The Struggle Is Real

Joining the ranks of students taught Laura M. Harrison more about academic underperformance than the many volumes she'd read on the topic.

July 16, 2019

Why don’t they ask questions? Why don’t they come to office hours? Why don’t they work harder?

As a professor, I used to ask myself such questions about low-performing students. I found those students deeply confusing. I understood the enticing front-row students who did the reading and showed up ready to talk. Like most faculty members, I was one of those kids. They were my people. Getting to teach them was one of the reasons I chose the academic life.

The back-row students, however, confounded and sometimes maddened me. I did not understand them until I became one.

After Trump’s election in 2016, I looked for ways I could be of greater use to our international and immigrant communities. English-language instruction emerged as a place where I could possibly do some good, so I enrolled in a course in my university’s department of linguistics. I thought it would be novel to be a student again; it did not once occur to me that I would struggle in this undergraduate course. My first test grade, 33.5 out of 50, proved a humbling experience.

Joining the ranks of struggling students taught me more about academic underperformance than the volumes I have read on the topic. Higher education leaders know students struggle; the current six-year graduation rate at public universities remains stagnant at 59 percent, according to a 2018 National Center for Education Statistics report. The consequences for the 41 percent of students permanently stuck with the “some college” designation are well documented, as they face crippling student loan debt without access to the kinds of jobs that offer high enough salaries to pay it down.

Higher education institutions, which allocate considerable human and financial resources toward improving retention and graduation rates, are also feeling the consequences of the 41 percent. Those who hold universities’ purse strings often invest in early-warning systems and other technological solutions that promise success on a grand scale. But while the technology may be good at flagging those in trouble, this action is pointless if the faculty member receiving the notification doesn’t know what to do with those students.

Before I became a student again in 2017, I was not particularly adept at helping academically underperforming students. I failed to understand the experience of academic struggle well enough to be of use. It’s not that I never struggled; I did flunk high school geometry. But that mishap occurred in 1988, so suffice it to say that I was fairly out of touch with the thoughts and feelings that accompanied that particular challenge.

Becoming a student again solved this problem of being out of touch. After I essentially failed my first linguistics test, I started to have many lightbulb moments about academic struggle and what ameliorates or exacerbates it. I began writing down those insights and testing them on my own students, who offered invaluable feedback. I started to realize that all of the advice I had been giving my own students (“ask questions,” “go to office hours,” “work harder”) was well meaning but ultimately vague and useless.

Such advice is rooted in the grit narrative, a wildly popular idea driving current educational policy and practice. Angela Duckworth’s research on student success found that grit -- defined as passion and perseverance toward long-term goals -- was a significant variable. Echoing responses to Carol Dweck’s similar work on mind-set, Duckworth’s findings were considered good news because they emphasize effort rather than ability. This feels hopeful and democratic; anyone can achieve, as long as they focus on building what are called noncognitive skills such as conscientiousness, courage and resilience.

The grit narrative resonated with my own experience, as I frequently rely on passion and perseverance when trying to complete a writing project or design a new course. Grit proved useless to me, however, when I was a struggling student. After I received my first 33.5 out of 50 test score, I took the grit approach. I read the textbook repeatedly, took more notes and studied harder. I devoted myself to the study of linguistics, frequently reminding myself of both my goals and belief that learning is more about hard work than innate talent. My grade on the second test: 33.5 out of 50.

Building More Slack

While it was not fun to receive the same low grade on the second test, it did turn out to be an enlightening experiment. The second 33.5 out of 50 disavowed me of my most deeply held assumptions about the grit narrative. Grit works when I essentially know what I’m doing and just need to push through the more tedious parts of a task. But when I was truly lost, working harder amounted to running in circles. Doing the same things with more determination did not get me unstuck.

This accidental experiment freed me up to be more creative in my approach to learning. I searched for videos online and found it helpful to watch instructors who talked about topics from slightly different angles. Being able to tinker with my homework problems in light of these various approaches made the material more interesting. I also worked more intentionally with a friend’s daughter who happened to be in the class. Thinking together significantly improved my ability to look at the material differently and troubleshoot challenges with another person. I also talked to multilingual people about how they learned new languages and started to see how some of the things that confounded me worked in real life.

Taken together, these approaches helped me get unstuck by building on both my intellectual curiosity and enjoyment of collaborative learning. I did not get a 33.5 out of 50 on my third test, and I eventually worked my way up to an A in the course.

I could stumble onto these helpful strategies because I had what Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan call slack: the space in one’s life that allows a person to access a greater share of their intellectual and emotional resources. While I was busy as an academic, I was not taking a full course load on top of multiple minimum-wage jobs like so many students do today. It seems to me that helping struggling students starts with advocating for the kinds of systemic change that would build more slack into their lives.

Systemic change takes time, however. Fortunately, there are things we can do for the students sitting in front of us right now. Instead of issuing vague prompts like, “Any questions?” we can ask them to tell us more specifically where the theory-practice gaps occur for them. We can troubleshoot together rather than leaving them out there on their own. We can allow students to work collaboratively on problems -- but not in the dreaded “group work” scenario where they are randomly assigned and forced to accept a collective grade regardless of the discrepancies between members’ contribution levels. We can instead encourage students to consult with one another as we do in real life when we need to solve a problem or learn a new skill.

We can ask better questions than why students don’t go to office hours. But if we still want to know the answer to that question, we can ask the students themselves. I inadvertently did this once when I asked a student how her writing had improved so much in our third class together. She told me that it was because I had required office hours in the third class, so she finally gained an understanding of what she had been doing wrong.

I was surprised that she had not come to office hours on her own, but she explained that she (and many of her peers) thought office hours were for students at the highest or lowest ends of the performance spectrum. She (and many of her peers) also thought they were bothering faculty members by going to office hours. Given the genuine pressures and busyness culture prevalent in academe, I can understand her logic.

We need to play the long game of both systemic and culture change in higher education, but we can also pick some lower-hanging fruit in the here and now when it comes to struggling students. We can ask our students better questions and listen to their answers. We can work intentionally to make ourselves approachable so that students know they can come to us with their struggles. We can make the effort to truly understand struggling students, let go of the grit narrative’s excesses and teach such students how to be more creative and collaborative when navigating the difficulties they face.

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Laura M. Harrison is an associate professor in the counseling and higher education department at Ohio University and author of Teaching Struggling Students: Lessons Learned From Both Sides of the Classroom.


Laura M. Harrison

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