How to Help Struggling Students

Posted Oct 25, 2017
    Christopher Ruel
Christopher Ruel
Community and Social Marketing, Wiley

We’ve all encountered hardworking students who, for whatever reason, are not grasping the material. What strategies do you use to identify these students early on, to keep them from falling further behind?


Lena Brigance, WileyPLUS Implementation Specialist, shares an experience of turning a negative outcome around.


Take a Deep Dive into a Challenging Topic

A few years ago, I was teaching an Income Tax Preparation class and I had a student who maintained a B average or better in the class. That was until we got to the chapter on depreciation. This student asked to talk with me after class one night and she indicated she was going to drop out of the class because she felt like the topic was too difficult for her. She was a pretty strong student and I felt that with some extra effort she would be able to grasp the material. We discussed her concerns and we decided to schedule a meeting outside of class to review the material further. We sat down for about two hours on a Sunday afternoon and worked through some exercises and reviewed the depreciation tables from the Internal Revenue Service in a little more detail. After our meeting, she decided to remain in the class.


While it was a little extra time on my part, it was worth it for the student as she passed the course with flying colors. I see her occasionally and she still thanks me for helping her get through that class.


More Tips from Educators


Professor helping student.jpg


Talk to your students. What are they struggling with outside of the classroom? Are they overwhelmed by work or family commitments? Perhaps they could use some coaching around time management. Or, a more difficult question involves asking for an honest answer about how much effort they are putting into studying. Feel free to ask these questions to get an understanding of how you may be able to help.



How many of your students are first generation college attendees? Sometimes these students become very concerned when they don’t get the material right away. Reassuring them that learning takes place over a period of time aids their ability in setting realistic expectations.


The Tutoring Center

Directing students to the campus tutoring center is not an abnegation of your responsibilities as an educator, nor does it mean you are bad at communicating the material. Different people explain concepts in different ways and if a tutor puts a unique spin on a topic, and the student “gets it,” then that’s a win for everybody.


What’s the Motivation?

Students usually have a motivation for taking a course. It may be as simple as “I have to” in the case of required courses. Others may have a deep desire to learn and have chosen your class as an elective. Then there are the students who are highly motivated by grades because they realize their next step depends on a certain level of achievement. If you see a student struggling, ask him/her what it is they want to get out of the course. From there you can work on a success plan.


Step into My Office … Or Perhaps, Let’s Get Some Coffee

Knocking on your office door and saying “I’m having a difficult time understanding the material” can be daunting for some students. Encourage them to visit you in a way that communicates your willingness to help. Maybe the first time they’ll do a “drive by” and notice that there are a few other students hanging about and waiting their turn. They will see they’re not alone. If you notice a student doing multiple “drive bys,” maybe the office setting is intimidating. Suggest a neutral place on campus such as a café or the library, where you can meet.


Studying is a Skill

Many students don’t know how to study effectively. Highlighters, Post-it notes, color-coded tabs within binders, etc., may not be part of a student’s study toolbox because they weren’t taught to use such items. A little advice on how to get themselves organized and incorporate best practices can go a long way.


Some Food for Thought

1. What do you do when you see a student struggling?

2. What resources do you make available or offer students when they ask for additional help?


Share your own strategies or struggles in the comments below.


Image Credit: Hero Images


What Is HyFlex Course Design?

Posted Oct 19, 2017
    Amanda Rosenzweig
Amanda Rosenzweig
Instructor, Delgado Community College

I’ve recently taught a course that utilizes HyFlex Course Design and see some advantages to this model. In the HyFlex course design, students can choose to attend face-to-face synchronous class sessions or complete course learning activities online without physically attending class. Hyflex can provide student engagement at the time they see/hear the material. Since HyFlex is online and F2F, there are comprehension checks towards objectives from learning activities that are integrated between online and F2F. The same objective is being measured with similar difficulty regardless of delivery mode.


Practicing HyFlex Design

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While there are different practicing definitions of HyFlex, I worked on a grant that focused on flexible attendance with due dates. Students can choose to attend face-to-face meetings and earn weekly participation points or complete equivalent work online and earn participation points. There are due dates for the online set of materials to ensure students stay on task.


To prepare students for the face-to-face meeting or online activities, they have Before Class Work (BC), which closes on a specific date. The next set of activities is In Class Work or In Lieu of in class (online work). Once In Class or In Lieu of In Class is complete, they have After Class Assignments to bring the weeks objectives together (AC).


Both sets of activities (in class or in lieu of class) will cover the same objectives, but the format is different and the activities will reflect the difference in format – online versus face-to-face.


HyFlex Design in Laboratory Settings

I have been on teams that focus on laboratory skills and experiments. I believe this format can be an excellent alternative to your traditional labs. The students will have modules created that address BC (preparation) work, IC hands on laboratory skills and AC work to bring it all together. Once the BC work for the assignment is completed, the students will have access to the IC laboratory experiment. The AC work will open up once the IC work (lab report, results, troubles and successes) is submitted on the LMS. For this to be successful, laboratories must be accessible to students and ideally there would be a lab manager on duty to help facilitate and answer student questions.


