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The puzzle of struggling students shunning help

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As a tutor, I am conscious of the need to support all students.  Some students are very strong and it is an important part of the role to try to challenge them to do even better work and such students generally welcome the challenge.  Most students who are quite strong also welcome  support and challenge to help them develop even more.  There are strangely mixed attitudes amongst some students who are struggling with courses.

The Open University encourages tutors to offer special sessions to support students with additional needs and those who are struggling.  Most students in these situations are very keen to accept and make use of such support.  There are often very positive outcomes - perhaps due to the support or due to increased motivation or improved morale from knowing their studies are viewed as important. 

However, I sometimes experience the cases of students who shun the opportunity for such support.  I wonder why this is and can think of several possible reasons.  Perhaps they have a feeling that everything can be different and they want to maintain control over improvement.  Another possibiity is that they hope some magical transformation will take place (perhaps like someone with a worrying medical symptom might hope it just disappears of its own accord).

I would be interested in any other views.

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Peer support - yes please!

It's always difficult for some students to ask for help from the person who's assessing their work and giving it marks! It can be hard revealing your ignorance in such circumstances.

I adore the OU but it's major defect is the inability to foster a climate in which students seek support from peers. It can be much easier asking for help from somebody you know is also struggling and who therefore will not belittle you - as you know, there are a lot of students in the OU who have been wounded by their previous educational experience and are often having to face down demons that constantly tell them that they're stupid - demons often put there by a culture that encourages folk to measure their success by the failure of others.

I also believe that a stronger culture of peer support will be more effectively nourished by tutor support - because elucidation will often cascade more efficiently.

My one plea would be for tutors to plug peer support much more strongly - giving advice on how students can safely seek peer support and how to offer it constructively. The OU is outstanding on methodology - perhaps this is a little gap that needs to be filled.

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I suspect that fear of appearing less able than others may be a strong hurdle which students have to overcome. It seems ironic that students who may be experiencing difficulties do not accept extra help. However, even trying to formulate a request for help may be impaired by the difficulties which the students may be having in comprehending the subject matter with which they are dealing - vicious circle!!!

I agree with Peter in that peer support can be wonderful and is eminently worthy of every encouragement. Something which I have never understood, however, is why students do not use the tutor group forums. My last tutor was wonderful in encouraging us to avail of this facility but almost no-one used it. I know there may be many reasons for this, including the above, but I often wished for a really active forum to bounce ideas off each other. I'm convinced many students underestimate themselves.

I also believe that sensitivity and discretion are essential when posting comments for obvious reasons.

Just some thoughts. 


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I must admit that I've had a mixed experience of course forums - some participants can be rather bullying. These forums SHOULD be much better than they are - and I suspect that it's partly down to the fact that the tutors who moderate them are sometimes inexperienced and, in tutor mode, reluctant to be heavy handed.

Me in a rare cheerful mood

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"its major defect is the inability to foster a climate in which students seek support from peers"

In one module we were actively discouraged from chatting online and told to only communicate with the tutor as other students are likely to not be able to give out good advice.  That was the module where I was getting very low marks for TMAs until days before the EMA submission when I spent 30 minutes chatting face-to-face with a fellow student who was able to tell me what I had been doing wrong.  The tutor's only advice all year was "It will click eventually".  He was wrong; I needed peer support and we were denied it online.  (His also repeatedly telling us he has done so many modules he could get 98%+ every time in any module did nothing for anyone's confidence.  Turning up late for tutorials and forgetting handouts didn't help.  Nor did going on holiday at the start and last week of the module.  In short, he was an arse, only less useful.)

Two other modules I have done had more traffic in the fora every week than that module did all year.

Another annoyance is how we are forbidden from discussing the set work, whereas bricks-and-mortar students can communicate fairly freely.  In one module some of the TMA questions were consistently vague and ambiguous resulting in lots of "What do they mean?" queries.  All of these were shot down with "Ask your tutor".  How about providing a definitive answer to everyone online, duh?

