Loneliness Limits Learning in Online Education

by | 16 February 2021 | Public and Pipeline

Gina Misra sitting in front of her laptop during a tutorial session
Working with my students, who feel just as isolated as I do

When I applied to work for a major online tutoring company to get extra income, I’ll admit I did not know what I was doing. I had taught community college before, and was also a teaching assistant during graduate school. But I wasn’t prepared for online tutoring in the era of COVID-19.

The first time I logged in, most of the requests I got were high school students copying and pasting their online homework questions to me asking if the answer they had chosen was correct.

“Is this right?” they’d ask.

The first time this happened I was naive, and I told them yes or no. However, I quickly realized that this was probably not a good idea. After all, this was not actually helping them understand the material. If I told them their answer was not correct, they would just move on down the list.

“Is it b? Okay, what about c?” If I told them yes, then they’d paste another question. I was clearly being used.

I started reading educator websites for advice, to see how the pros handled this. Most advice I found was to turn it around on them. If they asked me, “Is this right?” they recommended that I say, “I don’t know, what do you think?” or “Why did you choose this answer?” 

Unfortunately, the students would become frustrated with me for saying these things. The student would either immediately sign off to be reconnected with a tutor who would tell them what they wanted to know, or they would say, “I don’t know! That’s why I’m asking you!”

Our organization’s STEM educator group had a meeting the following week with an incredible guest speaker who was talking about online learning. I decided to go out on a limb and bring up this problem I was having with the tutoring clients just in case she had some sage advice. She told me that what she was hearing from these students is, “I am lonely.” Suddenly it started to make sense.

Many students are extroverted and benefit greatly from communal learning. They take continuous non-verbal cues from their classmates. These cues let them know a great deal more about the material and their own progress than is immediately obvious to the less education-savvy among us. These crucial aspects of learning are hard for kids to do alone in front of a screen.

I remembered all the hours I spent in the chemistry study room at my college, commiserating with my classmates over organic synthesis questions and reaction mechanisms. A tutor was there for back-up, but we would spend hours doing problems and asking each other that key question.

“Is this right? Do you get this?”

As students panic to figure out assignments more independently than they were ever ready for, online tutors may be replacing study buddies for many students who are isolated in their homes. The other kids they see are likely siblings who are working on different assignments. Their parents are stressed out themselves and, understandably, are not intellectually engaged in the subjects like their peers would be. So naturally, it makes sense they’d turn to a supposed subject matter expert to help them make sense of it, as a last resort.

Student insecurity is growing. The fear over getting the answer wrong can be paralyzing to some. A few students may be driven to self-teach and convince themselves of their own conclusions, but most will not — unless they are taught how to do that. So I had to find a way to raise their confidence in themselves and teach them to self-teach.

Next time I logged in to the tutoring platform for my shift, I was ready to try something different.


“Is this right?”

“I can’t tell you the answer, sorry. But I can help you understand the material so you can be more confident in your answer. Tell me where you’re stuck.”

Some students would immediately sign out. I can’t help that. Some kids just want to cheat. But a few took me up on the offer. They would say, “Well, mainly I don’t understand ______. I think I put the right words in the blanks, but I’m not sure about c, d, and f.” Great! Now we’re cooking with gas. Then I would ask them more probing questions about whatever is needed to understand “c, d, and f.”

Sometimes they wouldn’t quite catch my drift, and would say “What do you mean?” or simply “????”

I would then ask them something specific about the problem, such as if they understood the meaning of a particular scientific term that was being used in the assignment description. Maybe it had been explained in a previous lesson that they also didn’t understand. I would ask them if they understood the problem, but just didn’t know how to research the answer.

Whatever the subject was, I’d tried to remember how I felt when I first saw that subject so many years ago. What confused me then? Sometimes I would even ask them, “Are you just completely lost and don’t even know where to begin?” These handful of questions would often get me to the source of the problem, and get them the help they needed.

Tutoring whiteboard, showing meiosis and Punnet square, with tutor annotations
Sample of a tutoring sessions with a student.  Here I annotate an explanation for what a Punnet Square really is, step-by-step, asking the student to contribute as we co-develop the knowledge visually.

Mental health played a bigger role than I expected. One girl actually told me, “No, I understand what it’s asking but I just don’t know how to say the answer in a short way. Can you help me organize my thoughts?” She confessed that she had anxiety and her brain was often flooded with words she didn’t know what to do with. I have anxiety, too, and I was able to give her some tips. Sometimes, it was enough just to tell them, “This is a really difficult assignment. It’s okay to be stuck.” and the floodgates would open.

One rewarding interaction taught me one more lesson. The college student I was finishing up with said, “Wow you’re the best tutor on here! Most of the other ones suck.” Trying not to let this go to my head, I asked him, out of curiosity, what the other tutors did that he didn’t like. He told me that they “asked him questions he had no answers to,” and it seemed like “most of them don’t know what they were talking about.”

I told him I understood his concerns. I also pointed out that not all tutors are equally good at reading what students need, and that he might get more out of the tutoring service if he asked more specific questions than simply “I don’t get it.” I explained to him exactly what I had done with him — I probed into what specifically he didn’t understand until we found the source of the problem. He said it made a lot of sense and that he had never thought about it that way. Maybe all these tutors are smart and knowledgeable, but he agreed that they aren’t in his class, so it’s probably hard to just jump in and know what’s going on right away. In short, he needed to provide them with context.

His classmates would have had that context. The great benefit of student study groups is that you don’t have to spend time getting your classmates to empathize with what is confusing. It’s probably a lot of the same things that are confusing everyone. So they can put their heads together to figure it out. I will never be in the class with him and I can’t be his peer or his friend. But I can do my best to empathize and teach students, by example, how to ask good questions. This is the closest approximation I could find to filling the gaps that their friends can’t right now.

Gina Misra

Gina Misra is a research scientist at the non-profit Blue Marble Space Institute of Science interested in closed loop food production systems and sustainability.  She is the editor-in-chief of BMSIS's science education site Sciworthy.com and is passionate about explaining science to wide audiences.

Notes for Practice

Remedying Loneliness

Encourage students to form study groups outside of their video class.  Students, regardless of grade level, are stressed out from having to learn online in isolation from their peers. Forming study groups with their peers or simply turning to a classmate to ask, “Do you understand this?” can help students feel less alone and stressed about classwork.

Help students ask better questions.  Lack of peer validation and discussion, if students do not form their own online study groups, can be remedied by teaching students to ask more specific questions when they need help. “Turning their question around” on them seems to only increase frustration. Teachers and tutors may find it more effective to ask probing questions to drill down to the core confusion.

Acknowledge their stress.  Students also tend to respond well to validating statements that it is okay to be stuck or lost, and that there is a way forward. They also appreciate candidness and explaining the learning process as it goes, so they know your intentions. Students worry about instructors asking “trick questions” — let them know you’re on their side.