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Serving Academically Underprepared Students

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Imagine what it’s like to realize you are academically underprepared in an environment focused on academic success. 

You might feel panic, fear, despair, or shame. You might experience a lack of motivation or a lack of confidence in your ability to do well. You might even exhibit behavior that appears apathetic, like avoidance, denial, or procrastination. This is the reality for some college students, many of whom would like to do well in school and would feel better if they could make it happen.

Half of high schoolers know they aren’t ready for college even before they come to campus. Some students, however, don’t realize they are academically underprepared until their first (or second) year of college. Still yet, other students believe they are simply academically unfit and don’t realize that their situation can be improved. 

Self-efficacy, along with factors like climate, academic experience, and college navigation skills are all barriers to student success, particularly for academically underprepared students. 

While it’s important to understand the reasons why students are academically underprepared for college, it’s more important to meet them where they are and serve their needs to help them succeed.

Academic Support

Knowing you need help and knowing how to ask for help are two different things. The first is a realization; the second is a behavior that requires a certain set of knowledge and skills. Many students don’t know exactly what they need to ask, so understanding their struggles and proactively providing them with relevant information is crucial. 

That said, serving academically underprepared students is not achieved by simply listing available resources. It’s important for students to understand not just the what but also the who, the why, and the how. In addition to talking about what a resource is, students want to know why it matters, how it works, and how it can help. Small personal touches like staff photos and bios on a department website can help students feel at ease with who they might receive guidance from. This removes the mysterious or faceless feel of a department and drives a higher likelihood that a student will seek help.

Because some students might assume that academic support only includes tutoring, it is essential to promote all of the different services available to them. Again, remembering to communicate not just what they are, but when a student may benefit from engaging with them. Do your students know the difference between an academic coach and tutor? Do you have a support program specifically for FTIC students on academic warning? Helping students understand the different value these services bring is extremely important. 

Additionally, a great way to help this student population is to bring support into the classroom. Running a workshop on topics like study strategies or academic motivation can help familiarize students with resources and get them on the right path. Some institutions are re-envisioning remedial requirements to be accelerated, appeal to a student’s interests, and focus on improved instruction. Others provide first-year experience and skills-based classes to help students become more equipped to meet the demands of college.

In a previous post from this series, we explored how faculty introducing study strategies in class and utilizing inclusive teaching methods can make a difference for first-generation college students. Considering that first-generation college students may be among your academically underprepared student population, this advice can make a broad impact for the group as a whole. Certain teaching tips can help this population as well, such as encouraging peer-to-peer support, sharing examples of good work, and using ungraded assignments to check readiness. Student success can also be improved through course redesign, which can sometimes increase the passing rate of a class by as much as 20%, as found by EAB.

Innovative approaches to academic advising can be very impactful for academically underprepared students as well. In fact, EAB found that holistic, caseload advising was able to help a college increase their retention by 3.8 percentage points in less than two years. NACADA addresses how the relationship between academically underprepared students and their academic advisor is of paramount importance to their resiliency and confidence as they persist through college. Lastly, helping academically underprepared students understand “The Super Mario Effect” can change their perspective on learning and alleviate some of pressure they feel to reach a certain level of academic performance.

Student Affairs Support

While it may seem like academically underprepared students need to pour everything they have into their classwork to turn the ship around, that isn’t necessarily the case. These students need balance too. Life skills and social support helps students feel empowered, motivated, and capable to succeed.

Improving time management, stress management, and communication skills (e.g., learning how to ask for help), can enable this student population to move the needle on their academic preparedness. Programs on these topics, especially when presented by peer educators, help these students feel empowered to succeed academically.

It’s important to remember, however, that the students who need to learn these skills the most may be the least likely to attend. “Don’t cancel that class” initiatives are a prime example of a partnership that can effectively bring these programs to students. Health promotion departments also typically provide non-programming based outreach in order to engage with students who may not attend a presentation or come to their office to pick up a brochure. Examples of this kind of outreach include Wellness InSTALLments in campus bathrooms, Cash Cab golf cart programs, or interactive tabling.  Many campuses are building up students with campus-wide resiliency programs, some which include an academic confidence component. 

In terms of social support, we already know that college friendships and academic success often go hand in hand. Since the realization of academic unpreparedness is likely to occur during a student’s first-year and many first-year students live on campus, Residential Life is a critical partner in creating opportunities for social support. Whether by way of organized events or through informal connections built over a meal in the dining hall, creating a strong sense of community here is a great place to start.

Involvement in student clubs or organizations can help with this as well, seeing as they often expect good academic standing to participate, promote academic resources, and have advisors who care about members. Promoting on-campus involvement can help provide a network of social support and encouragement for these students.

Other Support

What else can we do to serve academically underprepared students? While we can stand next to them each day to help them carve their individual pathways to success, we should also make an effort to keep learning how we can better position resources and frameworks to help these students for years to come. A piece by Deloitte titled, “Success by design: Improving outcomes in American higher education,” encourages high impact learning, comprehensive support services, and student-focused operations to better improve outcomes. While institutions work towards larger-scale change in these areas, current students still need support today.

This is the third post in our Supporting Key Student Populations Content Series.