Feedback Is Important

Regardless of class type (lecture or laboratory), each module should have a formative assessment that allows students to discuss the pros and cons of the HyFlex format as well as feedback about the content.


Questions to ponder:

  1. Would this format be something you would consider using?
  2. How can this format support student's needs and wants in and out of the classroom?
  3. What are the implications for teaching and learning built on the HyFlex model?


Have you used Hyflex Course Design? Would you consider using it? Share you thoughts and experiences in the comments below.


Image Credit: SuperStock


    Diane Rubino
Diane Rubino
Adjunct Instructor, New York University
Course Associate, Columbia University

diego cervo istockphoto_105937122_Rubino_Reading.jpg“I didn’t do the reading,” said Taylor (a pseudonym) with a nervous laugh. Our casual chat in a student lounge undoubtedly contributed to her openness. Most students are not as forthcoming despite their obvious lack of preparation.


I discovered this is often the end of the discussion for my peers when I solicited advice about improving reading adherence. “They’re graduate students,” they’d say. “They read the material or they don’t.” Despite the laissez faire coating, most conversations with instructors are incomplete until someone complains that the students aren’t keeping up with assignments.


At first I didn’t give much attention to whether my class did the homework either. I put my mind to finding good resources, assuming students would do the work. But they didn’t. Clearly that put a damper on learning. It also made classes more wooden. I had to rely on lecture rather than in-class engagement and exercises—both of which are predicated on completed assignments. I decided that if it was worth worrying about the lack of adherence—or even assigning texts at all—I should revisit my hands-off approach to reading.


Thought Evolution

Learning individual names early by requesting a profile and selfie was instrumental in drawing them out. When a question fell flat or someone wasn’t participating I called on them by name. If students knew they were going to be asked about the homework, they were more likely to do it.


In larger classes, I asked students to keep track of the number of comments made by their classmates to ensure I knew who was participating. Because this task was rotated, it also gave students the chance to know their peers better and be more focused on discussions.


Still, I suspected compliance was irregular. (Though, truthfully, I’d never actually asked who did the work.) I wanted another method to motivate the students to read the material. This decision was influenced by contemporary textbooks, which are very different than what I was used to as a student. An introductory writing text I just considered is about 475 pages. When I went to school, a book that size was primarily found in law or medical schools. That thick text is intimidating even for me—and I know the subject.


Prelude to a Change

In deciding what to do next, I had a few frank “the-semester’s-over-and-the-grades-are-submitted” conversations in which I asked students what was happening. There wasn’t soul-searching, just a neutral expression that their classmates didn’t do the work. Although not what I wanted to hear, I had to admit that my own compliance was spotty when I was their age.


So I checked in with friends, especially teachers who went back to graduate school as adults. Their advice was particularly important because they were recently in school and had current, relevant experience. The consensus was that a moderate amount of material and an activist approach to reading adherence helped them learn.


Reimagining Support

Like Goldilocks in a classroom, I went through many permutations to find the right level of support. For example, I gave easy, short, weekly quizzes. If you’ve done the homework, I reasoned, you’ll know the answers. A mature student dissuaded me from that position. She pointed out that asking specific questions tended to test memory rather than understanding.


Given that fair critique, I switched to mimicking an exceptional colleague versed in teaching critical thought. I asked for 5-minute in-class papers articulating students’ opinions of the key takeaways of the readings. This swung the pendulum back toward loose. I got answers that were true but superficial, ideas that seemed to be based on a quick skim. The next semester I returned to quizzes that asked specific questions, but allowed students to use their notes.


All of these ideas worked to some degree and, I believe, are worth trying. But none felt exactly right for my classes.


So I went to my convenience sample of Facebook friends with the question: What are your tips, ideas*, etc. for getting graduate students to do course reading? Many posted ideas about what helped them as students, which seems especially credible.


In addition to a graduate student’s reminder for instructors to stay on top of their own reading(!), here are some other thoughts:


  • Have each student take notes on the readings as part of their homework and share these thoughts with a small group during an in-class discussion.
  • Ask for a written reflection/journal on the material. Have students publish their reactions on the course site and comment on a set number of other posts.
  • Require a short summary of the homework, spot-checked for accuracy, be sent to the instructor before the class.
  • Task students with running a discussion of the readings.
  • Distribute questions about the readings the week before—and then use them to generate conversation.


Helping Students Succeed

Many of the instructors I’ve spoken with are understandably uninterested in a hands-on approach. For myself, I think I’m especially motivated by my own foibles. My fundamental belief is that students want to do the work, just like I did. Most sign up with the intention of staying on top of the assignments and learning as much as possible. Then L-I-F-E gets in the way. Offering support is a call to their original, better angels. They, like me, need some extra help now and then to stay on the right path.


* I’m grateful for smart ideas from Monica Grant, Lauren Jessell, Heidi Jones, Maya Mesola, and Laura Spess.


Image Credit: Diego Cervo / iStockPhoto


    Douglas Petrick
Douglas Petrick
Physics Teacher, Pittsburgh, PA

In this week’s podcast, I offer more advice on increasing class participation and facilitating student dialogue. Listen and share how you encourage participation in the comments below.



Read my post E Pluribus Unum: What Social Studies Taught Me About Teaching.


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