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Concrete Ways to Help Underprepared Students

Surveys and rigorous research alike have found that the number one issue college instructors face is underprepared students. Personally, I like to refer to them as under-resourced students because that term includes three (often overlapping) populations - those who are poorly resourced in finances, those who are first-generation students, and those who come to us from under-performing public school systems.

You might know the National Central for Education statistics:

  • Only 59% of students enrolled in a four-year college graduate within 6 years.
  • Only 28% of students in community colleges achieve a degree within 3 years.
  • For African American students, the 3-year associates-degree rate is 12%.
  • 40% of "A" students in high school require at least one developmental course in college.
  • The United States has the highest college drop-out rate in the industrialized world.

If you’re an instructor like me, your immediate reaction to these data is despair. Individual instructors certainly cannot fix everything that is broken with the educational system. Our job is to teach our disciplinary topic in an effective way. But there are many ways we can help students achieve success within our own courses. Part of it is looking at the why behind student under-preparedness. One of the most universal is "prose literacy," used by the American educational system as well as international entities. If we take a deep dive into educational attainment in the United States you will find that:

  • The average prose literacy of seniors in high school has not changed for the last 25 years. Every year it has hovered around the mid-280s. (A score of 302 indicates "Proficient".)
  • Some people like to blame No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policies for "dumbing down" our students, but NCLB was introduced in the early 2000’s and prose literacy has changed little since then. In other words, it has not gotten worse.

In contrast, however, to the relative stability of the U.S.’s prose literacy assessment:

  • Since 2002 the high school graduation rate has increased by 8%.
  • Since 2002, the college enrollment rate has increased by 30%. (Please note that these two statistics are rates and therefore already account for changes in population size.)

As a result, the percentage of college students with "proficient" prose literacy fell from 40% to 31% in a recent decade.

So what does this all mean? What conclusions can be drawn from this analysis?

To my mind, the decline in student preparedness is the inevitable result of a society that believes everyone should go to college but does not have a K-12 system that adequately prepares the majority of students for this trajectory.

To be sure, the data obscures the great gap between the educational haves and have-nots. Students from well-funded suburban or private schools score well above the proficient level. And students from under-funded, overcrowded schools score way below the average.

If it feels like a desperate situation, right? What are we - biology professors, business professors, math professors, English professors, etc. - supposed to do with "these students?" When I start to feel this level of despair I know it’s time for me to narrow my focus from "This problem is unsolvable!" to "Let me figure out what I can do for the people in my sphere of influence."

Research has shown that under-resourced students can thrive and grow intellectually and that they have the same potential as fully-resourced students. So, how do we tap into that? Social scientists often use the terms knowledge, attitudes, and practices as steps to create change.


Understanding that under-resourced students, while not particularly ready for college learning, do have the potential to do so.


Solid research shows that one of the most effective means of mitigating the effects of under-resourced and underprepared students is the growth mindset. This represents one concrete thing instructors can do to open students’ mind to learning: use data to show students the clear advantages of a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.

A fixed mindset is "I can’t do this." "I’m just not a math person," etc.

A growth mindset recognizes that working hard to learn increases your ability to learn.

Carol Dweck of Stanford University is the leader in this research. You can easily find her TedTalks, and the website offers a toolkit for instructors. For example, a short video on this website shows that the hippocampus of London taxi drivers grows during the arduous process of learning "The Knowledge" (memorizing London streets) to pass the licensure test. Showing this video could occupy 5 minutes early in the semester followed by a brief discussion can plant a seed in students, and possibly counteract the negative self-talk in which they often engage.

And speaking of attitude, the fact that you know that students can always improve can shade your demeanor in the classroom, as well.


If you want to go further than attitude, there are well-researched practices for narrowing the gap between under-resourced and fully resourced students in your course. Without a doubt, active learning beats lecturing every time - yes, even for underprepared students. Many of these students have been spoon-fed a steady diet of "stand and deliver" throughout high school, and have never had the opportunity to develop their problem-solving skills and critical thinking. Too often we instructors assume they already know how to (perhaps because we did when we were in college?)

The two most well-researched and verified active learning techniques are Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) and Peer Instruction (details below). Hypothesis-driven research has shown that in small classes and large classes as well in elite colleges and in community colleges, that active learning methods drive the best learning. Combined, the two teaching practices buy you time in the classroom to allow time for active learning and learning how to learn. The good news, of course, is that these practices are also the best teaching practices for all students.

You don’t have to be a pedagogy expert to make progress with under-resourced students. And you may be the first person in their assembly-line education to "flip the switch" for them.

Learning More About Just-In-Time Teaching (JiTT) and Peer Instruction Details

Just-In-Time Teaching (JiTT)

Any mechanism that you may use to have students perform low-stakes quizzing before class, in a way that gives you information about which learning objective(s) they struggle with and with which ones they do not. Once you have this insight, you can then allocate precious in-class time coaxing targeted learning on the difficult topics and using active learning practices as much as possible. See:

The best tool for pre-class quizzing is adaptive quizzing (See Tim Rogers’ article) but other forms of online quizzing can also work.

Peer Instruction (PI)

Is a method by which you ask a verbal question of your class, and then ask them to weigh in individually with a multiple-choice answer. You can do this with clickers or online polling sites, or you can do it the way I do it, with Uno cards of four colors. The multiple-choice answers are color-coded. After polling, ask them to hold the correct Uno card in the air for you to see and then have them discuss the question with their small group. Then poll the class again, with each student again holding up the Uno color corresponding to their new choice. Most of the time, the number of correct answers increases significantly the second time around, due to the peer instruction. See:


Flaherty, Colleen., A ‘New Normal’ in STEM Teaching? Inside HigherEd. 2017.

Glass, Ira. Back to School. This American Life. 2012.


Mazur, Eric and Watkins, Jessica., Just-in-Time Teaching and Peer Instruction. Stylus Publishing. Pages 39-62. 2009

National Center for Education Statics.

Rogers, Tim., Using an Adaptive Learning Technology to Help Solve Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem. McGraw-Hill. 2018.

Romano, Lois., Literacy of College Graduates is on Decline. Washington Post. 2005.

Semuels, Alana., Good School, Rich School; Bad School, Poor School. The Atlantic. 2016.

Stark, Patrick. And Noel, Amber M., Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972 – 2012. American Institutes for Research. 2015

The Nation’s Report Card., 2015 l Mathematics & Reading at Grade 12

Turn to Your Neighbor: The Official Peer Instruction Blog

Wieman, Carl E., Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. PNAS. 2014.

About the Author

Kelly Cowan has taught at Miami University since 1993 and was the Middletown Campus Dean from 2005-2009. She was interim director at the local campus of Cincinnati State and Technical College for 2015. She is the author of two successful McGraw-Hill microbiology textbooks. Her interest in under-resourced students led her to her now full-time engagement in two arenas: 1) with students and residents in generational poverty; and 2) with institutions - civic and educational - who serve them. Kelly grew up in eastern Kentucky and was educated at the University of Louisville, the University of Maryland, and the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands. She founded a large non-profit in Middletown that supports the cradle-to-career education of under-resourced families helping them move to self-sufficiency. Kelly is also available, schedule permitting, to speak on these topics at your school, at no or little cost to you. To contact Kelly, please visit her website at

Profile Photo of Kelly Cowan