Canvas Spotlight

How to Help Struggling Students

Last updated on September 26, 2023

In the vast ocean of higher education, many students find themselves feeling like castaways on a deserted island, isolated and struggling to find a way back to the mainland of understanding and success. Just as a stranded individual requires tools and support to survive and eventually be rescued, these students need tailored resources and assistance to navigate the challenging academic waters and reach their full potential.

It’s important not to view struggling students as a uniform population – different students may be struggling for different reasons. Since the ultimate reasons for their struggles may differ they might require a different intervention to help bolster their performance. It’s also important to consider that online education presents a unique learning environment and, therefore, it’s vital we give all students an array of tools to help scaffold their learning from beginning to end. The strategies and tools introduced later in this spotlight will present you with a return on investment; they take little time to employ but have the potential to yield a significant impact on student performance.

So, what are these tools and strategies? Some tried and true methods that work for all courses include the application of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and building support into your course, such as using the Canvas features, Message Students Who, and New Analytics, as well as office hours and flexible deadlines. Each of these features can be customized to meet your needs, and when used correctly, will absolutely improve student outcomes. Let’s now take a look at the different methods and how they can work for you.

Best Practices

How can I build support into my course?

  • UDL is a series of design standards that focus on presenting content in multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression. This design framework helps to increase the chances that struggling students will find a method that works best for them. Let these design standards work for you — here’s more information about UDL design standards from the CAST website.
  • Feedback from instructors offers students clear guidance to improve their work. Selecting the appropriate type of feedback based on the situation ensures that students can effectively absorb, process, and apply the suggestions in a meaningful manner. For more information, please see our Vary Feedback Methods in Canvas Spotlight article on the various types of feedback, and when they are appropriate to use.
  • Certain tools such as Message Students Who are specialized communication tools you can use to funnel your communications to certain students based on their performance on a graded item in the course. Other tools such as New Analytics provide insights into individual student performance and engagement in your course. This data helps instructors identify and address struggling students more effectively.
  • This entirely depends on your course policies, but it’s important to give students the opportunity to make up content via deadline extensions on graded work in Canvas, provided that they have a reason. Make sure to clearly advertise under what circumstances a deadline extension is allowed via the syllabus. And, make sure to reiterate those points in a Canvas Announcement prior to the important exams, assignments, and projects in the course. For more information, please see our article Extending Deadlines for Excused Work.

How Can I Enhance My Course Presence and Communication?

  • An instructor’s active presence in an online course is vital for student success and motivation. It ensures that you communicate at the right time and plan out how you want to communicate to students and under which circumstances you want to communicate using those methods. Remember, consistency in both the type of communication and the schedule will help maximize the effectiveness of the methods that you will choose to employ.
  • Each student may have any number of reasons why they don’t engage with the material. Using your office hours can be an effective way to find out more about a student’s circumstances and discuss the best ways to solve their unique struggles. However, it’s not enough to just have office hours. Make sure to advertise them! Our recommendation is to create a periodic Canvas Announcement throughout the semester reminding them of when your office hours are.

How Can My Support be Effective?

  • To determine what kind of support you offer, it’s important to ask some questions: Are the learners brand new to higher education, or are they several years into the program? Is the course you are teaching solely for a certain major or is the course more widely available to other majors? The answers to those questions can and should determine what kind of and how many support methods you use. To give an example, here’s a case of an instructor who recorded Canvas support videos and introduced students to different learning styles
  • Being approachable is essential for instructors. When students feel comfortable approaching you, your support becomes even more impactful. Understand that for some students seeking help can be daunting. Always emphasize and reassure them that reaching out to you is a positive and encouraged step. A few methods to appear more approachable include periodically sharing personal or professional anecdotes with the class and personalizing emails to individual students. If you humanize yourself in your correspondence, they can connect with you and will be more likely to approach you with any issues throughout the semester.
  • Feedback is a great tool for students to use to improve their grasp of the course content. Make sure you time your feedback so it can used to scaffold their understanding on the rest of the course activities and assessments. Remember, no one learns the same way, so don’t insist that the feedback needs to be timed with only directly relevant assessments and activities. Something you could tell them might help them understand an adjacent concept and get them back on track.

Let’s Walk Through it Together


Adjust Deadlines as Needed

It’s important to allow struggling students the opportunity to get back on track, one effective method is to push deadlines back in the course for them. Here are the steps to extend availability dates in assignments for a particular student:

  1. Navigate to the Module with the assignment with the due date you wish to extend.
  2. Open the Assignment
  3. Click Edit (pencil icon) at the top right. 
  4. Scroll to Assign at the bottom of the screen.
  5. Click + Add.
  6. Select the Student you wish to extend the due date for.
  7. Add the New Due Date.
  8. Add Available From and Until dates, as necessary.
  9. Click Save.

Extending availability dates for discussion, classic quizzes, and new quizzes require slightly different steps. Please see the Extending Deadlines for Excused Work article for details.

Use Message Students Who to Target Communications Based on Performance

To use the tool:

  1. Go to MSU Denver’s Faculty and Staff Hub.
  2. Click Canvas in the Teaching & Learning section.
  3. Log in to your Canvas Account.
  4. Select the Course you’d like to work in.
  5. Click on Grades from the Course Navigation Menu on the left.
  6. Select the Assignment you wish to message students about.
  7. Click on the More Options Menu (three vertical dots) next to the assignment title in the column heading.
  8. Select Message Students Who.
  9. Choose which Group of Students you wish to send a Canvas message to.
    • Note: Options include Haven’t Submitted Yet, Haven’t Been Graded, Scored Less Than, and Scored More Than.
  10. Type a Score if you selected Scored Less Than or Scored More Than.
  11. Click the X next to the name of any students you wish to exclude from the Canvas message.
  12. Type a Subject Line for the message.
  13. Type a Message for the body of the message.
  14. Click Send Message.

Check New Analytics to Monitor Student Activity

There are many different approaches you can use to monitor student activity in the Canvas course, for the purposes of giving you a useful glimpse into the potential of the tool I will provide you with a use case – how to look up the activity for a specific student in your course. To look up the activity for a specific student in your course using New Analytics:

  1. Select the Course you’d like to work in.
  2. Click New Analytics in the left-hand navigation menu.
  3. Click the Weekly Activity tab along the top of the page.
    • You will see two line graphs breaking down page views and student participation by week.
  4. Hover your cursor over a Data Point on either graph to see Average and Total Page Views/Participations for the week beginning on that day on the graph.
  5. Click a Data Point on either graph to see a full breakdown by student of their number of page views or participations.
  6. Click on a Student to see further information on their Course Grades, Weekly Online Activity, and Communications.