• Joe Cooke

Taking on the Challenge of the Struggling Student

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

A relatively new and well-meaning instructor facilitated a local diversity training. It started out fairly well. We brainstormed attributes of successful students and struggling students, and our list looked much like other lists from similar seminars, and much like the list Skip Downing has published in his On Course materials, with one additional attribute at the top of the list that this particular group seemed focused on: timely submission of assignments. Successful students turn work in on time (and show up on time) and struggling students seem to miss deadlines regularly. Since this was a session on accommodating diversity, I expected we would talk then about alternatives to the hard assignment deadlines, late penalties, and other structural elements of course design that favor the already successful student and discourage the struggling student.

I was wrong.

Before we finish that story though, see if any of these struggling students are familiar to you:

The struggling student

Downing claims that students choose to be either struggling or successful, but much of the list of attributes are not really choices, they are learned behaviors, such as a victim mentality, lack of motivation, inability to ask for or accept help, resistance to new ideas, lack of emotional maturity, and self-doubt. There are more, as well, and a complementary list of choices of successful students, but really, unsuccessful students don’t want to be unsuccessful. They just don’t have the tools yet to be where they want to be. They may not even know what those tools look like, or even where they can go with them. If they wanted to choose to be unsuccessful, they would not be in school. So, let’s look in general at how these struggling students appear in our classrooms. I have created three categories just to catch the idea. In reality, there are probably as many categories as there are people in the world.

“There are two types of people in the world, those who divide people into two types, and those who do not.” -- Sir Ken Robinson paraphrasing Jeremy Bentham (see Robinson’s landmark “Bring on the Learning Revolution”

The underprepared

We are all familiar with this one. Taking on ambitious goals, like a hurdler running around the track, but maybe without all the skills, training, and practice that it takes to actually clear the hurdles. And guess what? Our assignments are hurdles. Our syllabi are hurdles. Our assessments are hurdles. Even the design of our on-boarding is often structurally biased.

What is the first thing we do? Lock them in a room to take a placement test on their two least-favorite subjects: math and English. The tests reinforce what they have already suspected –that they are no good at math or English. This is often the beginning of the end of their college career. If we see placement exams as a way of culling out students without the grit to succeed, then this could be a successful tactic. However, if our goal is to help as many students as possible achieve a college education, then maybe we should start with a bit friendlier process; one that takes the challenges of the struggling student into account, and leads that student toward further education, toward success.

Susan filled out worksheets in high school biology that were basically paint-by-number, with only two numbers: one and zero. The teacher touted the assignment as tech-related because it used binary coding. Filling in the zeros (with whatever color the student chose) revealed the symbol for an element from the Periodic Table. That was it. Sheaves of them.

“There are only 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.” – anonymous (10 is the binary representation of the base ten number 2)

Susan’s parents are divorced. She suffers from bouts of anxiety and depression, and rarely had help with homework during middle school or high school, but she didn’t qualify for programs like AVID maybe because of her socio-economic status or that the classes were already too full. She dropped out of high school and got her GED. She works at a local fast food joint, still lives at home, and wants a better life. Also, she’s smart, and part of the reason she did poorly in high school was because she was bored.

For all these reasons and more, we have students who struggle. They may have low-self-esteem, lack confidence and a sense of belief in self, they may lack time and emotional management skills, lack a sense of personal responsibility, communication skills, and even social skills that are the traits of successful students.

The point is, at community college at least, we inherit a lot of students who did not learn how to learn. Some of them take a gap year. Or twenty. Some head out to the universities and discover they aren’t ready, and they come to us, not to fail again, but to learn how to learn. To learn how to be successful. If we are designing our courses to cater to the easy students, the ones that breeze through, we are inviting structural bias to rule our classrooms and our gradebooks, and we will lose a lot of good students.

The overwhelmed

Take Jacob, for instance (name and some details obviously changed). It’s mid-term and he’s failing. Late assignments, tardy or missing most days, low test scores. Even when he was showing up regularly at the beginning of the term he either didn’t turn in homework or scored very low. I sent e-mails, notified the college intervention staff, assigned him to a completion coach, and maybe more. I don’t have a phone number, but I ran into him in the parking lot, of all places, in his soccer gear. He apologized profusely and was understandably embarrassed, but by engaging him with my own obvious struggles with his native language, Spanish, I was able to get the following information:

(a) he’s the first and only one in his family to attend college

(b) on a soccer scholarship

(c) while he works to help support the family.

Oh. And, as I mentioned, English is not his native language, and he’s taking a business course, which involves complex concepts and terms that are all described in heady, academic English.

