Written by Stephanie Whalen, Chair, Academy for Teaching Excellence & Associate Professor, English and Interdisciplinary Studies
On September 26, “The Art of Teaching for Equity” Community of Practice hosted a workshop to generate awareness of practices that may pose as barriers to equity at Harper and our neighboring schools. This equity literacy workshop, Identifying Inequities in Our Schools, provided an opportunity to explore the particular issues that students may face and draft action plan ideas for addressing them.
One of the main themes that emerged from this workshop was the issue of needing more support for students who may not understand how to navigate the college system. First generation college students, students whose families attended school in other countries, students whose parents have limited English proficiency, and students without mentors with experience in higher education in the United States may not have full awareness of the rights and opportunities afforded to them through institutional policies. These students are at-risk for experiencing difficulty in school to begin with, but are also more likely to experience confusion and frustration as drop dates approach and end up with grades of D or F on their transcripts as a result of not knowing how or what to do when experiencing failure or near-failure.
A goal generated from the workshop is to create materials that would serve as insiders’ guides to navigating some of the key areas in which cultural capital is crucial such as determining what to do when one is struggling in a course. Counselors, advisors, First Year Seminar faculty, and faculty across campus may offer help and resources and warn students about drop dates and make themselves available to discuss students’ options with them, but there are still many students who are not attending courses or are failing or near failing and find themselves with a grade of D or F at the end of the semester. What more can faculty do to help students understand their options and make wise decisions as drop dates approach?
Don’t Assume Students Are Aware of Drop Dates
You may have written the withdrawal dates in your syllabi and announced them in class, but students tend to miss out on key information such as drop dates because they are overwhelmed with information and the concept is new to many of them. After all, this is likely the first educational experience in which students have the option to withdraw from a course in order to avoid earning a D or F on their permanent records. For many college students, this is also the first time they have ever experienced academic difficulty as they were able to do well in high school with much less of a time commitment, so strategies for what to do when struggling may be unknown to them as well. You cannot explain the importance of students’ college transcripts and the option to withdraw from classes enough—state it, restate it, write it on the board, post it on Blackboard, send out an announcement, and even contact individual students earning a D or F. Make students aware that they should be talking to you about their performance to determine whether they have a chance of earning a grade that would suit their needs in their program and/or transfer schools.
If You Are Still Willing to Work with a Student, Let Them Know
There may be students in your classes who give up before they need to. Perhaps they have a low grade in the course, but they will have opportunities to dramatically improve their grades if they stick with it. Or, maybe there are certain types of assignments that you will allow students to redo or submit late if students come to you for help; if this is the case, getting another chance shouldn’t only be possible for students who are confident enough to ask or who have an experienced mentor coaching them on how to ask. You might need to be the one who approaches students and lets them know that they still have a chance because you might be the only person in some students’ lives who is talking to them about their academic struggles. Students in this situation with no one to show them the ropes may just stop coming to class out of discomfort, embarrassment, and/or lack of confidence about their communication skills. On the other hand, initiating a conversation with students about their status and options in the course may be a valuable opportunity for you to guide them on what information they need to determine their next steps, where to get help, and how to drop a class if they decide that is the best course of action. Students need to feel accountable for their success but benefit from faculty members’ assistance in understanding policies and making informed decisions. If you are reluctant to spend a great deal of time emailing with students who have had spotty attendance and/or are not turning in work, create a form email to customize and send back to students in this situation that encourages them to come to the next class and talk to you in person. Sometimes they need to know that they are still welcome even though they have been falling short of your expectations.
Give Students an Opportunity to Redeem Themselves
If you are afraid to open up the floodgates of students who will want to redo work, submit late work, or will need extensive help, another option is to give students an opportunity to show they are going to put in the work through completion of a major task or assignment. Students may produce quality work if given such a grace period. This extension can even be a one shot deal for students who are behind and may come in the form of a written or unwritten contract in which you tell them that if they complete this work, then you can talk about allowing them to redo or submit other work. Therefore, you are not spending a great deal of time working with them on catching them up or grading a number of smaller assignments, but rather are putting the ball in their court as a way of determining their level of commitment. If students follow-through, then you have your indication that they are ready to put in the work. If they do not take advantage of the opportunity, then you know that this may not be the right time for you or for them to invest in the outcome of this particular course. If they approach you, remember that they are likely feeling intensely self-conscious about their lack of performance. If you think that they can still pull it off, let them know that you will give them that chance but that they have to attend class and complete the assigned task or assignment to indicate that they are ready and able to work.
If You Know They Cannot Pass, Call It with Compassion
Even though you think it may be glaringly obvious, some students need you to advise them when there is no possible way to pass the course and that they would be best served by withdrawing. If they ask, speak candidly but offer hope in the form of explaining to them that they can attempt the course another semester or suggest other options are appropriate to the situation. If they do not ask, make an effort to contact them; not only are you saving them from an F on their permanent transcript, you are also modeling professional communication and potentially keeping them in college by expressing concern. Promoting the concept that failure is a part of learning can help students throughout the course, even for those who are doing fine in your course but have or will encounter setbacks in other courses. Failure undoubtedly provides us with challenge, even when we don’t think we want it or need it. We can take a cue from the University of Central Arkansas where officials wanted to ingrain the concept of productive failure into the student body early in the semester and celebrated Fail Forward Week this September. The best thing we can do for our students who are failing is to provide them with an opportunity to grow through the experience. The worst thing we can do for our students is to say nothing—to neglect to respond to their struggles, to only pay attention to the students who are successful, or to forget that we can coach all of our students to get something out of their investment—even if it is to learn more about navigating college, including the inevitable failures that come along with the experience.