Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

Responding to Failing Students

Jennifer Hall, PhD CETLOE and Department of English

According to a study conducted in 2017, only 52% of students feel that 4-year colleges and universities “put students first.” (New America) That number seems surprisingly low to me. Maybe the past two years has changed something about our interaction with students, or maybe we’ve just gotten more invested in our students, but I don’t think so. For years, I’ve heard faculty, staff, and administrators speak about the “students” writ large with a twinkle in their eyes. I can’t believe that those same people go back to their offices and ignore students 48% of the time. The gulf between the way we think of ourselves as student advocates and the way students see us might be partially explained by surveyed students’ answers to another question in this study. When asked “who is responsible for student success in higher education,” the students in the Generation Z category responded that they were solely responsible only 39% of the time but that the university was responsible 52% of the time. (New America) If only 52% of students believe both that 4-year colleges and universities prioritize their learning AND universities are responsible for their success, then there may be a disconnect between what we think we’re doing for our students and what they think we should be doing for them.

It’s not surprising that there is a disconnect. Another couple of studies one in 2013 of 739 students and another in 2014 of 190 faculty examined student and faculty perceptions on student failure.  The study on student perceptions of failure found that students believed they failed for the following reasons:

35% motivation,

17% on study habits,

12% on preparedness,

11% on external factors,

11% on attitude

10% on instruction,

4% on relevancy (Cherif, et al.)

This study suggests that students blame themselves around 75% of the time. They see motivation, study habits, preparedness, and attitude (which is just motivation by another name) as something that’s wrong with them as learners. These students only found instruction to blame 10% of the time. Surveyed faculty, on the other hand, found themselves slightly more to blame, at 12% but really blamed the public schools. They believed students failed because:

38% weren’t ready for college

12% lacked effort

12% lacked motivation

12% lacked appropriate instruction

9% had work/life balance problems

8% lacked appropriate university resources

3% had economic issues (Movahedzadeh, et al.)

If we agree that motivation increases the desire to put forth effort, then faculty felt that students were unmotivated to succeed in about 24% of the cases. Faculty tended to blame students much less than students blamed themselves and tended to look for outside issues that might be to blame.

So, if they think they’re largely to blame and that they would do better if the university were to “put them first,” and we really don’t want to blame them either, how do we help students who are failing? We take the students that come to us, so if they weren’t prepared, either by public schools or by their previous college instructors, we can’t change that in 14 weeks. We can make changes, though. Here are the things we can change: instruction, motivation, attitude, study habits, and relevancy. I wrote about improving motivation in another blog post, so I won’t repeat that here, but let’s look at some of the other issues that lead to failure.

CETLOE offers lots of advice on teaching strategies that improve learning outcomes, but here are a few that can help when working with failing students. The first is course assessment and reflection. Many departments on campus are developing adaptive learning strategies that attempt to pin-point and eliminate barriers to student learning. You can use similar strategies in your own classroom. Look back at previous semesters to see if you accidentally created barriers to success. Consider whether you weighted certain assignments too heavily or offered high-stakes assignments too early. Sometimes early failure can make them feel there is no way to overcome the deficit. Check to see if there might have been more opportunities for practice or scaffolding along the way. Also, incorporate pre-tests and diagnostics to see what they know when they come into your class. If you’ve taught for more than one semester, you’ll know that no two classes are the same. Sometimes students come to class highly prepared and sometimes they lack the minimum knowledge. Pre-tests and diagnostics can help you establish a baseline so that you can fill in gaps early or scoot past review information that they don’t need. Allow for some flexibility, especially in these times. Since we know that work/life balance is an issue for our students, we can adapt to that issue by being more flexible with our assignments. Perhaps some assignments can’t be turned in late or completed as make-up assignments, but if allowing a student more time will help them pass the course, then consider making an exception. I’ve heard some argue that we’re getting them ready for the “working world.” Certainly, in the “working world” there are hard deadlines, but there is often room for flexibility as well, and by the time they get to that point, (hopefully) they won’t be working and trying to go to school at the same time, like so many of our students do now. Finally, make sure to show them how to succeed. Give them rubrics that explain what qualities determine a successful project. TiLT the assignments to show them the relevancy and increase their motivation. Make sure your grading systems are apparent to them so that they know which assignments are high stakes and which are practice. Finally, embrace an equity mindset. Keep in mind that many of our students are first generation college students, that we have a high need for accessibility (for both visual and invisible disabilities), and that we have many non-native students who may face cultural and linguistic challenges. Remember also that we have a highly diverse student body and a much less diverse faculty, so some students may feel less safe discussing their poor grades with white faculty than they do with faculty of color. All of us need to ensure that the grading is as transparent as possible and that the lines of communication with students are always open.