No wonder he is frustrated. Add to that the fact that he did not have a chance to learn good study skills in high school, his parents are unable to help him with homework, and, most likely, based on conversations with struggling students from diverse backgrounds, Jacob’s parents are asking him, “Why are you going to school anyway?” For many of our students, it is impossible for them to even imagine a life beyond that of their parents, neighbors, relatives, and friends.

My course, with a steady stream of homework, based on a standard textbook, with required attendance, was structurally impossible for Jacob. He was being forced to choose between work, his soccer scholarship, and class time. Without the scholarship, school was impossible. It was a no-win scenario for Jacob, but because he was finally able to self-advocate, we worked out an alternative schedule. He learned the material and eventually became one of my best students. But day courses, offered face-to-face, with required attendance and limited or no flexibility? Structural bias.

The high achiever

Yes, you read that right. A star in all events, and yet here’s another example of a struggling student. And if this person can’t make it, there is definitely a structural barrier in place. Or, a few of them, so, spend a bit of time with this student. Let’s call her Tessa. Tessa has a full-time job and kids, and is active in her community. In fact, her full-time job is as an outreach specialist for a non-profit that she helped design and found. Also, Tessa graduated from high school and dropped out of college because she was frustrated. So now, at the age of 45 and highly successful in her career, she wants to get her two-year degree, her bachelor’s, and then a master’s degree. Yes, this is a struggling student. She has yet to complete her degree because of structural bias.

Three examples:

Maybe the most egregious first. As part of forming and founding her NPO, she collaborated with two other people on a grant application that was, upon completion, over 500 pages, with footnotes and citations, the works. She wrote over half of the application and edited all of it. Her writing and research skills are fabulous. So, as part of challenging an English 102 requirement, she submitted the grant application. It was a fantastic example of 21st Century skills: collaboration, critical thinking, community activism, communication (the grant process involved presentations to the granting agency), and creativity. It was bold and bright and practically perfect. The instructor must have known, or at least should have known, that this grant application resulted in over 10 million in funding over a period of five years, and was lauded as one of the best applications ever submitted. However, he gave it a C+ because the citations were not in the proper format. Structural bias.

Second: Same student, different class – Survey of Economics. Her husband is an economist, I should mention. So, she discusses concepts from the class with him often, and finds out, as it is revealed to her, she’s loves economics almost as much as her husband does. One assignment asks the students to (a) report on the M1 money supply, and (b) comment on someone else’s post. Tessa writes a short essay about M1 and mentions the paradox that she is struggling with at the time, that the Fed is buying back debt, which is increasing the money supply, which should cause inflation to rise, but the opposite is happening. She did not comment on anyone else’s post because they all just posted a number they looked up on the web. She was given a C on the assignment because of that. Structural bias.

Third: same student, taking a Lit class. The final requirement to complete her degree. Despite setbacks and a busy life, she’s maintained a 3.8 GPA and is an honors student. Also, she’s a voracious reader and she’s tutored at least five kids through high school and junior high lit classes. Her first attempt at completing the Lit class failed because, in addition to everything else, she was lobbying (with many others) the state legislature hoping to get a law to replace a critical initiative that was ruled unconstitutional by the state supreme court. Time was of the essence and the community would lose valuable resources if the law was not replaced. The lobbying efforts succeeded, but she missed a few of the first deadlines for the online lit class – hard deadlines that could not be made up. Frustrated and de-motivated, she missed a few more and gave up. She took an F in an easy course that was structurally biased against her. On her second attempt, a complicated grading structure, inflexible deadlines, and strange, unclear and sometimes almost impossible requirements impeded her progress and once again, she failed.

Tessa is not an anomaly. I have the privilege of working in a relatively small town of 30,000, so we run into our students often, at the grocery store, restaurants, and social events. Private, personal feedback bears out the conclusion that some courses are structurally difficult, to the point of causing discouragement and even failure. For a struggling student, these courses affirm and reaffirm a deeply seated negative belief – that we are simply not good enough.

So, stop designing your courses this way.

Addressing structural bias

Ah. Back to the diversity training. The group has decided that, for purposes of this training, turning in assignment on time will be the focus of conversation. It’s at the top of both lists, drawn on a white board, attributes of struggling students on the left, attributes of successful students on the right. Struggling students miss deadlines. Successful students turn in work on time.

“And so,” says our facilitator, “that’s why I no longer accept any late assignments.”

The dean of my department was there, and gently restrained me from standing up with a touch of her hand on my arm. She knows this is a tender spot for me (not the arm—inflexible due dates.)

