Do you have any students who are at risk for failure now? Is the performance of any of your students declining? How do you react when your students are not performing well in class?
If I were to ask you which students in your class were likely to fail, the easiest indicator would be grades as it offers evidence of students who are not making considerable progress. As most educators know, grades present only one aspect of the learning process and it is still possible that any student can be at risk for failure, even those students who are peak performers. While some students can excel, regardless of classroom conditions, most experience fluctuations in their performance throughout their academic journey. It takes someone who is actively engaged in their class and working with their students to know when someone is starting to struggle, disengage, or run the risk of long-term failure.
Every student presents an instructor with an opportunity to have a direct impact on their ongoing development, especially if they are aware of the risk factors present at every level of performance. However, this creates a time challenge as getting to know your students and engage with them through feedback and discussions requires an investment of time. My reason for becoming an educator was based upon a desire to help others learn, including students and faculty, and this has served me well throughout my career. I do not want to see students struggle and then decide I do not have enough time. I want to be present and available, aware of how all students are performing, alert for signs they may be at risk for failing, and ready to assist them. There are strategies I use to assist those students who are at risk for failure and there are specific indicators to watch out for as well.
Examining Risk Factors
When you look at your gradebook and see how your students are performing it may give you an impression this is how your students are, in terms of their academic development. For example, a student with an "A" grade is likely to be someone who naturally excels at any task assigned. But sustaining a grade is not always guaranteed. There may be challenges along the way. I have found most student perform close to the average range - with fluctuations throughout the class. The best indicator of performance includes how students are writing their papers and participating in the class discussions. Below are typical performance levels and something to consider for each one.
Above Average: Here are questions to ask yourself about a student who is currently at this level: Can they sustain it? Will they feel pressure to sustain it? Was it a breakthrough or a once-in-a-semester occurrence? As you get to know your students, which takes time and effort, you can find out more about their abilities - and this helps alert you to potential risks. For example, if this was their first success, you can help them sustain it.
Average: Here are some questions to ask yourself for students at this level: Is the student stuck for some reason? Was this student performing "Above Average" or "Below Average" before? Is this the best of their abilities? Does this student need encouragement to excel? Does this student need resources to improve? Does this student need to adapt their attitude? Does this student need confidence or self-motivation?
Here again, the more you get to know your student, the more you can help to coach them further along. Some students perform at an average level for so long that they begin to accept this is the best they can do, until someone else comes along and shows them they have a greater ability or capacity to learn.
Marginal: This student is at the borderline of failure. It may seem they are putting in the minimal effort and perhaps they may not even care about their progress. It could be possible they have not established a productive working relationship with an instructor before and this is something you could help to change as perceptions have a direct impact on the learning process.
This student may have also had negative experiences in a prior class and developed a poor attitude, and while you may never know about it, the more effort you put into connecting with them, the more you will be able to help them improve. As a result, the level of motivation of this student may also improve because of the effort you extend into working with him or her.
Below Average: This student is obviously not showing up for class, not submitting papers, and/or not responding to your coaching attempts. With this student, you are going to need to extend the most care, time, and attention; if you are really interested in helping them connect back with the class. It is possible this student may never engage back into the class and while this is understandable, I have been surprised many times by students who responded to a call or something personal that demonstrated I cared about their progress.
Assumptions Made by Instructors and Students
When students are failing a class, there is often blame that comes into play. It can begin at the institutional level as class assignments can be made based upon an adjunct's teaching scores. Then comes the finger pointing, as if it is an instructor's fault. Then an instructor may state the student is self-directed and is responsible for their own progress, which means they are responsible for keeping up with class requirements and completing all assignments. Instructors may state they do not have time to analyze every student or it is not their responsibility to do more than their job requires them to complete.
From the perspective of your students, they may believe their instructors are supposed to help them. I've heard students state they "do not know what to do" and they are waiting on their instructors to respond. Students may get stuck if they do not know how to improve or they believe this is the best they can do. While I cannot change any of this, I can tell you if you commit to being an educator, your role is to be focused on the developmental needs of your students, and not blame anyone when they earn a failing grade. You can help students, even those who may not realize yet they can benefit from your guidance and coaching.
Assisting Students Who Are at Risk
There are some additional tools I have implemented and would recommend you include as part of your instructional strategy, to help students who may be at risk for failing. I believe you will find most of these strategies are useful for online instructors rather than instructors teaching in traditional classrooms.
Feedback Report Summary: After you have completed feedback for a class period, send a summary report via email directly to each student. I understand this is making a commitment of additional time. If you have a large class you could craft one short, concise paragraph to highlight accomplishments and achievements, and more importantly - encourage both a dialogue and questions. A critical point about this strategy: If the student did not submit a paper, or the paper submitted was very poorly written, sending an email is not the best approach. This is the time to schedule a phone conversation or make a cold call to the student.
Weekly Check-In Progress Message: A simple, friendly message from an instructor can add a personalized touch to your instruction - provided you add value to the message and encourage students to read it. You could mention the topics being studied that week and share a helpful tip. You could share a study strategy or tip. More importantly, encourage students to ask questions as a means of keeping them engaged in the course and with you.
Contact with Students Who Are Not Participating: When students are not actively participating in class discussions, try contacting them earlier in the week instead of waiting until the end of the class week. A friendly reminder can be a helpful method of keeping them engaged in the course and alert you to their progress in class.
Communication Strategy for Email: When you send an email to your students be sure you show appreciation in some manner, even if you acknowledge their questions and thank them for the messages. The purpose is to encourage an ongoing dialogue with them and build a working relationship with them. It is a good idea never to discuss developmental needs by email and instead, schedule a time to speak by phone or other forms of direct communication you have made available. You want to convey warmth as you write, offer to follow up with them, and confirm how you will follow through with your ideas, suggestions, and coaching.
The goal of assisting students who are at risk is to bolster their performance so that they are improving, regardless of where they are at now. I have never liked labels and instead I prefer to look at students as adults who have potential for growth and a capacity to learn. This does not mean every student is going to progress at the same rate as they have developmental needs, attitudes, beliefs, under-developed skills, and other factors which can influence or impede their growth. What I can do is try to be a positive influence and help prevent them from not only declining in performance, but seeing a new or renewed sense of self. A sense of self-empowerment is what every student needs to sustain their progress, even when faced with challenges. When you can help students accomplish this goal, their performance will improve and their likelihood of failure will greatly decrease.
About Dr. Johnson
Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities, fulfilling his life's mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.
As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.
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