ETP - Ensuring Equitable Access to Learning



In classrooms, support should be provided to make sure every student understands how to effectively use each tool in their toolbox; some students may have learned how to use those tools at home or in their communities, and others may not. Understanding the differences in past experiences and knowledge and working to mitigate those differences is the crux of equity (Allen, 2020).

Learning Objectives

To ensure equitable access to learning, we will discuss practices you can use to:

  • Use early in-class, nongraded assignments
  • Gauge student readiness for online learning
  • Clearly communicate your expectations
  • Focus on learning
  • Ensure that assignments and activities prepare students
  • Encourage student-to-student support; create an online Buddy System
  • Connect study habits and performance
  • Monitor online activity and participation
  • Use exemplars to ensure that expectations are clear
  • Assess students early to give them a “data point”
  • Provide multiple opportunities to earn course points
  • Provide opportunities to use feedback to improve performance
  • Use online rubrics for students to examine their own performance
  • Provide resources for students
  • Assist students in using campus or online resources

Skeletal Outline

Download a skeletal outline to take notes on the key practices included in this module.

Course Demonstration

This video shows instructors effectively demonstrating the evidence-based practices presented in this module. Through this authentic classroom observation, you can begin to consider how you might implement these practices and techniques with your students.

The instructors featured in the video include Desmond Stephens, PhD, from Florida A&M University; Gregory Eiselein, PhD, from Kansas State University; Paulette Reneau, PhD, from Florida A&M University; Kelly Hogan, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Viji Sathy, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Download the transcript for this video.

Expert Insights

In this video, you’ll hear José Bowen,  Teresa A. Nance, Saundra McGuire, and Dana Autry, scholars in teaching and learning, discuss the specific nuances of and the research support for the teaching techniques and practices presented in this module.

Download the transcript for this video.

Common Challenges & Misconceptions

In this section, you’ll read about some common challenges and misconceptions associated with ensuring equitable access to learning for all students. Click on each statement to read research-based clarifications and suggestions aligned to each challenge or misconception.

MISCONCEPTION: There is not much I can do to identify and help struggling students in online courses unless they reach out directly to me.


Research indicates that course structure and instructor online presence play a big role in student persistence and success in online courses (Jaggars, 2011).


You can use a survey to gauge students’ readiness for online learning to assess whether they may need additional support.

MISCONCEPTION: Students who have made it to college should be expected to handle college-level work without special assistance.

Clarification :

It is well-documented that students from low-income backgrounds have less access to rigorous coursework in high school (Walpole, 2007). Students may have graduated at the top of their class and yet still arrive well behind their peers academically. This can be a very emotionally jarring realization for students, who may also lack the study habits required to be successful in a rigorous college-level course. Helping students learn how to succeed in your course, using techniques presented in this module, will ensure that capable students are not being excluded from success because of their poor preparation (S. McGuire, personal communication, February 22, 2016).

MISCONCEPTION: Implementing strategies to support students will negatively impact well-prepared students.

Clarification :

When you implement strategies to support underprepared students, all students ultimately benefit (Gabriel, 2008). The presence of underprepared students does not alter the outcomes you expect from your students; it is important that high expectations are communicated and maintained for all, especially those who are underprepared (McGuire, 2015).

CHALLENGE: Students who are struggling in my course often do not seek support.

Suggestion :

Students who are struggling could be embarrassed or feel uncomfortable approaching a professor during office hours, or they may have had a negative experience going to office hours or approaching an instructor via phone or email. To encourage students to seek out help as needed, you can set up a face-to-face meeting or use digital tools (e.g., Facetime, Skype) to meet with the students you identify as underprepared early in the course. To make the meeting most beneficial, focus on giving students support by

  • sharing an example from your own life of a time when you struggled;
  • asking how they are currently doing homework, preparing reading, and studying for exams;
  • reinforcing the idea that their performance is not a reflection of their intelligence but rather how well they manage their time and how they prepare for exams and assignments;
  • offering strategies and tools to help them prepare for exams and assignments; and
  • sharing examples of past students who may have been in similar positions and were successful in the course (S. McGuire, personal communication, February 22, 201).
Suggestion :

There are tools within most course management systems that track student progress and activity. These tools can help you identify learners who are behind or not actively participating. Proactively reach out to students as soon as you notice that they are falling behind and help them develop a plan to stay on track (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016).

