How to Support Struggling Students

By Christine Goedhart

Image by Hamed Mehrnik from Pixabay

There are a variety of reasons why students don’t reach out for help when they are struggling. Sometimes students are in denial and don’t realize they are struggling, or they mistakenly think that they can figure it out on their own. Some students feel too ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help, or they think that they are bothering their instructor if they reach out. Alternatively, some students report that they feel so lost and overwhelmed that they don’t even know what questions to ask or how to go about seeking help.

Whatever the reason, the result is the same: when struggling students don’t get help, they end up digging themselves into a hole they can’t climb out of, leading to devastating outcomes – academic, mental, emotional, and even physical.

As instructors, we can play a critical role in helping students get the help and support they need. Oftentimes we might be the only ones who even know that these students are struggling because we can see their grades and level of participation. While there are exceptions, most struggling students appreciate when their instructors take the initiative to reach out, show that they care, and offer support.

Here are some tips for reaching out to students who are struggling: 

  • After marking exams, assignments, or projects, reach out to the students who underperformed. You can send personalized emails or discreetly talk to the students before, during, or after class. If you have a large size course, you can use the following technologies to automate your outreach to underperforming students:
    • Canvas – Choose the “Message students who…” function for the assignment in the Canvas Gradebook. You can send a general message to all students who scored below a certain threshold. Instructions can be found at the following site:
    • OnTask – This mass feedback tool is available though the UBC Learning Analytics Project and can be used to send timely and personalized feedback to students. Learn more at the following site:
  • When you reach out to a student, be specific about the issue of concern and let the student know that you care. Also, be sure to ask if there is anything that you can do to support them (e.g. “I’ve noticed that you didn’t score very well on the last exam. I wanted to check in with you to see how you’re doing and if there is anything that I can do to support you.”).
  • If you are able to talk with the student:
    • Try to listen with empathy, acknowledge their feelings, and reflect back what they are saying so that the student feels heard (e.g. “I can understand that this is a stressful time for you and that you are feeling overwhelmed.”). Sometimes just having someone who shows that they care and are willing to listen is enough to inspire students to be proactive in reaching out for help.
    • Ask open-ended questions (e.g. “What have you tried so far?”, “What do you think would help?”, “What might be a good next step?”, and “What can I do to help?”). Rather than making the student feel like they are being told what to do, these types of questions will guide the student in their understanding of the situation and will empower them to come up with a plan of action that works for them.
    • You can also offer recommendations if appropriate, but be sure to ask them first (e.g. “May I make a suggestion?”).
    • Reassure the student that feelings of stress and anxiety are a normal part of the university experience and that they are not alone.
  • If the student indicates that they are not interested in getting help, it’s important to respect their decision, but make it clear that you are available if they ever choose to reconsider your offer for help.
  • If you feel that the student requires more assistance than you can reasonably provide, you can submit an Early Alert concern.

Also see the following references for more information:

The next time you notice a student struggling, consider reaching out by implementing one or more of the tips above. Your outreach and offer of support could make all the difference in the life of that student.

Are there any strategies you use that I didn’t mention, or any experiences you’ve had using the tips listed above? Please share them in the comments below or send me an email. I’d love to hear them!

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