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Read the thoughts and impressions on a variety of topics written by IDEA staff as well as occasional guest bloggers.


Catching Students Before They Get Too Far Behind
September 21, 2018

Catching Students Before They Get Too Far Behind
A Quick IDEA for Better Teaching

A few weeks into the new semester, and hopefully, things are on a roll for you. The question is, are things on a roll for your students? As you well know, when students get behind in a course, things can get out of hand quickly. Like a rock rolling down a hill--getting faster and picking up other things along the way--once a student feels left behind, they can easily get discouraged and give up. The reality in many cases is that this scenario can be prevented with the right kind of effort applied in the right places. But students often need help with this.

As you move forward into the heart of your courses, then, it is important to consider if all your students are on track or not so you can intervene soon. One way to find out is to be sure you are using assessments early-on. A midterm exam is too late to find out if students are not learning. But assessments do not have to be full blown exams. They can simply be short quizzes, clicker-based questions in class, or other Classroom Assessment Techniques. If you do not have some kind of evidence that students are “getting it,” then you only have your intuition to guide you. It’s all too common that the student who nods and smiles at you during class is not actually getting it, but is just a nice person!

Getting students to think about and evaluate their own learning is another useful way to intervene early in the semester. After a short quiz, for instance, ask students to write a sentence or two about how and why they arrived at incorrect answers, and then have some share out loud. Such self-reflection about the process of learning and applying knowledge can improve learning in general, provide students with some direction to go in better preparing for assessments, and provide you with feedback on how well students are learning. This popular IDEA Paper, Using Metacognition to Promote Learning, can help you understand more about this approach.

Another approach to catch students before it’s too late is to simply ask them if they are getting it. Sometimes students will not be proactive enough to seek out help, but when you ask them directly, they may open up about any difficulties. Asking individual students before and after class, when possible, is a simple way to find out. Emailing every student to ask, and perhaps remind them about your office hours and other available resources, is another fairly simple way to learn how class is going for them. Some students will respond with a question. Some will say things are fine, or not respond at all. Others will start a dialogue.

And speaking of dialogue, a corollary of this approach--communicating and connecting to students individually--is helping students feel connected to you and the class. Some students will let you know they are feeling stressed and behind. In those cases, you have a chance to intervene either with specific course-related suggestions (“are you doing the assigned practice problems after every class?”) or with broader suggestions about time management or encouragement to hang in there. Sometimes this extra effort at making a direct contact with a student, and saying you care, can do more than saying the same thing in front of the entire class. Developing such a positive instructor-student relationship can be very important in student success in a class. See the IDEA Paper, Developing a Positive Classroom Climate and this IDEA Teaching Note for more ideas.

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