Course-Correcting for Students

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was “if you’re ever at the bottom of a ditch, quit digging.” So applicable to so many situations, this pithy injunction reminds us that sometimes our frustrations can stem from a refusal to course-correct when there was still time to do so. And how many times have we been frustrated seeing our students do exactly that? Ds on the first two exams, and then two weeks of MIA. Not turning in regular homework assignments despite our asking, reminding, ordering, IMPLORING them to do so in order to save their course grade? I know I’ve had my fair share of moments where I wanted to tell the student sitting in my office with a 41% average, STOP DIGGING ALREADY!

How do we help students see the need to course-correct, though? Many students who find themselves in academic trouble at midterm probably feel overwhelmed; there are so many fires to put out that they don’t know where to start, and end up letting all of them burn the semester down. “Overwhelmed” often leads to avoidance, and with avoidance comes the drift that makes it so hard for students to get out of their academic ditch.

The key to a late-semester course correction is communication; students need to communicate with faculty members to see exactly where they are and what can be done. As advisors, or as one of their instructors, you may be in the position to help a student get that process started. “I see you’re really behind in my class, and missing some assignments. Let’s talk about ways you can recover part of your grade. Is this something you might need to talk to other professors about? Let’s talk about how you should reach out to them, too.” Sometimes a nudge in the right direction can get a student to do the necessary communication for a plan to get back on track.

Other strategies to put in front of your students include, first and foremost, the ALT Center. The ALT’s website has a schedule of when particular tutors are available, and pulling it up while your student is in your office can be a good way to get them over their potential reluctance in setting up an appointment. Whether they need a Writing Center tutor, help from the math tutors, or assistance in another class, the ALT Center is the one-stop shop for students to get the extra support they might need. If you refer a student to the ALT Center, think about building in some sort of accountability–a check-in with you after their first appointment, for example. Requiring a follow-up chat is a good way to ensure that your student goes through with their plan.

But what if your student or advisee is just lost? Or so behind they don’t know where to start? Cal Newport, a Computer Science Professor and author of the popular Study Hacks blog, describes an effective tool he calls the “Mid-Semester Dash”:

From my experience, you have two options at this point. First, you can give into to the chaos and limp through the rest of semester always behind on work, constantly stressed, suffering through one all-nighter after another while you struggle to keep the wheels on the proverbial bus.

The second option, however, is that you give the middle finger to the chaos: fight back the work onslaught and regain control.”

He then goes on to describe the specific steps a student can take in this 48-hour “dash” to right the ship and feel like they’re back in control. (Disclosure: I’ve actually done one of these “dashes” before, and it was amazingly effective in getting my own calendar and workflow back in control; you don’t have to be a student to benefit from it!)

There are other strategies we can encourage our students to take as well:

-Exam Post-Mortem Conference: after an exam that didn’t go the way students wanted, think about requiring those who didn’t pass the test to come and see you during office hours so you can have a talk about their study strategies (or lack thereof). Failing an exam can sometimes make a student feel like passing the class is now out of reach (even if that’s really not the case). Having a quick conversation with some formative assessment (“here’s how you can do better next time”) and encouragement to implement a new set of tactics to prepare for the next assignment can be a powerful intervention for students on the academic margins. Failure doesn’t have to be final; it only becomes so without any effort to learn from it. That’s a valuable lesson for our students to learn before it’s too late.

-Time Tracking: One of the most common student laments after a subpar exam goes something like, I don’t know why I failed; I studied for HOURS. Yet, on further examination, “study” and “hours” are generous descriptors, at best. One effective tool to get students thinking about how they’re actually (as opposed to ideally) spending their time is to have them track their time for a week. Just like keeping a detailed food log helps someone make better choices about what they eat, a time-tracking log may provide students with some interesting data challenging their perceptions of how much they actually study (as well as how focused they are when they’re doing so). Conversations with students about their time-tracking can then become more useful discussions of time management and prioritization.

These are just a few tips that might benefit your students in need of a course correction, but there are more resources out there you might consider pointing them to:

Cal Newport’s Study Hacks blog, mentioned above, is an excellent site for students looking for academic success tips, tricks, and strategies; I highly recommend it.

Our very own ALT Center, again mentioned above, is the go-to for student support on campus.

The University of California–Berkeley has a nice collection of academic success resources for students, including some good, specific suggestions for fighting procrastination.

And the University of Washington has a page geared specifically for students with disabilities, which includes some video tutorials and study strategies.


Have a question? Need some help? Want to talk teaching and learning (maybe even in the scholarly sense)? Contact CETL here.

Feeling stressed as we reach the end of October? This sleepy kitten is here to help. OMG LOOK AT THOSE CUTE LITTLE PAWS

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