physical proximity. Engaging another adult who is close to the student can help to “bridge this gap.” Table 1 provides a breakdown of the student engagement strategies used by virtual educators.  

Table 1. 

Student Engagement Strategies Used by Virtual Educators

StrategyCount of Educators% of Educators
I provide frequent and specific feedback23378.7%
I communicate with the student’s on-site mentor20468.9%
I make myself available to students through scheduled office hours or “drop-in” hours20067.6%
I provide clear instructions for assignments19164.5%
I provide supplementary materials (online tutorials, instructional videos, additional reading materials)18562.5%
I provide supplementary visual aids (graphics, diagrams, videos)18261.5%
I encourage parental involvement18060.8%
I provide clear course expectations17559.1%
I celebrate small student victories17458.8%
I offer regular asynchronous check-ins16555.7%
I try to cultivate a strong interpersonal relationship with the student16355.1%
I try to coordinate additional support for students16054.1%
I offer 1:1 support such as tutoring15452.0%
I utilize student progress monitoring tools within the LMS13846.6%
I use real-world examples12742.9%
I provide differentiating/individualizing instruction11739.5%
I offer regular synchronous check-ins11137.5%
I provide personalized remediation opportunities10435.1%
I provide frequent opportunities for formative assessments9532.1%
I develop personalized learning plans7324.7%
I provide opportunities for self-reflection6421.6%
I use gamification (points, badges, leaderboards)206.8%

Educators were also given the opportunity to report strategies they used with disengaged and struggling students that were not listed on the survey. When asked about strategies they used that were not listed, educators reported a variety of strategies. Several responded that they used audio/video recordings within their courses and to message students. One educator noted,

“[I] Add video explanation for students upon request or as I see they need a different method for gaining information or more detailed explanations.”

Others mentioned texting students regarding their course progress/grade updates or using external software or websites to “gamify” or incentivize students. Educators frequently mentioned texting students, such as this educator who stated,

“I am sure to touch base via SMS (text message) with all my students weekly.”

Several educators reported offering group tutoring sessions, “meet and greets” open to all students, and connecting with parents weekly. As one educator noted,

“I provide opportunities just to socialize and build our community of learners (sneaking in some connection to the content too).”

Educators also highlighted the significance of involving parents/guardians in the process, ensuring they are aware of student progress, areas of improvement, and the teacher’s availability for support. Many educators also took this opportunity to discuss their personalized approach to engaging students through building supportive teacher-student relationships and learning about the student as an individual, beyond academics. Educators reported specific actions such as celebrating student victories, offering encouragement, and communicating through the students’ preferred channels with one educator stating, 

“[I] show them I am a real person through a cheery attitude when on camera, personalized well-worded feedback, and text emoticons in personal communications to make up for lack of tone.”

Overall, the responses underscored the multifaceted nature of engaging students virtually, emphasizing the importance of tailored approaches, consistent communication, and integrating personal touches to foster a supportive learning environment. These strategies go beyond conventional methods, focusing on building rapport, providing timely feedback, and creating opportunities for interaction and participation, ultimately aiming to enhance student motivation and success in virtual settings.

Table 2.
Most Effective Student Engagement Strategies Used by Educators

StrategyCount of Educators% of Educators
I provide frequent and specific feedback14047.3%
I communicate with the student’s on-site mentor7124.0%
I provide supplementary materials (online tutorials, instructional videos, additional reading materials)6823.0%
I encourage parental involvement6622.3%
I offer regular asynchronous check-ins6220.9%
I make myself available to students through scheduled office hours or “drop-in” hours5117.2%
I provide supplementary visual aids (graphics, diagrams, videos)4715.9%
I try to cultivate a strong interpersonal relationship with the student4515.2%
I provide clear instructions for assignments4314.5%
I offer 1:1 support such as tutoring4314.5%
I provide clear course expectations3110.5%
I celebrate small student victories3010.1%
I try to coordinate additional support for students289.5%
I use real-world examples227.4%
I offer regular synchronous check-ins217.1%
I utilize student progress monitoring tools within the LMS217.1%
I provide frequent opportunities for formative assessments144.7%
I develop personalized learning plans134.4%
I provide personalized remediation opportunities134.4%
I provide differentiating/individualizing instruction124.1%
I use gamification (points, badges, leaderboards)41.4%
I provide opportunities for self-reflection31.0%

Educators were also asked to select the three strategies they found most effective and used most frequently. While Table 2 highlights the strategies that educators used most frequently, the strategies educators found most effective closely mapped to these results. Overwhelmingly educators reported using frequent and specific feedback as a key strategy for supporting disengaged or struggling students with nearly 50% reporting this is a key strategy. While educators reported using strategies such as communicating with a student’s mentor or parent (24%) and providing supplemental materials (23%), providing frequent and specific feedback was utilized much more often (46%). 

