Title

How to Help Academically Struggling Students

Steps we need to take.

December 16, 2019
 
 

We have early alerts, behavioral nudges and automated reminders as well as intrusive advisers; walk-in math labs; writing, foreign language and science centers; peer tutors; peer-led study groups; online tutorials; supplemental instruction and, of course, faculty office hours.

But a problem persists: How do we get academically struggling students to take advantage of the supports we offer?

It is sad but true: most struggling students do not use our academic support services -- even though the evidence for their effectiveness is overwhelming.

You can bring horses to water, we’ve been told, but you can’t force them to drink.

Many students struggle not because they’re underprepared or unmotivated, socialize too much, or aren’t “smart enough,” or “college material,” but for other reasons. Sure, some students are distracted or unfocused and unable to successfully juggle family, work and academic responsibilities. But for many, the problem is that they don’t know how to study effectively or process the material presented in class or take tests or write an effective college-level essay, or apply knowledge and methods to new contexts.

Our learning centers can help -- with bridge programs, workshops, tutoring sessions, supplemental instruction and study skills sessions -- but only if students attend. And that turns out to be a big “but.”

Is it because students are unaware of these supports? No.

It’s largely because of mind-set and attitude:

  • That using such services is a sign of inadequacy.
  • That these services aren’t really intended for students like them.
  • That these services won’t make a difference.

Ironically, attitudes that are sometimes held up as helpful -- grit, perseverance, persistence -- can compound the problem. Such attitudes can encourage counterproductive behavior by generating a “do-it-yourself” mentality.

Many struggling students feel that if they only work harder, success will follow. But without outside help, such efforts, too often, prove useless. As a result, our support services don’t reach these students.

What kinds of academic supports work best with struggling students?

Certain approaches are obvious:

  • Spot struggling students early.
  • Be proactive. Alert students to their need for help.
  • Inform students of the support services that are available.

But if we are to motivate struggling students to truly take advantage of our support structures, other strategies are essential.

1. Integrate study skills training into the academic experience.

Stand-alone, noncredit study-skills courses attract few students at commuter institutions. The alternative is to embed study skills into classes or offer study-skills courses for some, however small, amount of academic credit.

2. Work on students’ mind-set.

Let students know: going to a learning center doesn’t mean you’re dumb. Students fail to take advantage of support services for many reasons, but the main one involves mind-set: a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality that often grows out of a sense of insecurity or inadequacy or disconnection from instructors, classmates and the institution as a whole.

Spread the word: support services work. Encourage your students to take advantage of learning centers.

3. Recognize the importance of faculty.

Faculty mentoring and mind-set matter. It is essential that faculty convey certain messages:

  • That your students are fully capable of success in your class.
  • That your goal as a teacher is to bring all students to at least a minimal level of competency.

Guide students to tutorials and other instructional resources that they can use to remediate weaknesses. Reach out to students personally and motivate them. An increase in student-faculty interaction helps overcome students’ sense of disconnection. Demonstrate a personal interest in their academic progress.

4. Realize that course design can make a big difference.

  • Incorporate early diagnostics into your course to help students better understand gaps in their knowledge and skills.
  • Integrate collaborative learning into your classroom, since students absorb a lot of valuable information from classmates and develop a stronger sense of belonging.
  • Engage students with assignments that address authentic challenges or mimic professional practice.
  • Take preparing students for exams and other high-stakes assignments seriously. Explain what you are looking for. Consider asking students to suggest exam questions. Have your class collaboratively create or evaluate a sample response or draft a grading rubric.

I’ve long believed that if one student fails, that may well be the student’s problem, but if many slip through the cracks, that’s my problem. Our institutions invest enormous resources in learning support services. It’s our responsibility to ensure that students take advantage of those services.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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