MISCONCEPTION: It is best to assign struggling students to the same group for classwork or projects, so they are working with peers at their own level.


Assigning students to heterogeneous groups can be beneficial for many reasons. First, diverse groups are a better reflection of the real world outside of the classroom. Different backgrounds and perspectives are also helpful when students are working on many learning tasks, especially creative problem-solving tasks (Brookfield, 2015).

CHALLENGE: During the first class session, I tell students what the course requires, but some students still don’t do what it takes.


 Very early in the course, students may not be aware that they are not adequately prepared for the course. Additionally, students may not understand your expectations in the terms you use. For example, telling students to “do the reading” may not be as helpful if students aren’t familiar with critical reading strategies that help prepare them to discuss the readings in class.


Be very specific with students about how they can be successful, and reiterate helpful study strategies throughout the course, rather than just stating them once. Invite past students to your class to share tips with your current students about what they did to be successful in your course (S. D. Brookfield, personal communication, January 25, 2016).

CHALLENGE: I have too many students in my course and not enough time to give individualized attention to underprepared students.


Several of the most effective practices do not require extensive time but are related to the structure of the course. Having clearly written expectations and establishing grading practices that allow students to recover from early challenges are two ways to provide your students with support that does not necessitate individualized attention (S. McGuire, personal communication, February 22, 2016). Other strategies may take additional time but can be one-time activities, such as setting up a resource bank, reviewing incoming-student data, or administering a Semester Performance Prognosis Inventory. Ultimately, because effective strategies for underprepared students are also effective for well-prepared students, the time spent will benefit all students (S. McGuire, personal communication, February 22, 2016).


In the Observe and Analyze (OA) section, you’ll view the video(s) depicting developing practice, where an instructor implements some of the module techniques effectively while other techniques may need slight adjustments or improvements. As you analyze the video(s), you will gain a deeper understanding of the module techniques and gain insight into some common pitfalls.


Download the transcript for this video.

Download the transcript for this video.


  • Instructional Practices

  • Online Instructional Practices

  • Additional Resources

This section includes resources and handouts to support your implementation of the techniques and practices presented in the module.

Download all of the implementation resources for this module.

Implementation Resources

Download or print the following resources to practice our techniques for engaging underprepared students:

The module learning objectives and aligned online practices are listed below. Each resource offers step-by-step instructions and examples of effective online teaching in text and/or video.

Identify students’ readiness for online learning

Create a student self-assessment survey

At the beginning of your course, ask students to complete an online self-assessment to help gauge their readiness for online class work. This self-evaluation will help them better understand the behaviors and skills they will need to succeed in an online course and identify areas where they might need to focus additional efforts. Results of the self-evaluation will help you to identify areas where students may need additional support.

View or download a resource for developing an online readiness assessment.

Implement teaching practices that support online student success

Create an online Buddy System

Requiring students to collaborate or team up with other students can create a support system that is helpful to all students and can be critical for students who need additional support, particularly in an online environment (Roper, 2007). One way to create a support system is to set up a buddy system for the first few weeks of a course (Cost, 2012).

View or download a process for developing an online Buddy System.

Monitor student online activity and take quick action

Ongoing monitoring of students’ online activity will help you identify students who may not be participating as regularly as they need to in order to succeed in your online course. It is particularly important to monitor students’ online activity and their completion of assignments during the first few weeks, since students who fall behind at the beginning of a course may struggle to catch up or complete the course (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016).

View or download a resource to help you plan how to reach to students who may need additional support.

