How to Help Struggling Students

September 20, 2021

Although some college educators believe their job is to teach and a student’s job is to learn, there’s a reason students attend classrooms instead of just reading their textbooks. Educators are there to help students achieve their full potential. 

It’s easy when you have students who are brilliant. But the real mark of a teacher is how they handle their struggling students. If you can help a struggling student achieve new levels of understanding (without sacrificing the rest of your class in the process), then you’re truly living up to your title as an educator. 

How to Spot a Struggling Student

If students are frequently disrupting your classroom, it’s easy to acknowledge that there’s something else going on. But all too often, struggling students suffer silently, especially in a college environment. You may not know until their first test that they’re having a hard time. 

One way to spot struggling students is to implement proactive strategies. For example, you might set up a time to meet with each student during your office hours. You could also provide space at the beginning of the year for students to tell you about their learning process and which teaching strategies they connect best with. These types of interviews can lend you real insight about your students. 

Attendance is another way to spot a struggling student. Many struggling students will have spotty attendance records, and will seem disconnected from your lessons when they are in class. 

Handling Learning Disabilities

When you have students with specific learning disabilities, it can feel overwhelming to meet their needs. You may have to adjust your teaching methods to help these students connect with your material. 

Every learning disability is different, so your first step is to do some research. Reach out to special education teachers in the area or do some reading about the unique strengths and weaknesses students with that learning disability may have. 

For example, say you find out that a student in your classroom has ADHD. A typical classroom learning environment — where students sit still and focus on a lecture — isn’t going to connect well with that student. The student may become disruptive by talking out of turn. But once you know about their learning disability, you may be able to develop strategies to work with them. You could use more visual cues to help them stay on task, and you could include a variety of activities so they don’t just have to sit and listen to a lecture. 

Communicating With Underperforming Students

Once you’ve spotted an underperforming student, it’s important to talk to them. Always do this in private, either by asking them to come see you during your office hours or — if that’s not feasible — through email. 

Interviewing a student about why they’re struggling in your class can bring you insights about what’s getting in the way of the learning process. A student who isn’t showing up to class because their car keeps breaking down has different needs than a student who isn’t showing up because they can’t remember their class schedule. 

Addressing the Needs of Individual Students

Once you understand what your struggling students need, the next step is to address those needs without taking your attention away from the rest of your classroom. 

One option is to create a learning contract with each struggling student. In this contract, you can lay out exactly what you need the student to do to pass your class and what you’re willing to do to facilitate that goal. This may mean creating more in-depth rubrics for assignments, recording your class and posting it online so the student can review it later, or helping the student learn how to read textbooks for pertinent information. 

Make sure to tap into campus resources as well. You can be a point of contact between your students and a campus tutor or learning center. 

Another option is to create a flexible learning module. By explicitly stating what students need to do to be successful in your classroom, you can give students who are not natural learners the tools to succeed not only in your class but in other college courses. 

Help Struggling Students Proactively

Being proactive is one of the best ways to help struggling students. Structure your courses so that they cater to numerous learning styles, breaking up lectures with group activities, individual activities, and opportunities to be creative. Teach students what you expect from them. Show them how to take notes on lectures or how to be an active listener early on, so students can benefit from that information for the rest of the school year. Consider creating numerous small assignments instead of a few large assignments so you can spot struggling students early and offer numerous opportunities for them to make up poor grades. 

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