Assign graded work early in the term to alert students to problems with their learning

November 28, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

Assign graded work early in the term to alert students to problems with their learning

The first exam or major graded assignment in the term delivers a loud message to a certain number of students in a course: You are not performing well enough to succeed in this course. What can faculty do to help students who are “on the edge” pull back from the brink of disaster and succeed in the course?

  • Alert students to problems early in the term. Create a low-stakes assignment or exam that will give students concrete feedback. Early feedback gives students time to make necessary corrections. Students need feedback early enough in the term to locate sources of assistance and make use of opportunities to improve (forming study groups, obtaining tutoring, increasing participation in class, consulting with the writing center or other campus support services).
  • Structure the grading system for the course so that an early failure still leaves some hope for recovery. When the final grade in a course is determined by one or two major exams or projects, poor performance on the first assessment might not be recoverable. Design courses with multiple opportunities for graded work or structure assignments so that grades on later assignments are weighted more heavily than early assignments. Create a grading system that rewards students who make efforts to improve. These systems enable students to recover from an early stumble and still succeed in the course if they use instructor feedback and make significant improvements in their work.
  • Contact students who are at risk of failing following the first graded assignment or exam. Email students who receive a D or F on the first assessment. Ask them to speak to you during office hours. This gesture encourages students who get off to a bad start but are otherwise capable, especially if you offer concrete advice for improved study strategies or direct the student to campus resources for additional help. Some instructors ask their graduate teaching assistants to serve as mentors to students who are struggling. Pairing honors students with weaker students in the course in a discussion or study group can benefit all participating students.
  • Advise students about the consequences of decisions and choices they make. Students sometimes have unrealistic expectations about their ability to manage a full-time job, a complex family life, and a full load of university course work. A crisis in one area might overwhelm the student and threaten their academic performance. Although students must accept responsibility for decisions that impair their ability to succeed in a course, a heart-to-heart discussion with the course instructor or an academic advisor might motivate them to choose more wisely. Discussions that occur early in the term (before withdrawal deadlines) allow students to save themselves from poor decisions and back out of unrealistic course loads or reduce external demands on their time.