Implement grading practices that support student success

Provide rubrics for students to examine their own performance

Creating high-quality grading rubrics for course assignments will help students to better understand your expectations and therefore be better able to meet them. Require students to reflect on the rubric requirements to determine if their work meets the rubric criteria. This will ensure they obtain the full benefit of the rubric. The reflection process can help students identify areas where they need to improve and can help faculty understand how to better support students’ learning and development. In addition, this process helps students build the important lifelong skill of self-reflection (Palloff & Pratt, 2008).

View or download instructions and an example of using rubrics for student self-assessment.

Offer additional support to meet students’ needs

Help connect online students to support services.

Support services are critical to student success and persistence in online learning environments (Bailey & Brown, 2016). To help connect your students to services, start by familiarizing yourself with all the support services available from your institution. Contact the various offices or centers. Find out specifics about the services they offer and the best way to refer students, so you can effectively inform and encourage students to seek the help they need.

View or download a resource for helping online students connect to support services.

Watch this example video of Scot Cates helping his students understand how to use the online library resources.


Judith V. Boettcher, PhD
Online Learning Consultant and Author
Designing for Learning

Scot D. Cates
Business Administration Instructor
Park University

Colleen Cordes
Clinical Professor
Arizona State University

Flower Darby
Senior Instructional Designer
Northern Arizona University

Lisa Palladino Kim
Director of Capstone / Lecturer, Biopharma Educational Initiative
Rutgers, Newark

Below are additional resources to further explore the module topics.

Video Resource

Resources for Further Reading

  • Brookfield, S. D. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • McGuire, S. Y. (with McGuire, S.). (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Consult a comprehensive list of references for this module.

Community Connections


Desmond Stephens, PhD
Associate Professor
Department of Mathematics
Florida A&M University

Gregory Eiselein, PhD
Donnelly Professor of English
Department of English
Kansas State University

Jennifer Szelag
Adjunct Instructor, Language & Communications

José Bowen, PhD
President & Professor of Music
Goucher College

Kelly Hogan, PhD
Senior STEM Lecturer of Biology
Director of Instructional Innovation
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Paulette S. Reneau, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Biological Sciences
Florida A&M University

Saundra McGuire, PhD
Director Emerita, Center for Academic Success
(Ret) Professor of Chemistry
Louisiana State University

Viji Sathy, PhD
Senior Lecturer
Dept. of Psychology & Neuroscience
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Allen, S. (2020, February)
Supporting the promise of equity in education. LinkedIn.

Bailey, T. L., & Brown, A. (2016)
Online student services: Current practices and recommendations for implementation. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 44, 450–462.

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2016).
The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips.
San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Brookfield, S. D. (2015)
The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chase, B., Germundsen, R., Cady Brownstein, J., & Schaak Distad, L. (2001)
Making the connection between increased student learning and reflective practice. Educational Horizons, 79, 143–147.

Cost, P. (2012)
Building relationships in online classes by incorporating letter writing, buddy systems, and teaching and utilizing proper netiquette. National Social Science Journal, 38(2), 16–19

Espitia Cruz, M. I., & Kwinta, A. (2013)
“Buddy system”: A pedagogical innovation to promote online interaction. PROFILE: Issues in Teachers’ Professional Development, 15, 207–221.

Gabriel, K. F. (2008)
Teaching unprepared students: Strategies for promoting success and retention in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Jaggars, S. S. (2011)
Online learning: Does it help low-income and underprepared students? (CCRC Working Paper No. 26). Retrieved from

McGuire, S. Y. (with McGuire, S.). (2015)
Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Sterling, VA: Stylus. 

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2008)
Assessing the online learner: Resources and strategies for faculty. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Roper, A. R. (2007)
How students develop online learning skills. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 30(1), 62–65.

Twigg, C. A. (2003)
Improving learning and reducing costs: New models for online learning. EDUCAUSE Review, 38(5), 28–38.

Twigg, C. A. (2015, November–December)
Improving learning and reducing costs: Fifteen years of course description. Change, 47(6). Retrieved from

Walpole, M. (2007)
Economically and educationally challenged students in higher education: Access to outcomes (ASHE Higher Education Report, Vol. 33, No. 3). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.