Student Engagement Strategies for New Virtual Teachers

Educators were asked what strategies they would recommend to new virtual teachers working with disengaged or struggling students. Educators time and again highlighted the importance of communication in keeping students engaged and on track in their virtual courses. They stressed the importance of establishing open channels of communication, including using preferred methods of communication and providing frequent opportunities for check-ins or progress updates. As one educator stated,

“Keep communicating and building relationships with your students. Once they believe you are there for them even at a distance, they are more likely to do the work and take pride in their accomplishments.”

For new virtual teachers, veteran virtual educators also recommend focusing on building teacher-student relationships (for a detailed breakdown of this see our other report on key strategies for engaging students in virtual learning environments) and demonstrating genuine care for the student’s progress. Educators recommended using personalized feedback as a key strategy to building these relationships, ensuring that students receive specific, detailed, positive feedback on their assignments. One educator noted,

“Building relationships from the beginning is crucial, as is setting clear expectations from the beginning about how the experience should look from the student’s perspective. The amount of time they should expect to spend in the course as well as strategies that set them up for success and what they should do when they need help should be spelled out for students and parents from the beginning.”

Finally, educators discussed the importance of flexibility. Educators reported on the utility of offering alternative assignments, options to redo or make up assignments, and flexible schedules to accommodate diverse student needs. This also includes providing a variety of learning materials such as text, videos, graphics, hands-on activities, etc. as discussed by these educators,

“Practice “rigid flexibility”….meaning be ready to change course set up, content delivery, strategies, etc… as soon as you see data/evidence that shows your set up is not producing the desired student outcomes.”

“Be patient and really try to get to know your students. It will pay off in the long run. Set time aside each day for you to get your grading and communicating done with students. Be flexible. Not all students are going to have the same access to the internet as others. Some have dedicated hours of the day at their in-person school where they work. Others work from home.”

Challenges of Virtual Teaching

Educators were also given the opportunity to discuss the most prominent challenges they faced when transitioning to teaching virtually. The first notable challenge revolved around the difficulty of connecting with disengaged or failing students in a virtual environment. Despite their best efforts, teachers expressed frustration over the lack of face-to-face interaction, which prevents them from reading body language, easily establishing personal connections, and quickly regaining student attention. Educators reported that this absence of physical presence also makes it challenging to identify the specific reasons for student disengagement, which makes it especially difficult to tailor inventions. This sentiment was discussed by these educators who stated,

“Not seeing the students every day and being a part of their lives. No matter what amount of connecting you try to do in the virtual environment, it just isn’t the same.”

“The biggest challenge is making connections with students so they know you care and they are motivated to work.”

Further, educators highlighted the challenge of establishing effective communication with parents and guardians. They described unresponsive students and parents, incorrect contact information, and an overall lack of parental involvement. Overall, the consensus among educators seems to be that the transition to virtual teaching presents substantial hurdles in establishing connections, effective communication, and student engagement, particularly with those who are disengaged or struggling academically due to the physical separation between teachers and students. Educators noted, 

“Being able to make that personal connection with schools, facilitators, parents, and students without them being right in front of you.”

“Not seeing your students regularly, some students are hard to reach, some parents are hard to reach.”

Programmatic Strategies for Student Support and Engagement 

To provide a more robust understanding of student engagement and support from multiple levels, administrators were asked to discuss procedures their programs follow for students who are disengaged or failing their virtual course(s). Responses tended to fall into one of the following three categories: emphasizing communication and collaboration, early identification of struggling students, and encouraging parental involvement. 

Emphasizing Communication

Programs reported involving school facilitators, counselors, administrators, and site coordinators/mentors to address student disengagement. Further, administrators discussed the importance of clear communication channels, such as using Learning Management System (LMS) messaging systems, telephone calls, web conferencing tools, and personal visits to ensure that teachers, students, and parents/guardians remain connected and informed. This multi-faceted communication strategy aims to provide ongoing support, clarify expectations, and promptly address any issues related to course progress.

Early Identification of Struggling Students

Second, administrators highlighted the early identification of struggling students. Regular monitoring of student progress allows teachers and administrators to identify signs of disengagement or academic challenges early on. Once identified, intervention plans and individualized learning strategies can be developed to provide personalized support. These plans may involve additional resources, alternative learning methods, tutoring services, or flexible learning options tailored to meet the unique needs of each student. By intervening early and offering targeted support, programs aim to prevent further disengagement and facilitate student success in virtual learning environments.

Encouraging Parental Involvement

Third, many programs emphasize the involvement of parents/guardians in the educational process. Encouraging parental engagement, providing regular progress reports, and seeking parental support in fostering student engagement were commonly reported practices. Programs also reported establishing structured procedures for follow-up actions including meetings with students, parents/guardians, and school coordinators/mentors. This comprehensive approach ensures that all stakeholders are actively involved in addressing student disengagement, fostering a collaborative effort to support students in virtual courses effectively.

