Providing proactive support to students frequently during the process of learning without them having to ask for help is an evidence-based practice. Instructors can provide tailored, proactive support based on their students’ record of course engagement and performance. Proactive support may include instructional support (e.g., study strategies, help with concepts) and messages intended to shape student behavior toward success through behavior-based praise and modify students’ beliefs about themselves as learners. Multiple lines of research suggest that proactive instructor support increases student success. It has been shown that students most in need of help are unlikely to seek assistance (Karabenik & Knapp, 1988).  Proactive support from instructors has been found to improve student-instructor relationships and students’ receptiveness to feedback (Gallien & Oomen-Early, 2008). Simply having positive and informative interactions with instructors benefits students (Cox, McIntosh, Terenzini, Reason, Quaye, 2010; Komarraju, Musulink, & Bhattacharya, 2010; Sax, Bryant, & Harper, 2005). To the extent that students feel a sense of connection with their instructors, non-retention may be reduced (Tinto, 1987). Further evidence for proactive instructor support is found in a national survey in which students identified instructor support as important for staying motivated and engaged in online courses (Lehman & Conceicao, 2014). Proactive instructor support is also aligned with multiple principles identified by Chickering and Gamson (1977) for good practice in undergraduate education, including frequent student-instructor contact, instructor feedback on student performance, and instructor communication of high expectations. In a study of nearly 30,000 college graduates in the U.S., researchers linked six key undergraduate experiences with long-term success (Gallup-Purdue Index, 2015). Proactive instructor support is consistent with three of the key experiences: having a professor who made students excited to learn, who cared about them as individuals, and who encouraged them to reach for their goals.


Research on the Proactive Support of Students

·      Students struggling the most are least likely to seek help

·      Proactive support improves student-teacher relationship and students’ receptiveness to feedback

·      Non-retention may be reduced when students feel a sense of connection with their instructors

·      Proactive support keeps students motivated and engaged, especially in online courses


Beyond communicating caring to facilitate a sense of connectedness with the instructor and belonging in college and providing tangible assistance with concepts not yet mastered, proactive instructor support messages can modify students’ beliefs about their capacity to learn and shape their behavior toward success through the strategic use of behavior-based praise (e.g., praise for effort, perseverance through obstacles, for quality work). Behavior-based praise supports students’ engagement as they work to learn the course material and has been shown to induce positive responses and increased motivation (Willingham, 2005/2006). Likewise, proactive support messages from instructors support students’ engagement as they address student beliefs that may be undermining motivation and learning. Research has shown that students’ beliefs about their capacity to learn play an important role in their learning and can be effectively modified (Mueller & Dweck, 1998; Wilson & Linville, 1982; 1985; Yeager & Dweck, 2014).


Strategies for Providing Proactive Support to Students

·      Provide timely feedback on student performance

·      Learn student names

·      Speak and write in a friendly tone

·      Provide words of encouragement

·      Communicate high expectations & help students meet these high expectations

·      Communicate caring

·      Help students believe they have the capability to succeed

·      Praise quality, but also effort and perseverance

·      Think-pair-share


Proactively supporting students to enhance student motivation and success is aligned with these promising areas of scientific inquiry: instructor presence in online learning (Reupert, Maybery, Patrick, & Chittleborough, 2009), instructor-student rapport (Hagenauer & Volet, 2014), communicating caring in teaching (Wilson, 2008), communicating high performance expectations, motivational processes in learning and achievement (Zumbrunn, McKim, Buhs, & Hawley, 2014), the capacity of psychologically grounded interventions to shape student beliefs and behavior (Brady et al., 2016), the potential of personalized learning, self-regulated learning effectiveness (Tsai, Shen, & Fan, 2013; Zimmerman, 2002), use of learner analytics to proactively support students (Clow, 2013), and the importance of requiring students to demonstrate mastery or competency (Klein-Collins, 2013).


For online teachers specifically, the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse recently hosted a workshop entitled “Strategies to Improve Your Online Course: Based on Feedback from UWL Students.” This workshop covers eight areas of instruction: Communication, Responsiveness, Feedback, Instructor Presence, Online Discussions, Instructor Voice, Expectations, and Organization. You can view the entire workshop here.