Will They Ever Finish????!!!

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Alex van Donkersgoed

I spent the first ten years of my career as a teacher setting the pace of learning in my classroom. I was so excited when I started moving to a classroom with more student agency. Of course, my students would love having control over their pace of learning! It’s going to be amazing, and beautiful things are going to happen!

And they did! Mostly.

I had students who just ate it up. Some leapt ahead, and we were able to learn as much as they could. Others were able to pause and wrestle with topics until they understood it.

But some…just…wouldn’t…finish.

Laila was a case in point. I was teaching her Grade 8 Math online. She had made very little progress when I checked in with her every week. Finally, summer arrived, and she still had half the course to go. Not only did she have a summer of math to look forward to, but now I did too!

If you are heading down the road of giving students more control over their learning, you must prepare for the ones who just won’t.

Here are a few techniques I learned over the years that helped improve my students’ finish rates.

Pacing Guide:

  • Create a pacing guide. Make a plan that outlines the timeline for your entire course, how much time students should spend on each section, and the due dates.
  • Have the students do some work to customize the pacing guide for themselves. Setting their own deadlines gives them more ownership, which helps with buy-in down the road.
  • Refer to the pacing guide often when working with students. I often turned it into a checklist that students would complete. Sometimes, I even turned it into a part of their assignments or something they had to update before taking a unit test.
  • When you make the pacing guide, secretly shorten the timeline. For example, if students are taking a ten-month course, make the pacing guide so that they will finish in nine months.

Course Design:

  • Make your first unit or chapter shorter and easier so that students will experience success early.
  • Make all your units, chapters, or lessons short so students can see their progress and feel a sense of accomplishment every time they sit down to do some work
  • Put your hardest content in the middle of the course. Make your last few units or chapters even shorter so that as students near the end of the course, they progress faster.


  • Communicate with students regularly.
      • Do they even check their email/chat/messages? Train them to do so early.
      • If using email, ensure you have the correct email address.
  • Students need an adult with a strong relationship who cares about their schoolwork and encourages them. If you are in an online context, then it is crucial to coordinate with someone who can be in the same physical space as the student. This might be a parent, but it could be a mentor, education assistant, or facilitator. Michigan Virtual has done an excellent job of articulating what this looks like for online schools.
  • Communicate with the parent/mentor/facilitator as early as possible and communicate often.
      • Start with positive contact to establish a relationship
      • Alert them as soon as you see any warning signs. In the online space, it is easy for weeks to go by before you realize there is a problem.

I spent a lot of time with Laila doing math that summer. That was when I learned many of the techniques in this article. We eventually had to give her an extension for her course, but after 14 months, she finished, and there was a definite sense of relief — for both of us. Down the road, using these techniques with my other students made my life more manageable, and more of my students succeeded. But most importantly, the answer to “Will they ever finish?” became, “Yes!”

About the Author

Alex van Donkersgoed

Product Specialist

Alex van Donkersgoed has been a classroom teacher for 20+ years as well as the founder of an online school and its first principal for 10 years. Now he gets to share the fantastic online tools created by StudyForge. He lives in Acton, Ontario, Canada with his incredible wife and three amazing children.

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