Teaching Tip: Unprepared and at-risk

Today’s post is less of a “tip” and more of a look at one of the major issues we are all dealing with in our classrooms.  Unprepared and “at risk” students are on the rise across the country, in both graduate and undergraduate programs.  We might prefer to remember the students we used to have or imagine the students we think we should be getting, but the sooner we face reality, the sooner we can make a difference.

Kathleen Gabriel works with at-risk college students at the University of Arizona.  In her book Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for promoting success and retention in higher education, she identified five guiding principles for working with these at-risk students, but they can easily apply to all students.

  1. All students can become lifelong learners.  This is Gabriel’s fundamental principle, the basic belief that underlies all the others.  It sounds good, but what does this belief look like in practice?  It means focusing on effort, not ability and encouraging students to do the same.  It means challenging students’ beliefs that something is “too hard” and not letting them off the hook.  It means not looking the other way when students don’t complete assignments or complete them poorly.  It leads directly to Gabriel’s second principle….
  2. Significant change requires time and commitment from both students and professors.  We can’t continue to teach to the middle and expect less prepared students to get it on their own. And they can’t expect to be passively uninvolved.  If students are not willing to join us, that is their decision and their loss.  But if we decide not to join them, we don’t give them that chance. What does this mean in practice?  It means following up on absent students, holding frequent out of class meetings or chat sessions, assigning extra drafts of written work, giving more feedback and answering more questions.  It may mean requiring students to attend office hours!  This isn’t easy given the busy lives that we lead.  Which once again leads directly to Gabriel’s next principle…..
  3. Struggle is an important part of life; in fact, it’s required.  Once again, that struggle is both ours and our students.  Ours is to get to know students, to reach out to them, to look for new ways to intervene when the other ways don’t work.  Their struggle – to grasp the rope that is offered, to keep trying, to make change, not to avoid.  If students see us struggling to reach them, if they see that we think it’s worthwhile, just maybe they will begin to think it’s worthwhile too.  But it can’t be all on our side…..
  4. Students must take responsibility for their learning.  I don’t know a single faculty member who would disagree with this statement, but what does it mean and how do we get there?  Getting students to take responsibility for themselves and their learning is one of the major developmental tasks of college, and fewer freshmen seem ready to do so.  Sometimes just getting them to hand in work is a struggle.  Perhaps one place to start is to ask students to set goals for themselves, either for learning, class attendance and participation or even (ugh) grades.  Then check in with them to see if they are meeting their goals.  If they are struggling, you can help them plan new strategies.  This goal setting process is useful with students at all levels since the goals can be personalized.
  5. Don’t do for students what they can do for themselves.  There’s a concept in k-12 called “work inhibition”.  This term refers to students who are capable of doing work but are not doing it. I’m certain you’ve seen work inhibited students in your classes, I know I do.  One possible cause of work inhibition is adults (parents and/or teachers) who “help” students do tasks they can do themselves or otherwise get overly involved.    This sends the message that students are not capable or don’t need to do things for themselves.  When students come to us with this mindset, we need to understand that their ability to make independent choices and decision may be somewhat underdeveloped.  Practice making choices and setting up a work schedule will be needed before they can take charge of their own work.

So, it’s the end of the semester – is it too late to reach those at-risk students in your classes who are floundering?  For some, the boat may have sailed, and sunk.  But maybe you can help those students learn some important lessons from their failure.  For those students who still are trying — consider scheduling that extra office visit or taking time after class or via email to reach out even though a part of you may be thinking that this student really should have stepped up sooner.   They should have, it’s true.  They are learning and they make mistakes (sometimes quite colossal ones).  Maybe you will be the one who will make the difference, keep them going, give them the encouragement that they will remember next semester.   Not because you let them off the hook or watered things down or made it easy.  Because you showed them what they could do and what they needed to do and that you believed they could do it.

What’s your biggest frustration with at-risk students?  Are Gabriel’s principles helpful when thinking about at-risk students or are they just good ideas for working effectively with ALL students? Do we need to change how we teach or structure our curriculum or our programs to support the time and effort it takes to work with at-risk students?

The CTE has a copy of Gabriel’s book you are welcome to borrow.



One Response

  1. The Washington Post has been following West Potomac High’s struggle with this issue. The school replaced F’s with I’s for incompletes. Although the school has taken a lot of flak both internally and externally–I believe in the latest move F’s have been partially reinstated–I like the idea of I’s for students who are making a sincere effort but just haven’t mastered what they need to. There’s a danger, of course, that students will rack up I’s and never graduate (though you can put an expiration date on them). But I like the idea of focusing on learning rather than grades and of recognizing that all F’s are not equal.

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