How to Tell When Your Students Are at Risk for Failure

If you were to ask an instructor which students in a particular class were likely to fail, the easiest indicator would be grades as that presents evidence of students who are not making significant 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. 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.

I have been actively involved in the field of faculty development, specifically in the field of distance learning, and I know how much time these faculty spend on their duties. One recent article described adjunct faculty, including the online adjuncts, as the working poor – as they are teaching classes with a high number of students, often at marginal pay rates. The reason for bringing this up is that adjuncts themselves are often at risk for failure as they are working at peak capacity – and when I talk about spending more time with students it can seem overwhelming. I have even been told by administrators that if students were at risk, I should simply pass them along to ensure they earn a passing grade for their courses.

This presents two dimensions for teaching adult students, especially online students in the for-profit industry. I have had to make a decision as an educator about my position regarding helping students, having classes with high enrollments, and being told to pass students along. My decision was to leave schools that asked me not to focus on teaching and stay with those that allowed me to be an educator, even if I had to spend additional time helping students in need. My reason for becoming an educator was based upon a desire to help others learn, including students and faculty, and that has served me well. I do not want to see students struggle and then decide that I do not have enough time. I want to be present and available, aware of how all students are performing, alert for signs that they may be at risk for failing, and ready to assist.

Examining Risk Factors

When you look at your gradebook and see how your students are performing it may give you an impression that 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 particular grade is not always guaranteed. There may be bumps along the way. I have found, as a general rule, that most student perform close to the average range – with fluctuations up and down 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 some 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 will take time and effort, you can find out more about their abilities – and this can help alert you to their potential risks. For example, if this was their first success, you will want to 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 that they are putting in the minimal effort and perhaps they may not even care about their progress. It could be possible that 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 that 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 that this student may never engage back into the class and while this is understandable, I have been surprised many times by the 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 a blame game 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 that 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 will state that they do not have time to analyze every student, and it is not their responsibility to do more than their job.

From the perspective of the students, they may believe that their instructors are supposed to help them. I’ve heard students state that 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 that 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 that they can benefit from your guidance and coaching.

Assisting Students Who Are at Risk

There are some additional tools that I have implemented and would recommend you include as part of your instructional strategy, to help students who may be at risk for failing. Most of these strategies are useful for online instructors rather than instructors teaching in traditional classrooms.

Feedback Report Summary: After you have completed all feedback for a particular time period, send a summary report via email directly to each student. I understand that this is making a commitment of additional time and if you have a large number of students you could craft one short, concise paragraph. The point is to highlight accomplishments and achievements, and more importantly – encourage both a dialogue and questions. Now I would like to make an important point about this strategy: if the student did not submit a paper, or the paper submitted was very poorly written, 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 that you add value to that message and encourage students to actually read it. You could mention the topics being studied that week and then share a weekly tip. For example, you could share a weekly study strategy of study 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 week. A friendly reminder could be a very helpful method of keeping them engaged in the course and also alert you to watch their progress in class.

Communication Strategy for Email: With every email sent to your students be sure that you show appreciation in some manner, even if you acknowledge their question and thank them for the message. The purpose is to encourage an ongoing dialogue with them and build a working relationship with them. It is a good idea to never discuss developmental needs by email and instead, schedule a time to speak by phone or other forms of direct communication that you have made available. You want to convey warmth as you write, offer follow up, and then 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. That 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 that 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. That sense of self-empowerment is what every student needs to sustain their progress, even when faced with challenges.

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has expertise in higher education administration, adult education, distance learning, online teaching, faculty development, curriculum development, instructional design, organizational learning and development, career coaching, and resume writing.