This question has been bothering me for some time as I had to fail a student as you'll see later on. I am hoping that another SE member has seen a student or may have even been a student like this.

During my course - a business course, not a writing course - I had a student in my class. Every week I assign a paper based on the reading students should have done, but not based on questions they can answer directly from the text book. The questions pertain to current or recent events within the business world involving their studies.

Most students say it takes them anywhere from 2-5 hours working on the assignment that is due each week. I've never had an issue with a student not being able to finish the paper in time and I am more lenient in grading a paper that has less than the assigned pages than most.

Now, this student, I will refer to her as "A", seemed to be falling behind around the third week of the course. I quickly noticed that all of her citations for her research on the weekly assignment were books and textbooks but not excerpts taken and cited from online sources.

After a class I sat down with A and asked her why she prefers citing so many books and not looking online for the sources. I also asked if that's how her old school had required students to do most of their research.

My question was followed by that she doesn't really understand how the internet works and the only thing she really knows how to do is use a Word processor. I don't care what platform my students find their sources on from but I was now concerned because she, like I said, seemed to be falling behind.

When asked how long she spends on the assignment each week she said it takes her 3 days of going through books in the university library and the local public library. I advised her to seek out a librarian that works at my university and ask for a tutor there that I personally knew and would be willing to help her.

In the end this student kept falling more and more behind as the semester went on. An assignment that shouldn't take more than a couple hours was taking A days to complete, and with a final research project worth 30% of the grade she would have no chance of completing it on time using just books as resources without the help of the internet to at least guide her to the correct books.

Is this a common thing to happen with some students and could I have done more without giving the student "special treatment"?

  • 4
    Can you please clarify what type of institution (large university, apprenticeship training center, community college, etc.) you are teaching at? What type of students are enrolled in your courses (e.g., non-traditional, GED seekers, etc.)? At the schools I'm familiar with, all of the students are required to use the internet to take care of business, so I'm genuinely curious if there is something unique about your workplace that I'm not familiar with.
    – Mad Jack
    Aug 20, 2015 at 15:56
  • Sure, I teach at a mid size to large University with courses of up to 50 students in it. Most students I see are pursing either an associates or a bachelors. I teach a course most students taking during their first semester and most courses involve computing in some way, shape, or form. All courses require papers to be typed but not all courses go beyond the textbook.
    – Memj
    Aug 20, 2015 at 16:48
  • Note that the answers would be different if you were teaching a highly technical subject, which is why I edited to specify the subject in the title.
    – ff524
    Aug 20, 2015 at 17:06
  • What do the pre-requisites of the course ask for? Do the pre-requisites say "basic computing abilities assumed"?
    – jim
    Sep 24, 2017 at 10:46
  • 1
    Aren't there "courses" or talks or labs or something offered for free by the undergraduate library to help new students get skills like basic computer skills, research skills, writing skills? I've been in multiple university libraries in the past 20 years or so and I always see posters up in the libraries offering these kinds of things. Plus individual help where needed.
    – davidbak
    Dec 2, 2017 at 21:31

4 Answers 4


Certainly it is reasonable to expect your students to be comfortable with a word processor and with basic internet research.

However, once in a while you will have a student who doesn't meet one of these, or some other basic skill expectation.

When this happens, you want the student to get up to speed ASAP. You offered a helpful, practical suggestion for this -- gold star!

If your first suggestion doesn't work, then you may want to go to someone in your teaching infrastructure, such as a dean of undergraduate studies in your department, and let them know about the problem. That person may take it from there, or give you another suggestion, or advise you that you've done all you can to get the student to remedy the deficiency, and remind you that sometimes the best motivation for change is failure.

Separate from the above, there is something you can do to help the student be more successful, in terms of your own teaching. I'll give you an analogy. Suppose a middle school social studies teacher assigns a project, with the instructions that to accompany the text, five hand-drawn illustrations are required. (This example is taken from recent real life -- incredible but true!) Suppose a student in the class has some sort of difficulty (physical or otherwise) with hand-drawn illustrations. Would it be fair to reduce this student's grade if the project is missing the five hand-drawn illustrations? Of course not. This student needs an educational accommodation, so that he can demonstrate his knowledge, without getting hung up on the form of demonstration.

Your internet-challenged student needed an educational accommodation too. We don't want the student to get evaluated on her internet research skill if that in itself is not the primary (or even secondary) academic goal of your course. (Please correct me if I'm wrong -- I'm assuming that internet research skills are a means to an end, not the end itself.)

You can do some brainstorming on your own when you see that a student needs an educational accommodation, and you can ask colleagues, friends and the disability office. (Not because this student had a disability, but because the folks in the disability office are used to thinking outside the box.) Once you've got a few ideas as a starting point, it's time to run them past the student to see if she has a preference, or any additional ideas.

I'll do a little quick brainstorming myself, just to get the ball rolling:

  • Ask for the student's email address, and send her three specific internet links you would like her to read in preparation for each assignment.

