Use technology to catch students before they fall

By miranda.prynne, 4 February, 2021
Working remotely with no face-to-face contact is a challenge for many students. May Lim and Li Siong Lim explain how educators can use technology to identify and help struggling students before they fall behind
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As learning continues to take place online, supporting students with their learning and staying connected with them are important. Online learning can be overwhelming when a lot of content and tasks are being posted in cyberspace. A certain level of self-motivation and discipline is needed to stay on track with learning. It is imperative to find ways to help students keep track of their progress and get to know how well they are doing.  

With less face-to-face contact, it can be harder to stay connected with students or to notice students who may be disengaged. As educators, we must adjust our teaching and use technology such as analytics and intelligence tools to catch academically at-risk students before they fail. In this article, we’ll share things that can be done on most learning management systems (LMS) but, more importantly, with a human touch.  

How can we help students keep track of their progress? 

One of the most common ways to help students is the use of knowledge checks such as quizzes and self-assessments. Mini quizzes on the content can be helpful for students to get an idea of whether they have grasped the concepts correctly. Self-assessments are similar to quizzes, but feedback is provided immediately without submission or grades. To avoid over-assessing students, don’t weight all quizzes towards the final grade; the emphasis should be on the feedback and learning.  

The second method is to provide online merit-based awards that promote student achievement, recognition and engagement in learning. Such awards can come in the form of badges or certificates. Badges are visual representations of a skill, progress of learning or experience (for example, completing a series of online learning tasks or achieving academic excellence). Certificates are similar to badges; however, they include a printable record of what has been achieved.  

A few things to consider: 

  • Offer badges for actions that correspond to learning outcomes or skills – ideally, these should be meaningful to students (and their future employers) 

  • Ensure the criteria to earn the badges are clear and rigorous   

  • Design some badges to be unexpected and skills-based, rather than expected and awarded for the completion of a mandatory task 

  • Design some badges as a set (for example, based on an acronym) to encourage students to collect them all 

  • Don’t over-reward – scarcity confers greater value. 

The third method is the use of the intelligence tool on the LMS to send an automated email when instructor-defined criteria are met. For example, an automated personalised email can be sent as a gentle reminder when a student has missed a task or has not accessed the module in several days. On a more positive note, automated email can be sent to congratulate students for doing well, too, such as showing consistency by completing first two weeks of tasks. 

Some tips include: 

  • Provide them with timely feedback and recommended actions to take 

  • Feedback should be actionable and timely, clarify the expectation of performance and be conveyed in a supportive tone 

  • Space out the reminders, and don’t overuse them so students don’t feel spammed. 

Make an effort to check in with students on how helpful these tools are. Their feedback can serve as useful suggestions to help educators adjust. For example, one of our freshmen recently shared: “I personally feel that receiving reminder emails is really helpful. I received two reminders to click in to view the resources, but they were rather spaced out, so I didn’t feel like I was being spammed with reminders. Receiving badges was a little way to encourage us to view the resources earlier, and it also helped me to see that I’m on track and viewing the resources in time.” 

What can we do if a student is falling behind? 

By helping students keep track of their own progress, we hope fewer of them will fall behind.  

Having said that, how do we identify students who are disengaged and falling behind? Can we avoid waiting until they fail a summative assessment? What can we do to help?  

Educators can make use of the tools mentioned above to monitor class progress. For example, they can identify students who are not doing well in self-assessments or have been missing tasks.  

First, decide on the performance indicators (for example, quiz results) as well as the social indicators (such as discussion participation). Second, look out for students who have not visited the module site or course content for a period (for example, an entire week). There are tools on the LMS that can help us keep track of class progress.  

Students are more motivated when they know that their instructor cares about them. It is fair to say that students who are disengaged or unmotivated often need more than automated personalised emails or badges.  

By personally reaching out to these students, offering a chat to check in on progress or to understand their struggles, we can connect with these at-risk students. When students feel and know that they are not just a number or student ID on the university record, they can be more open to seeking early help and support.  

In summary, technology can help educators spot students who are disengaging early before they start falling behind. Beyond the high tech, the high touch is vital for us, as caring educators, to connect with and support students in their learning. 


Dr May Lim is an associate professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology. May is the director of the Centre for Learning Environment and Assessment Development. 

Li Siong Lim is a learning designer at the Singapore Institute of Technology. 

Working remotely with no face-to-face contact is a challenge for many students. May Lim and Li Siong Lim of the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) explain how educators can use technology to identify and help struggling students before they fall behind