Supporting eLearners

Supporting eLearners - girl doing homework

Instructors set out to support their students to the best of their ability throughout the duration of a course. For online instructors, this need to support eLearners is even greater, as the online environment significantly affects the learner experience, especially in terms of interactions between instructor and students. Furthermore, each student’s individual learning background, skills, and motivations can either minimize or increase the impact of the online environment on their learning experience. Online instructors who recognize which student skills and motivations can help with the learning process will be better equipped to support their eLearners.


Why Is It important?

The impact the online environment can have on eLearners is due to two main factors: the requirement of technology and the physical separation of instructor and students. The first factor means that students must be proficient with technology in order to access course materials and communicate with others. The second factor—the physical separation—means that students have increased autonomy over their learning process, and, with that, increased responsibility and need for self-discipline. They might also have increased anxiety regarding the learning process. All of these elements require a heightened attention to supporting online learners.


How to Put Into Practice?

Instructors face both challenges and opportunities when it comes to supporting eLearners. Although they must take into account the same technological and physical factors of the online environment that impact the learning experience for students, instructors have the opportunity to counteract those challenges for students through a variety of support structures and strategies:

How Students Learn

There are seven research-based principles as to how students learn that should inform the support of eLearners. These principles were originally developed by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in 2010.

The following table provides instructional strategies for each principle.




Principle Examples of Instructional Strategies
Principle 1: Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. Collect data about students and use it to design instruction; for example, have students assess their own prior knowledge through a survey, quiz, or poll.
Principle 2: How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
  • Be explicit about the course learning goals, objectives, and expectations.
  • Have students create a concept map or complete a sorting activity to demonstrate how they are organizing knowledge.
Principle 3: Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
  • Connect the material to students’ interests.
  • Provide authentic activities that have relevance to students’ academic or professional work.
  • Provide opportunities for early success.
  • Provide flexibility.
Principle 4: To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.  
  • Enlist a teaching assistant to deconstruct tasks.
  • Give students opportunities to apply skills and knowledge in diverse contexts.
  • Provide practice opportunities to increase fluency.
  • Provide prompts to relevant knowledge.
Principle 5: Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.  
  • Target the appropriate level of challenge.
  • Be explicit about goals.
  • Use a rubric to communicate performance criteria.
  • Build scaffolding into assignments.
  • Look for patterns of errors in student work.
  • Incorporate peer feedback.
  • Require students to specify how they used feedback.
Principle 6: Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
  • Use multiple and diverse examples.
  • Model inclusive language.
  • Establish and reinforce ground rules.
  • Use the syllabus and first unit of content to establish course climate.
  • Address tensions early. Facilitate active listening.
Principle 7: To become self-directed learners, students must assess, evaluate, plan, monitor, and adjust as needed.  
  • Be more explicit than you think is necessary.
  • Give early performance-based assessments.
  • Make planning a central goal of the assignment.
  • Provide activities that require students to reflect.
  • Help students set realistic expectations.


Reference: Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching.


Where to Find Resources?


  Want More?

The “Supporting eLearners” deep dive topic examines how the online environment affects the learners’ experience as well as the kinds of skills, motivations, and support needed to help students be successful.

Topics covered include:

  • Student Success Factors
  • Online Learning Skills
  • Promoting Learner Motivation
  • Scaffolding and Learner Supports


Visit the Supporting eLearners deep dive topic

Note: This course is available for FREE to all UW-Madison faculty and staff. When you click the link you will be prompted to sign in with your UW-Madison NetID and password. Then you will be taken to the topic homepage where you can learn more and complete activities.