"I suspect that it's partly down to the fact that the tutors who moderate them are sometimes inexperienced"

That has been my experience in one module.  A tutor who was desperately trying to be helpful by moving posts around between fora and tagging over three screenfuls of threads as "stick to the top" so new unread posts appeared, eventually, on page 4!

It is also annoying that tutors do not see what students see.  Asking the tutor for help and being told in a very patronising tone to try reading what is on the screen - when in fact there was a cockup meaning many of the students could not see tutorial dates or fora or other items - does not encourage one to seek further advice.


It has been my impression so far the OU is no longer any good for distance learning.  They just do not know how to use I.T.   The old cassette tape, TV programme and frequent college lectures was FAR more effective for me.  Being told at the start of the year that a module does not even provide .PDFs, let alone paper, because "Everyone has an iPad so we thought ebook format was better" was an annoyance too.  If we have to buy custom hardware to read materials that, frankly, should have been issued on paper (seriously, short-run digital publishing is NOT expensive) then the OU becomes even less good value for money.


So, Patrick, part of the problem may be students who are being turned off by the horribly complex and complicated web site structure (oh goody, they're rolling out yet another sodding interface right now), constantly failing technology, poor use of online tutorials, inconsistent experience, poor materials, poor choice of materials and therefore not expecting very much of the tutors either.

Sharon Hartles

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Hello Patrick,

It also depends which forum it is because there are a few - the ones which can be compulsory/voluntary as part of module online, the tutor forums, and those which offer support with a tutor for one hour on a particular night.

No two students are the same and therefore the reasons for not joining/engaging in sites which might improve their learning will differ.

Reasons may include: bad time management leading to falling behind with module therefore cannot contribute because they have not learnt about it yet.   Choosing not to bother if they are voluntary.  Not being aware of it.  Not fully understanding what is being offered, fear of belittling by other students and peers. Not wanting to admit they do not understand. Not realising they do not understand or have not quite got it (lol). Staying under the radar doing very little and happy with and pass as long as it is a pass at the end. The list is endless.

My own reason was ignorance - I thought the role of my tutor was to mark my TMA's because I believed that the OU was 'remote' learning 'flying solo'.  I am on to my second level 2 now and for the first time; I have thought 'Ok I am going to put my tutor to good use'. I really struggled with the whole chapter which I read last week so I openly used the tutor forum to ask question after question until I understood it.  I thought I cannot be the only student struggling with this so at least if they read the threads it will help them to.  My tutor was great his replies where detailed and responses speedy. I worry he may have a lower opinion of me now because of the fact I have shared my struggles with understanding.  However, he commented he did not mind replying so maybe he liked sharing his knowledge.

Another thing I wanted to mention I am a member of the OU site and an email which I received this week mentioned and encouraged joining a Facebook site or creating one; if one does not exist for your module and start date; with the purpose of students having an unmoderated site which cannot be regulated by the OU, where the student's can support each other/chat ect. 

I get the impression the OU is trying to lighten the workload of tutors by encouraging sites like this?

One more thing... I thought this site was for just students?

Anyway I hope this helps... if not... you have just wasted four minutes of your life you will never get back!



Me in a rare cheerful mood

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"an email…encouraged joining a Facebook site or creating one; if one does not exist for your module and start date; with the purpose of students having an unmoderated site which cannot be regulated by the OU"

A bit of consistency in advice would not go amiss.  On my first module we were told at the first tutorial by all the tutors present "DO NOT GO ON OU FACEBOOK SITES" (yes, they said it out loud in bold capitals, honest) because they are filled with people who lie about their grades, people who are not OU students taunting those who are, poor or incorrect advice and bitter cynical people (like me).  This was reinforced at the first online tutorial and in the module's OU forum.

This was also the module where peer support was discouraged.

Now I don't know what to believe.

