woman on the computer looking frustrated

Young students may be open to receiving helpful guidance or critiques from their teachers, but adult learners tend to have a much different perception of their own abilities. (If you doubt this, think about the last time you received criticism or “guidance” from a manager or peer at work. How did you react?)

Therefore, when you see adult learners struggling to understand new concepts or failing to quickly grasp a new training topic, your intervention as an instructor should be implemented appropriately but tactfully.

Nuances to Remember when Assisting Adult Learners

Adults consider themselves to be responsible, so your intervention shouldn’t automatically treat them as though they aren’t.

Adults are more sensitive about being “called out” for their errors, so you should design your intervention to be perceived as facilitative as opposed to authoritative. (For more information on this distinction, consider John Heron’s Six Categories of Intervention.)

Adult learners often work best with specific targets or goals, so clear roadmaps of what each learner should expect during the course will be helpful as clear reference points during any intervention.

That said, any learner regardless of their age or skill level may still struggle with an online training for a wide variety of reasons. If you see that a learner is struggling, intervening sooner than later may be the key to getting that student back on the right track for success.

Here are some best practices to consider when students exhibit learning challenges during a course.

Know WHEN to Intervene

If you intervene too late in a student’s struggles, you risk cementing their unwanted behaviors or substandard learning outcomes. But premature corrective action could disillusion a learner if he or she feels they’re being doubted or micromanaged.

To help you take the pulse of each learner’s progress, use early warning systems like pre-module assessments, mid-point evaluations, and other frequent appraisal techniques to assess when an intervention may be necessary. (When in doubt, acting sooner rather than later will help avert detrimental behaviors faster.)

Know WHAT KIND of Intervention Should Be Used

Making evidence-based decisions is critical to any intervention’s success. Use your “WHEN” (in point 1 above) to determine your WHAT.

For instance, some learning challenges may require interventions in procedural aspects of learning like time management or a quick refresher on a prerequisite topic like how to use a particular piece of software for submitting assignments. Others might call for greater remedial intervention to address more systemic habits. Let your early assessments and tests guide your decision on what specific assistance you need to offer a learner.

Know HOW to Intervene

In most cases, adult learners are adept at self-correction when they realize that they have a learning challenge. Here’s how you can assist this process:

  • Ensure you inform learners about a “challenge” when you notice it. Don’t be vague in your assessment, but point to specific areas that need focus instead.
  • Be aware of any sensitivity around exposing the need for intervention. In some instances, such exposure can have a detrimental impact on a learner’s confidence.
  • Be discrete. This is where private communication may be most helpful, as opposed to attempting to correct someone’s behavior in-class.
  • Offer universal help. If personal discretion isn’t an option, you may prefer to make a universal offer to your entire class: “I’ll be online after class for the next 2 hours. Any students who want to discuss their grades or any of my feedback can contact me [through designated channels].”
  • Be encouraging, not condescending. When providing remedial instruction, it’s important to make your learners feel as though it’s okay for them to struggle with the concept/idea being discussed – “…Incidentally, you’re not the only one in class who needs help with this topic… although you do already seem to understand a lot of it!”

The best way to manage your intervention is to first make sure your learners know right at the outset of a class what they must accomplish. Course outlines and expected learning outcomes help form each learner’s expectations and set a guideline by which they know their own progress will be judged. Timely and appropriate intervention can then go a long way to making learners feel good about their ability to successfully complete your course or training, and your attention will feel more like welcome aid instead of an expression of doubt in their abilities.

Being a Tactful Helper at Work

Workplace learning opportunities are often perceived as privileges that are extended to only the deserving or “special” employees. As such, if a learner falters or does poorly during a course or training, his/her confidence could be severely damaged once he/she returns to the workplace and interacts with other colleagues. This could not only be bad for his/her short-term productivity and morale, but also for that employee’s long-term prospects with your company.

By employing some of the intervention strategies discussed above, your instructors, teachers, and HR managers can gently, tactfully, and promptly step in and mediate or correct a potentially damaging situation. When implemented correctly, the challenged learner will not feel marginalized and the lesson’s learning objectives will be successfully accomplished.

How Can CourseArc Help You Manage Struggling Students?

Our most-requested new feature helps instructors track their students’ performance in real time, making it easier to identify when a student is struggling early so you can administer the best intervention as soon as possible. Learn more about how this feature can improve your students’ success rates.