Explore potential strategies.
Students do not recognize early enough that they need help.
Many of our students excelled in high school, and poor performance is a new experience they face. Their initial response to difficulty is to either look for external attributions (such as blaming their performance on an unfair test or unreasonable professor) or continue to apply the same strategies (e.g., reread the textbook, rewrite their notes, rehearse content, review problem sets) instead of employing more effective ones. For example, if students need an alternative explanation, rereading the textbook will not increase their understanding. Similarly, if they need more practice solving problems, simply reviewing their problem sets won’t provide that practice. Unfortunately, it often takes a series of poor performances until students recognize the need to do something different. Furthermore, because students often overestimate their understanding and ability, they also underestimate the actual amount of time they need to master the material. This, in turn, means that they don’t know they need help until an hour before an assignment, paper, project, etc. is due. These default responses are natural for students, which means we need to help them develop the metacognitive skills to monitor, evaluate and adjust their learning strategies and their strategies for dealing with difficulty.
Frequent quizzes, assignments, small writing assignments, etc. provide opportunities for both the student and the instructor to determine the students’ level of understanding. Doing this provides students with much-needed practice and gives you the opportunity to identify students who are struggling in the course.
Probe students about their current strategies (that aren’t working), suggest more effective strategies, and perhaps even model your own. For example, students who have learned history through reading textbooks have often not developed the skills they need to read monographs or journal articles. Probing their reading strategies often reveals that they don’t read the preface of a book, notice chapter titles or read footnotes. Your description of how you read can model for them a successful strategy. If you teach a large class and don’t have time to go through this process, you can always send them to Academic Development, where tutors will go through the same process of probing students’ current strategies and suggesting new ones.
A simple gesture of e-mailing a student (or writing on a quiz) a specific request such as "it looks like you still confuse mean and median; please come and talk to me about this" yields a high likelihood that students will actually come to office hours.
Students often don’t take the time to analyze why they did poorly on an assignment or exam. Some faculty members have created "exam wrapper" assignments that they given students when graded exams are returned. These assignments ask students to describe their study practices (e.g., when they started, the nature of the study activity, how long they spent studying), analyze the nature of the errors on the exam, and then articulate what they will do differently in the future. Discussion with students about their responses on the exam wrappers can provide an opportunity for you to refer them accordingly, to the ICC, Academic Development, to EOS, the office that addresses learning disabilities, or other support entities on campus.
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