The facilitators’ reasoning was that by refusing to accept late assignments, period, he was teaching the struggling students a valuable life lesson. Keep in mind the facilitator was a young, Caucasian male with a college degree or two, raised by a middle-class family. Already granted favored status due simply to where he was born and who birthed him. I looked around the room at the educators gathered there and realized that most of us had two of those birthrights, and most of us, probably all of us, had been at least adequate if not stellar students. What did we know about struggling students?

“Not even a penalty period?” someone asks.

“Nope. But I do allow them to do the assignment anyway, for no points, because I want them to learn the material.”

I kid you not. Do struggling students often make up back assignments that won’t directly affect their D or F grade?

The last painful comment before discussion began was this: “I know I’m going to have a higher failure rate this term, but we’ll see…”

This is structural bias. Can he not see that, standing right up there at the white board with the words he has written in blue marker? About half the class seems to agree with him, the other half (except me) seem to be ambivalent. (We'll have to address implicit bias some other day).

Equality, equity, no barriers

Beyond equality and equity

Here’s an example of what I’m proposing.

I’m a big fan of flexible due dates. I’ve heard the arguments for both fixed, immovable deadlines and for flexible guiding markers, and I’ve settled firmly on the flexible side.

(1) For most of us, if we miss a deadline at work, we are not terminated, and

(2) if we miss a deadline, our pay is not docked and we are not punished other than, maybe annually, if we miss deadlines regularly, we get a bad review.

Applying hard deadlines is a form of equality.

Soft deadlines try to address equity.

Due dates as guidelines address developing personal responsibility, time management, and independence – all attributes that lead to resilience and success. This is a form of respect, and, because I’d like it to represent the next evolution beyond the outdated concepts of first equality and now equity, I choose to think of this new teaching mindset for the 21st Century as equanimity, which means to be at peace, to be mentally calm and composed, and I think that also captures the essence of the third level of teaching – to be accepting and respectful of all of our students – it’s even more than accommodating. Accommodating sounds like recognizing there are problems and then finding ways to work around them. Equanimity is seeing each person as unique in both strengths and weaknesses, and teaching thusly. It is, perhaps for some, an entirely new mindset.

Teaching success strategies

Downing’s philosophy is that the attributes of success can be taught, and I agree. His philosophy (and mine) is that the design of the learning experience (the course) makes a huge difference. However, we have to go even a step further than just engaging our students, and we have to take personal responsibility for their success, rather than sending them to a class on how to be successful or waiting for someone else to intervene. We have to embed success strategies right into the heart of our course materials, making those skills at least as important as the subject matter, if not more so.

For instance, I grade based on a portfolio of work that represents mastery of the course outcome and learning objectives, so using flexible due dates, even on writing assignments, works well for me. In addition, I teach time management throughout the course, along with self-advocacy and responsibility, without punishing or forcing the student out of the course.

That reminds me of another example of structural bias. One college touting 100% completion rates in their English 101 and 102 courses revealed the simple secret. Screen registered students with an introductory e-mail the week before classes start warning about the workload and deadline, admit no students after the first day of class, and administrative drop anyone who demonstrates in the first two weeks any signs of possible failure. Structural bias. Overt structural bias toward students who already possess the skills needed to succeed. And yes, I almost jumped out of my chair.

Timelines aren’t the only problem. I’m just using that as an example of structural bias. Other kinds of bias include the text we use, the overall look and feel of the course, the flow, the complexity of things like navigation and assignments, lack of connection, lack of relevance, and maybe most importantly, lack of an underlying philosophy of student engagement that teaches 21st Century skills and imbues students with attributes of successful learning. If we teach our students how to manage their time, how to be responsible, and how to set goals, they will do better in our class, in school, and in life.

Post script: Here is my list of teachable factors that can contribute to and increase success (the ones we can roll into our courses)

I’ll just touch on these briefly, because each one deservers a full essay of its own, but here they are, in general:

  • Management

  • Time

  • Emotions

  • Response

  • Mindset

  • Self-Awareness

  • Belief

  • Self-advocacy

  • Moxie

  • Motivation

  • Independence/Interdependence

  • Perseverance

My list is slightly different than some, because attributes like resilience, grit, belief in self, and passion for learning are outcomes, not skills we can teach. They arise more or less naturally out of the actions and habits of those nine success factors. And although it’s hard (if not impossible) to design an assignment to teach grit, it is possible to create an assignment that teaches both subject matter AND some combination of factors, such as self-awareness (i.e. through reflective writing) or time management and responsibility (flexible due dates).

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