Students tend to fall into regular patterns of behavior after the first few weeks of classes. Knowing what to look out for can help you identify students who are struggling and provide an opportunity to intervene and get them back on track.

The common metrics typically used for identifying struggling students – grades and attendance – sometimes do not catch a student in time for effective intervention. These identifiers can also miss students who might be getting by but could do better with a little bit of help.

So, what are some other markers you can use to identify students who might need extra help or a bit of encouragement?

  1. Keep an eye out for patterns of poor study practices.

    Those students with poor time-management techniques often submit assignments last minute.  These students will typically struggle since they do not carve out time to sufficiently work on or study the course material. Fortunately, these patterns of behavior usually appear early in the course and can be immediately addressed. Also watch for those students who do well on take-home assignments but do poorly on in-class work, quizzes, or tests.  This behavior usually indicates that the student is getting outside help to complete assignments and is not spending enough time to learn the material on their own. While this is often a sign that a student is relying too much on outside help to complete course work, it can also be an indicator of academic dishonesty.
  2. Watch for avoidance behavior, such as the student who avoids answering questions when called on or doesn’t participate in group work.

    Students with a poor grasp of material tend to avoid speaking up in class. Struggling students can also show signs of frustration, anger, or anxiety when asked to answer questions or work on problems in class; especially if they do not have a firm grasp of the material or are struggling with a topic. With group work, students who are having difficulty tend to copy down answers rather than participate in discussion or group activities.
  3. Look for changes in attendance such as missing class or showing up to class late or leaving early.

    A student who begins to have difficultly later in the course might change their attendance behavior. Changes in attendance behavior can also indicate an outside issue, work schedule conflicts, family problems, etc. which could potentially influence a student’s success in the course.

While each of these alone might not indicate a student is having a problem, several of these behaviors together can indicate that the student in question is encountering difficulty either with the material or a situation outside of the classroom. It is important to remember that students struggle in class for a range of reasons, some of which are unrelated to course material.

Once you have identified students who might need additional assistance what can you do to help?

For immediate in-class interventions, the Search Institute has great suggestions for working with struggling students.  For help beyond the classroom:

  • Reach out to the student either face-to-face, where appropriate, or via email.
  • Offer to meet them individually to discuss their course progress and how you can help to support them.
  • During your meeting work with the student to identify the issues they are having.
    • Is it time management?
    • Are they working and do not have time to study?
    • Is it a prerequisite topic deficiency that is causing problems?
  • After identifying the issue, come up with a plan.  Sometimes even the smallest act can help a student.
    • For example, I once had a student sit in my office and work on homework for 20 minutes once a week. She occasionally asked questions but she improved her homework grade on her own simply because working in my office removed the fear of doing the work by herself.

It is also good to know what resources your school offers for students as sometimes students are not aware of available resources. Knowing what your school or department supports in terms of free and private tutoring and what resources your school provides in terms of counseling and personal support gives you options for directing students to additional help.

Part of being an instructor is building an intuition for student behaviors. Knowing what to look for can help you help your students.