  • Once a week, print out three specific articles you would like her to read, understand and synthesize for that week's topic.

  • Mix it up. Sometimes make a small group weekly assignment that requires collaboration. Make sure everyone has gotten into a small group, and ask the students to let you or the TA know if their group isn't working out, so regrouping can take place.

  • 1
    "Please correct me if I'm wrong -- I'm assuming that internet research skills are a means to an end, not the end itself" The course itself doesn't revolve around internet research but does revolve around research in general. As I stated in paragraph 6 of my questions students can do research through any means they choose. However, I am a business teacher and employee in the field of business and Internet research is very important for any business position even if you get in information from a book - in the jobs I have worked your boss will ask for an electronic citation of it even if
    – Memj
    Aug 20, 2015 at 19:33
  • the company needs to spend a few dollars to get an e-copy. Just for ease of access.
    – Memj
    Aug 20, 2015 at 19:33

This is a very interesting observation. Before suggesting anything, I would tell you to avoid the words like country. Because it seems your student "A" represents that whole country. Now come to your question. This is very natural to have some typical students who are not interested to update themselves. They just love to be in their old fashions. I have seen many such people e.g. instead of using a calculator for big multiplications, they use pen and papers to waste time unnecessarily.

As per your queries, following minimum computer skills should be expected from any University students:

1- Knowledge of Word processing, Spreadsheet and Presentation (e.g. MS office, OpenOffice etc.)
2- Web browser basics
3- Email and ability to use an online learning forum
4- Computer security (Skills to keep secure the personal information and computer data)
5- Understanding the software and hardware
6- Skills to make good presentation 
  • 4
    Somewhere on that list should be Email and ability to use an online learning forum
    – StrongBad
    Aug 20, 2015 at 15:41
  • 15
    I'm surprised at the specific requirement for MS Word etc., rather than for word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software in general. By most standards I'm a computer expert, but the most recent version of MS Office I've used is 2007. I switched to OpenOffice and/or LibreOffice. Aug 20, 2015 at 16:19
  • 1
    I believe MS was specifically mentioned because that's what most Universities install on their own computers on campus. Correct me if I'm wrong. To have @Kayan elaborate - what do you mean by "Understanding to software and hardware"? Such as parts to the computer and what things are called when using a software such as MS or software and hardware knowledge in general?
    – Memj
    Aug 20, 2015 at 16:52
  • 2
    I think the use of Word and Excel specifically (as opposed to word processors and spreadsheets in general) is a requirement for a high proportion of jobs. I don't think it's too much of an issue though, as most of the time the people who use other software are the ones who understand enough to be able to work out a different program. That might be changing now though as Macs are becoming so much more common.
    – Jessica B
    Aug 20, 2015 at 17:05
  • 1
    Downvoted for specific products, and for disagreement on spreadsheet.
    – keshlam
    Aug 20, 2015 at 18:34

To answer your question I believe the following should be the basic knowledge for students

1. Word processing application
2. Ability to use an internet browser 

The thought process for this list was thinking of a student who does not own a laptop/computer. The closet technological resource for the student on campus is library computers or a computer lab. Most library computers will have IE and MS Suite products. All the student has to do now is learn how to use them by teaching themselves or asking someone and the rest should follow.

For the latter part of the question, it isn't common for this to happen but every student comes from a different background. What is most important is that this student wants to learn and doing her best do to so the way she knows. Why don't you teach her the basics? I wouldn't call this "special treatment" since you are an educator and you're helping her learn a skill that is necessary in this day and age, and you're not doing her assignment.

  • 1
    Teaching someone the basics is time out of my other duties such as grading, and reviewing the next weeks work and lectures. I mentioned sending the student to be tutored in basic computing skills, which she was.
    – Memj
    Aug 20, 2015 at 16:49
  • Have to downvote for the specific reference to individual products rather than classes of products, and because I doubt most students come in with experience with presentation tools or spreadsheets.
    – keshlam
    Aug 20, 2015 at 17:01
  • @keshlam I don't see the same comment for 6 item list above me.
    – LampPost
    Aug 20, 2015 at 17:50
  • My reaction was the same there; I just didn't explain twice. Since it bothers you...
    – keshlam
    Aug 20, 2015 at 18:33

The ability to use the internet (web search, email, etc.) and use word processing tools are usually considered assumed skills at university level. So yes, you can reasonably assume that students should have these skills, and it is reasonable to set tasks that require these skills. (It is not necessary to specify these as explicit prerequisites for courses to do so.)

As to your teaching, there is no need for you to worry about giving a student "special treatment" by helping them to bridge a gap in prerequisite knowledge. That is a legitimate part of teaching, and there is no disadvantage to other students by providing this student with some assistance for developing basic study skills. Most universities have some kind of Skills Centre where students can go if they need help with basic study abilities like this, so it is usually not something that course lecturers need to do themselves. I would recommend you look up the learning resources at your university (sometimes these are run through the university library) and see if you can refer this student to some teaching on these areas.

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