Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation
Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students don’t keep up with the reading.

Individual students may suffer from physical, mental, or other personal problems that affect motivation.

Mental or physical health problems, substance abuse, and other personal problems can interfere with individual students’ motivation to exert effort in a course. Depression, for example, may decrease energy levels, whereas bipolar disorder may increase the initiation, but interfere with the completion, of goal-directed activities. Behavioral indicators of these problems may include missing class, arriving late, sleeping in class, missing assignments, not responding to e-mail, and a change in appearance or demeanor. These problems not only affect the individual who is struggling, but also the other students whose own motivation may be affected by their classmate’s behavior—consider, for example, the effect of a student who sleeps through class every day. This is especially true for small classes or group projects involving the student in question.


Use campus resources.

Missing class, sleeping in class, and missing assignments can sometimes indicate larger and more serious problems for the student. If a student’s behavior is worrying you, you might want to seek advice from campus resources before, after, or instead of talking to the student privately. Consider contacting the Dean of Student Affairs (412)-268-2075 to see if the student in question is exhibiting similar patterns in other classes and to report the behaviors you have noticed so that others can help the student. You might also want to seek advice from and/or refer the student to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at (412)-268-2922 for psychological concerns, Student Health at (412)-268-2157 for substance abuse concerns, and Academic Development (412)-268-6878 for students who have fallen behind in their work.

Talk to the student.

Keeping in mind that you are not a counselor, it may be helpful to take the student aside for a private conversation to communicate your concern and collect more information. Drawing on campus resources and your understanding of the student’s situation, you can make a judgment about whether the student might benefit from your help (e.g., one-on-one academic help during office hours, an extension on an assignment) or the help of professional services on campus (e.g., Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) (412)-268-2922, Academic Development (412)-268-6878, or Student Health (412)-268-2157.

Mitigate the troubled student’s effects on others.

If an individual student’s behavior is causing problems and the student is unlikely to leave the class or change behavior in the short term, consider how you can reduce the demotivating effect on others in the class. For example, you might ask students who arrive late to class to sit in the back of the classroom so as not to disrupt others. On group projects, if one student in a group is disengaged to the point where it is distressing and disadvantaging other members of the team, you might let the group know that you are aware of the problem and will take it into account when assessing their performance. You might also help to motivate affected teams by advising them on how to deal with the situation productively and by highlighting that their doing so will help them develop skills that are useful in both the classroom and workplace. In extreme cases, you might want to remove a problematic student from the group and allow him or her to work independently.

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