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Very interesting - as ever - Simon! Just to reinterate that I have a mixed experience of Facebook support groups (just as I have a mixed experience of Course Forums here in the VLE). Some have been nice - some have been nasty. Presumably it must be hard to verify whether people lie about their grades or whether bitter ex-OU students invade these forums to taunt and demotivate current students. Maybe it happens - maybe not - that's the first I've heard of it.

In my experience (again, purely anecdotal evidence) the least risky form of peer support tends to be rooted in relationships where there has been a face-to-face encounter: for some reason, people tend to be less aggressive once they've met in person.

Me in a rare cheerful mood

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"In my experience (again, purely anecdotal evidence) the least risky form of peer support tends to be rooted in relationships where there has been a face-to-face encounter: for some reason, people tend to be less aggressive once they've met in person."

Supporting your single data point of evidence by over 98%, I have attended a RLM (Real Life Meeting) of a computer games forum and two RLMs of a fairly aggressive I.T. contractors' forum.  In each case the relationships between the attendees changed permanently for the better.  Even in the cases where I wanted the confirmation that someone who is a dickhead online actually is a dickhead in real life, and had it confirmed.  It means that in future online correspondence, conversations would be more polite, despite opinions about the individuals not always having changed at all.


Patrick, maybe you need to put a face to your tutoring to gain trust?  Perhaps a Skype offering could make a big difference?

Me in a rare cheerful mood

Advertising online tutorials … without the tutor

I tend to enter online tutorials an hour early to check my connection and setup.  This has resulted in some good chats with students and tutors other than my own.

I keep wanting to suggest "Let's go onto the online tutorial page - without any tutor needing to be there - at 7pm to 8pm each evening for mutual support" but never dared suggest it.

It does strike me as a wasted resource at the moment - would unmoderated student use of the online tutorial function be permitted?  It would enable peer support very strongly since it provides chat, shared whiteboard, audio and even video feedback.  Plus it is not a very good medium for sharing entire essays so less risk of cheating.

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Thanks so much, Peter, Sharon and Simon

I think peer support is very much encouraged and I can see many forums where this works successfully.  The support can be conceptual and/or affective (ie students can help with understanding and/or can help to foster a sense of shared endeavour).  I think the affective can be especially useful and I think a great advantage of tutorials (face to face or online) is that they enable everyone to come together at the same time with a shared sense of purpose.  It helps to creat a community of practice.

Sharon, I understand the worry about revealing lack of understanding but from a tutor's point of view, I do not think this leads to a bad impression.  Rather, it will lead to the opposite - you are likely to strike the tutor as someone who is engaged and curious.  Many of the courses are challenging and tutors remember when they were students and how they needed to ask questions.

However, you three do not seem to be the kinds of students I was referring to (not that you are not important and interesting in your own rights).  I was considering students who submit assignments that show they are struggling but do not engage with the course and shun my attempts to support them.  The reference to Skype was interesting as I have supported struggling students with Skype and it has seemed to lead to good results.  However, some students do not seem to want even this offer.

By the way, the blog option is open for lecturers as well and many do blog.  You may see many more student blogs as there are so many students than lecturers.

Thanks again all of you - I am very grateful.

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Sorry, Joseph, I meant to thank you too.

Sharon Hartles

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Thanks for your reply Patrick your comment regarding my tutor is reassuring. smile

That old saying springs to mind with regards the students to whom you are referring:

'You can lead a horse to water, but you can not make him drink it'.

Not that we students are horses... (lol)

Some students just can't or won't be helped.

For most I would guess if they were to be honest; when taken to the roots/core the reason will reveal itself to be centered around the many varying forms of 'insecurity'.

No one ever wants to reveal their flaws to themselves and even hide these from their loved ones so to reveal it to a stanger would be bad enough, but to reveal it to a stranger (tutor) who one assumed are 'Godlike' with their intelligance must be overwhelming....

Kind regards



p.s I hope you read my previous post with the humour it was intented. On reflection I think a smiley icon after the exclamation at the end might have carried the humour of this a little better.



