Helping at-risk students BEFORE they’re at risk.

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By Keith Dickinson
ALL students don’t learn at the same rate in the same way.  My goal is to be pro-active and to identify students who are having challenges and work with them before those challenges can seriously affect their performance and enthusiasm.

So as students return to university classes (both online and onsite) next month, I thought I’d share some of the ways I’ve learned to help the so-called at-risk students.  I’d also welcome suggestions of other best practices in this arena.  This have worked for me and my classes; I’d like to learn what has worked for you.

1) BE  PRO-ACTIVE.BEFORE THERE’S A PROBLEM  Some students who need assistance will speak up, but many of those who really need help will not.  I don’t wait for them to contact me; I contact them.  Not judgmentally, but rather to state that the first weeks of an online course are always challenging and that I am always there to answer any questions or clarify any issues.  By reaching out, I try to encourage students to ask for the help they need.

2) WATCH THE INDICATORS.   Online  first week/pre-course introductions have always been my first marker.  Did all students post at least a few lines about themselves?  By comparing the posts to the student roster, I can see who has not yet participated.  The first week, to me, is key.  Unless there are mitigating circumstances–a serving military member on a mission or someone recovering from surgery–habit formed that first week establish the performance for future weeks.

If a student is not participating on introductions, their performance on more complicated online exercises can suffer.  I need to find out what issues the student is facing, work with him/her to address them, and to ask for assistance from student advisors.  The staff may know why this particular student is having issues and can give me additional insights.

3) DON’T TAKE “OK” FOR AN ANSWER.   I learned this in the business world  with clients and it’s equally true with students.  If I’m working with the student and answered any questions raised, I always close by asking:  “Did I answer your questions completely?”  If there’s any ambiguity in the student’s response (text, email, chat, Tweet), I’ll verify:  “So we’re both clear on the difference between the Theory X and Theory Y management theories? Have you ever had a Theory X boss or teacher?  Really?  So you know these can be tough managers.  Would you prefer a Theory Y? Why?”    I don’t have to dig too far or too deep to find out if the student now grasps the concept or if I need to be clearer or provide better examples.

4) QUIZZES GRADE ME, TOO.   If the curriculum allows, short quizzes during the course of the term tell me if I’ve adequately covered what I set to out to teach.  If a significant number of student miss the same questions regarding the same areas, then that means I have a job to do.  I revisit the material, then ensure the examples, slides, videos, etc. are clear and transparent to the student.

5) HOW AM I DOING?    I currently use anonymous online polling (from free sites such as PollDaddy and SurveyMonkey) to ask students three to fiveshort  questions about the class to date.  Am I talking too quickly?  Are the online materials sufficient?   Are deadlines reasonable? (I’ve found out that for the typical online student who has a family and a job that Sunday is the worst night for assignment deadlines.  Monday, Thursday or Friday often are better.)  I learned this from students telling me; it was simple to move a deadline by one day and suddenly late assignments dropped to zero.

6) JUST BECAUSE I HAVEN’T HEARD ANY COMPLAINTS DOESN’T MEAN THAT THERE’S NOTHING WRONG.   See 3), 4), 5) above.  No news is not good news; it may, in fact, be concealing some very serious student issues.  Without pestering students, I monitor the discussion boards and gradebook to look for signs of improvement, consistent performance, and any future problems, such as a sudden drop in assignment completion or GPA.

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