Helping Students Who Are Performing Poorly

Unfortunately, all too often performance on the first exam predicts performance throughout the course, especially for those students who do poorly on the first test. Faculty and institutions provide an array of supports for these students, including review sessions, time with tutors, more practice problems, and extra office hours, but it always seems it’s the students who are doing well who take advantage of these extra learning opportunities. How to help the students who need the help is a challenging proposition.

But here’s an intervention (analyzed empirically) that did have a significant effect on the performance of students who did poorly on the first exam in two different courses. The courses were an introductory physics course, part of an engineering physics program, and an introductory oceanography survey course. Students in the first course who scored in the bottom quartile and those who failed the first exam in oceanography received a personalized email from the instructor if they self-reported that they had studied more than the class median (six hours) and still failed the exam. The assumption was that this cohort had used inefficient study strategies and could benefit the most from the intervention. An email sent to part of the cohort indicated that the instructors were concerned about their performance and would like to meet with them. A second email was sent to the rest of cohort, again indicating the instructor’s concern and containing specific study advice but no invitation to meet.

For the students who came to see the instructor (and not all of them did), the 15- to 25-minute meeting started with a discussion of how they had studied for the exam. Most said they tried to memorize everything because they figured that it was all important. “Many students have difficulty figuring out what’s important to learn, particularly in an unfamiliar domain, and their interpretation of what’s important differs from the instructors’ views.” (p. 82)

by Maryellen Weimer, PhD .

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