Sharon Hartles

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Hello Simon

I think those who set up most Facebook forum sites start it off with good intentions for the purpose of students sharing fears with each other and gaining support which they would not necessary seek via the forums set up by the OU which are moderated.  The Facebook forum sites even have a rules of dos and don’ts including: not sharing grades, not declaring who tutors are, and being non-offensive ect. 

However, within a few weeks all of this changes and in my opinion although they can continue to be a place of peer support; they very quickly also become a breeding ground of negativity and competitiveness (Just my opinion).  I prefer the OU moderated sites you can still have a laugh, joke and offer and receive peer support, with the advantage of knowledge from tutors’, moderators and it is in a constructive and purposeful arena.  Experienced tutors also know when to stay out of a message between student’s and when to correct/redirect/challenge messages.  In an unmoderated site misunderstandings – spread like a wild fire.  (Again all this is no more than my mere opinion). 

Kind regards



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I'm interested in your comment,Patrick, that "Some students are very strong and it is an important part of the role to try to challenge them to do even better work"

In my experience, there are quite a few tutors who do no such thing, unfortunately, but see their role as exclusively to support the strugglers rather than further encourage and challenge those doing well. This is exacerbated by the attitude of some forum mods of immediately shutting down anything not strictly within the remit of the module, or those wanting to engage with more demanding concepts.

Do you know whether the OU has an actual policy on this, out of interest?

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I think course forums really work best when they are a community - not over-strictly moderated, and with room for social chit-chat and jokes too.

Certainly the best course forums I've experienced were quite "free" - more like Facebook. In those, students were asking questions at all sorts of levels from the most basic to the mot advanced, and everyone was relaxed about it and supported each other.

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Thanks for your comment, Cath.

I do not know if you are aware that the marking of tutors is monitored and that means that my marking of strong (and weak and moderate students) is seen and commented on.  It is always commented on that it is challenging but important to challenge the strongest students so that they can be pushed even further. 



'Struggling students'

Hi Patrick,

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the OU is the ability for the student to learn from a distance. Problematic too since it is an uneven playing field. Students may have an academic background whereas others may not. The point I am making is that every student is unique and it can never be the case that every student 'struggles'. Therefore it is important that the tutor informs every student at every point that help and guidance is there if they ask for it.  'You can lead a horse to water . . . ' English proverb (1175) in Old English Homilies

I also think that 'under achieving/performing' is a preferable term to 'struggling'  No one likes to be seen as 'struggling' whereas identifying performance as poor allows capacity to achieve more or perform better.

Finishing on the horse to water theme personally I'd rather be known as an under performing horse, than a struggling horse. Struggling horses often end up at the knackers yard.

Steve Taylor .






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Thanks for the comment, Steve.

I see your point about terminology but I feel there is a slight distinction between under achieving students (ie ones who are doing okay but could do better) and struggling who I see as those who are in danger of failing the course.  These are not labels I would use to the students themselves.


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Thanks for the reply Patrick; I appreciate that you may not use this term directly to a student however; in an open forum any and all of your current/previous students are able to read your blog - therefore the student(s) you are eluding too although unnamed may still rightly or wrongly be identified. Perhaps a slightly revised title ?


Sharon Hartles

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Hello Steve,

We must be like minded.

I also used that same proverb - in my comment regarding this reflection dated (Friday 5th June - 21-42)

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Thanks for your comments, Steve and Sharon.

I understand your concern about labelling.  Terms like underachieving seem appropriate for students whose work I worry about but who make an effort and seem to welcome moves to support them.  With these efforts, they tend to get closer to achieving their potential. 

The students I am thinking of are rather different. I think there is no chance of the students I am alluding to being identified by anyone but themselves as these are students who have not taken part in any public work like attending tutorials.  I would be surprised but delighted if they read this as it might make them realise that I am worried about them - at the moment, it seems that they are just hoping sometjing will suddenly click.