How to Support Low-Confidence Learners in the Online Environment

May 07, 2021 by Tas F
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Like ducks to water...


On the 6th of April 2020, all of our tutoring moved online. At the time, this was uncharted territory. Like everyone else, we had much to learn (and quickly) about running effective online sessions.

Immediately, we were pleased with the response from students. There were the now-familiar challenges around attendance, but students engaged well in the virtual classroom. Most notably, even students with a history of low confidence and/or challenging behaviour seemed to thrive. Learning from home was something of a novelty and students seemed to engage with curiosity and confidence.

In hindsight, this seems unsurprising. Much is made of ‘digital natives’ and their comfort-through-familiarity with new technologies. Even those with limited access to connected devices have an abundance of experience interacting online. And less confident students had not yet learned how to hide in their new environment.

How do I mute myself?


By February of 2021, the picture had changed somewhat. Most students now had a full weekly timetable of online lessons. They are experiencing ‘burn-out’ with screen-based learning. And now less confident students have an online learning ‘comfort zone’ that needs to be overcome.

Naturally, the most confident students continued to thrive in online 1:1, 1:2 and 1:3 sessions. The difficulty has been for those with less confidence. I have worked with such students long enough to know that if they can fall back on a ‘mute’ button when facing challenging work, they will choose to do so.

It is (as it always has been) a key responsibility of the tutor to draw less confident students out from behind their barriers. Through encouragement, praise and fun any student can find themselves enjoying the subject - sometimes in spite of their determination not to! But where students have learned to hide behind a ‘mute’ button, the job becomes harder. Here are three tips for working well with low-confidence students in online classrooms:

1: Plan for groups with extra care


Where low confidence is most likely to be a big problem for tutors is within a group setting. If one student is boisterous and confidence but another is not, they seem to push each other further from the mean. This is true with face-to-face tuition, too, but it's easier to show that you are giving attention and listening to the quieter student using eye contact and body language.

We work with partners to try to ensure that groups are always well-matched in terms of confidence and temperament. Not necessarily that the students are similar, but that they will work well together. It’s not always possible to get this right, so we need to develop techniques within the lesson. But we can’t be scared to chop and change the groups, either, if that will get better results for everyone.

As a tutor, consciously plan for activities that will encourage students to engage verbally and non-verbally. Set expectations early that both/all students will be expected to contribute (for example, answering alternative questions or reading alternate paragraphs). Give the lower-confidence student time to think and work to relax them; keep the experience light and fun!

Be mindful of the tension/pressure they might feel from the more eager student(s). Don't make the mistake of feeding too much off the more confident students' energy. Deliberately work to give all students space to engage.

2: Prioritise interactivity in lessons


Often, less experienced tutors will respond to students who seem less confident by doing more of the talking and writing for them. Whilst this comes from a place of empathy, it’s unlikely to be effective. "Doing the work" yourself allows the student to retreat further into their comfort zone and you will find yourself lecturing your computer screen. If you find yourself asking “do you understand that?” think of that as a red flag. You should be seeing whether or not your student understands because they are doing the work. If you have to ask, check that you're not just talking at them!

Prioritise (or design) activities that require interaction from the student. In the online classroom, students can write, draw and talk. The same tools they have face-to-face. That fact that the lessons are online shouldn’t affect the importance of interaction from your student, so don't let them hide behind the tech.

Start every lesson with a verbal warm-up and move on to some written answers afterwards - even if it’s just some quick starter questions. Importantly, whenever the students gets an answer right, they should be the ones to write it down. If they are a bit less comfortable than you with the tech, take time to work on that. Don’t fall into the habit of doing all of the writing for them. It encourages them to withdraw and takes away the glow of all those correct answers!

3: Build up confidence on their home turf


In your first few lessons with a new student, take time to familiarise them with the technology and with the online environment. The best way to do this is to forget your subject entirely! Find out about their interests, hobbies, family life - what makes them tick! This doesn't just mean having an introductory chat. Get them to write, draw and speak about these things.

This helps you to 'warm up' the student whilst acclimatising them to the technology and the expectation that they will be engaging and interacting actively.

A simple first-lesson exercise I use is getting students to rank their school subjects best to worst on a number line. I can make this fun for both of us (avoid the "I hate this I hate that" trap!) and I get to quiz them loads about what they do and don't like about learning. The same thing works once you know their interests too - perhaps ranking their favourite footy team or TV shows! All the while I'm getting the student to write, draw and make a big old mess on the whiteboard - great!

Getting easy interaction can take time - don’t feel you have to rush this process. It’s important to find what brings your student out of their shell. Use that energy to make your sessions more effective.

Thanks to our amazing volunteers


As a final note, I wanted to thank our amazing volunteers who have worked so well through all sorts of challenges this past year. Many of the students we work with have difficulty with their confidence, and our fantastic tutors work so hard to make them feel comfortable.

Thank you sincerely for your commitment and dedication to the programme.

You can find out more about our Online Tutoring Programme here or find out more about volunteering here. If you would like to discuss setting up tutoring for the young people you work with, find out more here.
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