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February 2, 2017

Teaching at Pitt

Teaching at Pitt Joel Brady

Identifying and helping at-risk students

Faculty members and graduate student instructors can play a key role in identifying “at-risk” students or, more specifically, students who are likely to fail or perform poorly academically.

Factors linked to poor academic performance vary widely, and include mental health status, social anxiety, socio-economic status, insufficient academic preparation, poor study skills, learning disabilities, status as first-generation college students, family disruptions, work responsibilities and a whole range of other issues. Because teaching faculty interact regularly with students, they may be uniquely positioned to identify such factors. By identifying at-risk students and implementing interventions, such as personalized instruction or referral to the appropriate University resources, faculty members may help the students succeed not only in their courses, but in the students’ others classes as well.

An immediate indicator that a student may be at risk, of course, is poor academic performance. While a failing grade on an early assignment or failure to submit an assignment does not ensure that a student will fail, it is a strong indicator of the possibility. Because falling behind at the beginning of a course can have dramatic negative consequences for the rest of the term, it is important to administer assessments — even informal ones — early and often. You might consider conducting a survey on the first day of class to identify students’ prerequisite skills, or to provide the opportunity for them to self-report any concerns they may have about their ability to perform well in the class.

A new feature in CourseWeb, known as the Retention Center, provides faculty with an efficient method of tracking student performance. In the Retention Center, an instructor can see, at a glance, which students have not logged into the course site within a specific time frame — a possible indicator of lack of engagement. Faculty also can get a snapshot of which students recently earned low grades, or who have consistently turned in late assignments. Additionally, once an instructor establishes certain “rules,” CourseWeb can automatically send notifications to the instructor that a student may be at risk.

After you identify at-risk students, consider what action to take. Often a note to students telling them of your concerns regarding their performance thus far — and what type of grade they can expect should it continue at that level — may have an effect. Consider asking students what their assessment of their performance is. Let them know how seriously you take their performance, and that they should take it seriously, too.

Consider also the tone in which you approach the students: Strive for a balance between communicating clear expectations and consequences, on the one hand, and a sincere investment in student success, on the other. Often students fail to perform well academically due to a lack of mentorship. Provide a few practical suggestions for success. Point the student toward review/remedial opportunities, or consider asking another student to serve as a peer tutor.

If you have identified a number of at-risk students, consider forming a cohort for review and/or peer tutoring sessions: In addition to providing the opportunity for mutual support, this strategy may improve efficiency. Consider other University resources, such as the Academic Resource Center, which provides peer tutoring, study skills training and other support services. Consider reaching out to the student’s adviser, whom you may identify either by asking the student directly or by determining the student’s program of study and locating the corresponding academic adviser or advising center.

Another key resource for at-risk students is the Counseling Center, which publishes the “Faculty & Staff Guide for Helping Distressed Students.” The guide identifies symptoms of student anxiety, depression, substance abuse and grief, among other issues, and provides strategies and tips, as well as University policies. Faculty can refer at-risk students to the center or call the Counseling Center themselves for suggestions on dealing with a particular student.

The Office of Student Conduct also may provide assistance. Faculty often believe that this is concerned exclusively with discipline; however, the office also provides various interventions, including mentoring and education, as well as connection with various support services.

Joel Brady is a teaching consultant and coordinator of the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative for the University Center for Teaching and Learning.

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