Sources of Educators’ Professional Learning 

Educators were also asked to identify the professional development sources they frequently utilize and those they perceive as the most effective. The data in Table 3 reveals a wide array of development opportunities available to educators, with a preference for optional opportunities offered by their virtual school or program, as noted by 70.6% of respondents. Similarly, conferences and mandatory school-provided programs were also heavily utilized, indicating a robust network of resources available to educators.

Table 3.
Sources of Educators’ Professional Learning

Source of Professional DevelopmentCount of Educators% of Educators
Optional opportunities provided by my virtual school/program20970.6%
Conferences (in-person or virtual)14649.3%
Mandatory opportunities provided by my virtual school/program14047.3%
Webinars provided by educational organizations12943.6%
Online courses provided by educational organizations12742.9%
Informal peer mentoring with colleagues10936.8%
Formal peer mentoring with colleagues7124.0%
Graduate coursework through a college or university3712.5%
Undergraduate coursework through a college or university3612.2%
Social media299.8%
Other72.4%

The perceived effectiveness of these professional development sources, as detailed in Table 4, closely aligns with their usage rates (as shown above in Table 3). Over 50% of educators endorsed optional school-provided opportunities as the most effective, underscoring their critical role in virtual educator support. Conferences and informal peer mentoring were also highlighted for their substantial impact, with 44.6% and 36.5% of educators respectively finding these methods beneficial. These findings emphasize the value of immediate, applicable, and peer-supported learning opportunities in the virtual teaching context.

However, traditional and formal educational pathways like graduate and undergraduate courses were less frequented and ranked lower in perceived effectiveness. Only a small fraction of educators pursued these routes, and even fewer regarded them as among the most effective. This trend suggests a preference for more direct and practical professional development options that provide immediate benefits in the virtual classroom environment.

Overall, the survey illustrates a clear preference for diverse and accessible professional development opportunities that are not only readily applicable but also foster a sense of community and collaboration among virtual educators. These methods, particularly those that encourage active participation and peer interaction, are crucial for effectively engaging and re-engaging students in the virtual educational landscape. This approach not only enhances the teaching capabilities of educators but also significantly contributes to the overall success of students in virtual settings. For more on virtual educator professional development, please see our report on key strategies for supporting teachers in virtual learning environments.  

Table 4.
Most Effective Sources of Teachers Professional Development

Professional Development SourceCount of Educators% of Educators
Optional opportunities provided by my virtual school/program14950.3%
Conferences (in-person or virtual)13244.6%
Informal peer mentoring with colleagues10836.5%
Online courses provided by educational organizations8328.0%
Mandatory opportunities provided by my virtual school/program7425.0%
Webinars provided by educational organizations7224.3%
Formal peer mentoring with colleagues4916.6%
Graduate coursework through a college or university175.7%
Social media82.7%
Other82.7%
Undergraduate coursework through a college or university41.4%

Key Takeaways & Conclusion

Our original aim with this research was to provide promising practices for teachers and school administrators new to teaching and leading in a virtual or remote learning environment to understand how they could better engage students. After two surveys, with nearly 2,000 responses from virtual teachers and administrators, the following practices emerged as crucial considerations for virtual teaching and virtual program administration. 

  • Prioritize Teacher-Student Relationships: The most effective way to engage students and keep them engaged is to focus on and provide support for developing teacher-student relationships. 
  • Establish Clear Communication Channels: Use LMS messaging systems, telephone calls, web conferencing tools, and personal visits to maintain regular communication among teachers, students, parents, and administrators.
  • Early Identification and Intervention: Regularly monitor student progress to identify signs of disengagement or academic struggles early on. Develop intervention plans and individualized learning strategies to provide personalized support.
  • Parental Involvement: Encourage parental engagement by providing regular progress reports, seeking parental support in fostering student engagement, and involving parents in decision-making processes.
  • Structured Follow-Up Procedures: Establish structured procedures for follow-up actions, including meetings with students, parents/guardians, and school liaisons to address student disengagement promptly.
  • Provide Additional Support Services: Offer tutoring sessions, peer mentoring programs, teacher-led virtual support hours, and other resources to assist students who need extra help.
  • Flexible Learning Options: Consider adjusting pacing, providing alternative assignments, or offering varied assessment methods to accommodate different learning needs and support student engagement.
  • Professional Development for Teachers: Provide ongoing professional development to equip teachers with the skills and resources necessary to effectively support virtual learners and identify signs of disengagement.
  • Collaborative Approach: Promote collaboration among stakeholders, including school facilitators, counselors, administrators, and site coordinators, to ensure a comprehensive and unified effort in supporting student success.

Considering these practices alongside critical elements such as effective and accessible course design, efficient program operations, supportive teaching, etc, programs can create a supportive and engaging environment for students in virtual courses, helping them overcome challenges, stay motivated, and achieve academic success.

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