Imagine a student—let’s call him Daniel—who transferred into your class in the third week of term. Since then, his attendance has been spotty, and you’ve had trouble putting a name to his face. When he does attend, he sits slumped at the back of the room, staring blankly. Often he disappears from class during the break. If you call on him for a contribution to discussion or check in with him during an exercise, he’s furtive and deflects your questions by making jokes. You observe that he is not talking to classmates either. In fact, he doesn’t seem to know anyone.

Even before you have a grade next to his name, the early signs are there: Daniel is struggling. As his professor, what can you do to support his learning?

How to tell if a student is at risk…and how to struggle-proof your course

Daniel has a couple of key things in common with many at-risk students: firstly, he’s not attending class regularly, and secondly, he’s not engaged in the course. Attendance is the number one predictor of student success. Engagement is also a well-established key contributor: students who are engaged with the subject matter are more likely to achieve and persist with their studies1. (Top Hat can help with attendance, as well as offer ways to draw students out of their shells.)

Fortunately, there are a number of things professors can do for students like Daniel, and it’s preferable they be done early on, within the first half of the term. Supporting struggling students is an extension of good instructional design and delivery that benefits all students. Here are a few things you might want to try.

1. Foster feelings of belonging

Data shows that students who feel they don’t belong have a greater risk of failing and dropping out2. Personally, I’m terrible with names, but I try very hard at the beginning of term to learn them all. I dedicate plenty of time to this task (not just on day one) and I make my learning as fun and useful as possible. It’s one point of connection that personalizes their class experience and they will respect and appreciate you for it.

Students benefit even more from getting to know one another. Even if your students are in a cohort and already familiar with most of their classmates, use classroom exercises to force them to occasionally interact with classmates they don’t normally hang out with. For example, I make use of a social mixer bingo activity as both an ice-breaker and way for people to get to know each other. Make students work together, right off the bat: include an early low-stakes assignment or activity in which they have to collaborate with another student of your choosing. Many professors do this—one example is here.

2. Meet your students where they are at

Typically, we canvas our classroom at the outset of a lesson to see what students may already know about the subject matter. This sort of diagnostic treatment of your class can be used to get a handle on their preferences, knowledge base and/or skill level in a given area. It’s also helpful for ensuring that your own expectations are reasonable.

As a writing teacher, I introduce a diagnostic writing sample at the first class meeting. I might ask students to write to me about what they want to get out of the course, or maybe to tell me what their writing process is. Reviewing these samples allows me to take their interests into account—and it also allows me to see which aspects of their writing need the most development.

More often than not, when asked, students will voice where they think they need the most help. Such self-awareness can be a crucial handle for mentorship and learning, and the opening of an ongoing dialogue throughout the term. Working from the initial samples, I address students’ needs by adapting my lessons and activities. When they realize that I’m taking their input seriously, this boosts their motivation to improve.

You can also use polls and surveys to gather information confidentially about things students may be embarrassed to own up to publicly, posing questions like “have you ever used the library database?” or “do you think you study best for a test on your own, with a partner, or in a group?”

3. Show your students what it takes to succeed in your course

For many students, particularly those who are first generation postsecondary, figuring out how to succeed academically can be just as difficult as learning the subject matter.

Take some time at the outset to offer a “how to” guide to excelling in your course. I discuss such things as the power of notetaking, how to treat the assigned readings, time management and research strategies, and the surprising importance of showing up to class.

I dig into this “how to” kit whenever I introduce an assignment, for instance, or at any other point in the course where I want to highlight process. Sometimes, as in the case of notetaking, I provide mini-lessons. Other times, I will refer students to videos, online modules, the campus Learning Center or other supports.

Even better, give your students a chance to follow your counsel. Offer some early assessments and exercises that have low-to-no impact grade-wise, but which will show them (perhaps even by their failure) the importance of, say, doing the assigned reading, or paying attention in class.

In these trial runs, don’t give students any time to languish or feel discouraged. Come alongside them and demonstrate concretely how to tackle questions, how to follow instructions, how to problem solve together, how to use the relevant technology to produce output. Provide samples of A-grade answers, and explain why they are worth an A.

If all that fails

None of the above measures can help a student who is not present to receive them.

This is why I am in the habit of reaching out early to students like Daniel who are not showing up to class. For one thing, I don’t like my hard work in course design and delivery to go to waste. For another, early intervention can mitigate the work you’ll end up doing later on to try to help struggling students who show up at the last hour, anguished and desperate to pass the course.

Reaching out might take the form of a conversation after class or during office hours, an email exchange, or even a document such as a learning contract that the two of us go over and to which he pledges his commitment.

I no longer resent the “extra time” it takes to reach out. My ego used to flinch at the fact that I was “chasing” a student who ought to appreciate the opportunity of being in my class and ought to “know better” about showing up. Then I started asking students: what’s going on when you’re not showing up to class?

Daniel might answer that he’s working full-time on night shifts to cover his tuition and living expenses: his absences and disengagement during classes take on new meaning. Or, he might tell me he’s taken the course three times before, thanks but no thanks, he’s pretty confident about the material and really just needs another chance at taking the tests. How I proceed to support Daniel in either of these scenarios will differ greatly.

Know the support your students can receive

I won’t hesitate to refer Daniel to the campus Learning Center, Counselling and Accessibility, or to anyone else in a student advisory role. As his instructor, I’m an important point of contact for him, but my time, energy and attention is understandably limited.

Become aware of and liaise with the others at your institution who have roles dedicated to supporting struggling students. They may even have the bigger picture when it comes to the students who show up in your classroom. Together, you will make a real difference in the lives of your students.

How Top Hat can help

Top Hat makes attendance-taking and tracking easy, and offers resources for classroom activity planning. Our comprehensive gradebook also lets you spot when a student might need you to reach out and provide some extra help. Read more about Top Hat here.


  1. Pearson, A. and Naug, H. (April 2013). Identification of at-risk students and strategies to improve academic success in first year health programs. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education. 4(1): 135-144. Retrieved from:
  2. Steinhauer, J. (June 7, 2017). The Telltale Data That Can Identify College Students at Risk. New York Times. Retrieved from:

Tagged as: