How to Improve Programmatic Results by Focusing on High-Need Students


If only time wasn’t a limited resource. How much could faculty members accomplish if they were able to give direct and personalized attention to every single student throughout the semester? That would be the ideal, but it’s an ideal that’s out of reach for almost all professors. With the long list of tasks and responsibilities pulling you in every direction, attending to the needs of students often becomes one more thing you have to juggle, rather than the top priority you’d prefer it to be.

While it can be easy (and tempting) to focus your time and energy on the best students—the ones who seem especially bright and have the most obvious potential—really, they’re not the ones who need it most.

Here’s what we know from recent statistics:

  • 40% of high school students are disengaged and unmotivated—and many of those students will go on to be disengaged in college programs as well.
  • The statistic above partially explains why 20% of students come to college needing remediation.
  • 41% of undergraduate students go on to drop out.
  • While clear numbers on graduate-student dropouts aren’t available, one study of STEM programs found that 44% don’t complete their coursework within four years.

Many of these students are not lost causes. But when a student starts falling behind in courses led by teachers too overwhelmed to spot the trouble and intervene, the student’s struggle can build to a level that feels hopeless.

What to Do About It

The students that come to you motivated and engaged shouldn’t be neglected, but they’ll probably make it to the finish line without needing as much attention. It’s the ones who deal with attention disorders, self-doubt, or problems outside the classroom that affect their ability to get work done that need faculty attention the most.

If more of the limited attention and energy you have goes to the students most in need, you will reach the end of the course with more students who are successful. Here are three steps for getting there.

Identify the students having difficulties.
This part isn’t usually that difficult. Students’ assessment scores give you a pretty clear picture of who’s struggling. A one-off bad score might not mean much, but any student who consistently scores poorly probably needs some extra attention.

Analyze their needs.
This part is a little harder, but it’s easier if you use embedded assessment. If you collect data on the specific subject areas and knowledge types that students have, then your assessment reports should help you pinpoint the areas each student is really struggling in. See if there are trends in the data—maybe students respond better to certain types of assignments than others, or perhaps they just get stuck on a particular subset of concepts.

Provide specialized feedback and help.
Once you have a better idea about where the problem lies, you can provide your struggling students with help and feedback specific to their needs. If you use ExamSoft, student reports can help you provide specialized feedback to all your students. If you supplement that data with your own analysis about the students who need the most help, you can make the data go further.

With access to the right assessment data and reports, this process doesn’t have to be a huge time sink. The analysis is probably the hardest part, but it can lead to much more rewarding interactions with students. You can easily monitor student progress throughout the semester to see if your interventions with struggling students are working—without letting other students slip through the cracks, because you’ll have their data on hand as well.

In a perfect world, every faculty member would give every student equal attention. In the world we live in, having the tools to hone in on students who need you the most and to determine how best to help them can ensure more of your students achieve the learning objectives you’ve set and make it to graduation day.

Published: August 26, 2019

Updated: July 17, 2023

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