We can address poor study habits and attitude by creating a strong sense of classroom community. In How College Works, Chambliss and Takacs write:

Integration into the college community is crucial to a student’s remaining in school, and thus for their physical and psychological availability for any kind of academic work. We are not saying that a student absolutely must have friends and be happy in order to do good academic work. After all, some very unhappy social isolates can perform quite well. But friendship is so strong a factor for most people as to be, for practical purposes, virtually a prerequisite for success in college.

When we think of the “college experience,” we often think of dorms, athletics, fraternities, sororities, and the other peripheral elements of college, but the college experience doesn’t just happen outside the classroom.  We can capitalize on their desire for social engagement to motivate them to work harder in class and encourage stronger study habits. When students feel like a valued part of a community, they’re less likely to disappear from class. As Chambliss and Takacs point out, not all students want to make friends, but the social aspect of college is extremely important to many of them, as we’ve seen over the past two years. Encourage your students to create study groups. Set up a Google doc and have them all take notes in the same document during class so that they’re all responsible for contributing. Use the participation grade to your advantage by requiring them to engage with each other’s discussion posts and comments in class. Set up the dreaded GroupMe for them so that they can have easy access to ask each other questions (only make sure you’re in the group, too). Create a special lingo for your class and use it to make them feel like they’re part of a special community. Do anything you can to make them feel seen and missed.  Little things like learning their names and asking them to stay after class if they missed the class before to check in go a long way toward keeping them engaged. The more they feel connected to the class and to each other, the less likely they are to feel like they can drift off unnoticed and ignore your pleas for them to return.

Beyond establishing a sense of community, make sure you’re setting up a safety net for them. Keep the syllabus and assignment sheets easily available, and don’t make them feel bad if it was “on the syllabus” and they asked about it anyway. They take 4 or 5 classes, after all.  Make sure they all know what university resources are available, including not only resources like the writing studio and math lab, but also resources like the counselling center and access and accommodations. Set up reminders in iCollege or via email for assignments that are coming due and encourage them to keep up with the iCollege class calendar. Finally, make sure you know them well enough (or that your TA does in the case of large classes) that see you as part of their support system and that they feel free to come to you with questions and concerns.

Even the most cleverly structured classes can lose some students to failure or withdrawal. The students themselves acknowledge that “external factors” play a role 11% of the time. (Charif, et al.) Higher than normal DFW rates are something to notice, but if a course has been designed in a manner that supports community and creates safety nets, then make sure to document the protections you had in place. Keep track of your communication with failing students and of supports you put in place. Be willing to review the course before you teach it again to make sure that there aren’t any landmines that you missed. Every class is different. Sometimes just by the luck of the draw a higher number of students will experience “external factors” that cause them to fail or withdraw.  Be prepared to support them as best you can. Hopefully, with the right supports in place, you’ll be able to catch a few before they disappear.

Works Cited

Chambliss, Daniel F., and Christopher G. Takacs. How College Works. Harvard University Press, 2014.

Cherif, Abour & Movahedzadeh, & Adams, Gerald & Dunning,. (2013). Why Do Students Fail? Students’ Perspective. Higher Learning Commission: A Collection of Papers on Self-Study and Institutional Improvement. 35-51

Movahedzadeh, Farahnaz & Adams, Gerald & Martyn, & Dunning, & Cherif, Abour. (2014). Why Do Students Fail? Faculty’s Perspective,. Collection of Papers” published by the Higher Learning Commission.

“The Perceived Value of Public Colleges and Universities.” New America,

jenniferhall • October 29, 2021

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