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Characteristics of a Successful Student: Bringing Out the Best in Your "Underachievers"

Issues and Behaviors that Interfere with Student Success

  • Class Attendance. Regular class attendance facilitates student success in several important ways.
    1. The auditory presentation of material and use of multimedia in the classroom targets a wider range of learning styles than reading alone. (Sleigh & Ritzer, 2001)
    2. Students hear/participate in the discussion of important concepts resulting in a deeper understanding of the material. (Sleigh & Ritzer, 2001)
    3. Students have the opportunity to develop their critical thinking skills and to share and evaluate the ideas of classmates.
    4. Students may be asked to explain theories in their own words, relate written material to outside experiences, and make connections between concepts.
    5. Students develop discipline and the ability to take good notes, prioritize, and manage time. (Sleigh & Ritzer, 2001)
  • Poor Study Skills. Many of our students lack basic study skills. Among those behaviors, most detrimental to their academic success are the following ("Reasons Why Intelligent Students Sometimes Fail", Mar. 2002):
    1. Poor time management
    2. Lack of persistence
    3. Drive for immediate gratification
    4. Procrastination
    5. Reliance on memorization at the expense of critical thinking and analysis
    6. Lack of motivation
  • Motivation. Ultimately, a lack of motivation may hamper student success more than any other single factor. Regardless of their skills, abilities, or potential, if students are not motivated to come to class, participate, or study, they will not do so.

Suggestions for Improving Student Attendance

  • While many college professors do not require attendance due to their conviction that adult learners should be responsible for their own decisions, this approach often results in some of the most "at-risk" students failing to make good decisions about class attendance. Whatever your philosophy, there are a variety of strategies below, not all of which explicitly require attendance.
  • The most obvious way to improve student attendance is to make it worth their while to come to class. Of course, "making it worth their while" can be interpreted in several ways. Overall, it's helpful to keep in mind that for any strategy to be successful, students should be able to see clearly that they are benefiting in some way from being in class.
    1. As part of an icebreaker on the first day of class, have the students explore some of the reasons given for missing class and evaluate the merit of each.
      • Working with the entire class, ask students to give reasons for missing class and write them on the board. This allows everyone to contribute to the list. Then have each student brainstorm his or her own list, including all the reasons they've ever given for missing a class. Next, ask the students to differentiate between Victims of external circumstances (pawns on a chessboard) and Creators of their lives (the person playing chess). Then, beginning with the list on the chalkboard, ask students to put a V (Victim) or a C (Creator) next to each reason. Work as a group for the first few items, asking "Is this a Victim's or a Creator's reason for missing class?" Then have them review their own lists. (Downing, 2002)
    2. Test on material emphasized in class, instead of relying solely on information that can be obtained through reading the course text. (Sleigh & Ritzer, 2001)
    3. Cover different material in class than that presented by the text. Students are more likely to attend class if they know that exams will include items that have been discussed in class. (Davis, 1993)
    4. When possible, relate class lecture or discussions to topics of interest to students.
    5. Use in-class quizzes or other in-class assignments worth only a few points. Do not allow make-ups for these assignments.
    6. Consider grading classroom participation; if students don't attend they can't participate.
    7. Have a ritual at the beginning of class that students would not want to miss, such as updates/announcements of interest, or "good news". ("Civility in the Classroom," 2002)
    8. Do not rescue students from the consequences of their absence. Let them be responsible for obtaining any information that they've missed. ("Civility in the Classroom", 2002)
    9. Consider using creative and fun ways of encouraging attendance, such as prizes, rewards, raffles, etc. (Sleigh & Ritzer, 2001)
    10. Consider giving bonus points for perfect or near perfect attendance versus subtracting points for non-attendance.
    11. Model the desired behavior. Be on time and present, both in class and during office hours. Come early to class if possible to let students know that you're interested and available.
    12. Get students involved in the class by using a variety of techniques, such as small discussion groups, mini-projects, case-studies, etc. Students are more likely to attend a class when there are a variety of learning activities.
    13. Clearly state policies on attendance and put them in writing. If you are going to require and attach grades to student attendance, explain your rationale for doing so.
    14. Establish an atmosphere of respect and community in the classroom where students feel free to share their questions and comments.
    15. Learn students' names. This increases both their level of comfort and their feelings of accountability.
    16. End class on time so students are not late for their following classes (Davis, 1993), and because this demonstrates a respect for class times.

Techniques for Developing Student Study Skills

While much of the responsibility for developing study skills lies with students themselves, professors can facilitate this process through communication and the purposeful construction of assignments designed to strengthen study skills.

  1. Clearly communicate the course requirements, both verbally and in the syllabus. Include specifics about assigned papers, projects, homework and exams. For example, include due dates, criteria used for evaluation and grading, and points possible for each assignment. In addition, students often find it helpful to know how long a paper or presentation should be, the types of questions that will be on the exam, and your expectations for written work (i.e., MLA or APA style).
  2. Clearly and unequivocally state due dates and the consequences for turning in late work.
  3. Adhere to your due dates and the consequences for missed or late work. Bend your own rules only under extreme or extenuating circumstances.
  4. Model desired behavior. Adhere to the class schedule as much as possible. Don't put things off or get so far behind that you end up covering 50% of the course material during the last 2 weeks of the class.
  5. Require progress reports on course projects or papers so that students stay on task.
  6. When possible break assignments down into smaller chunks with separate due dates. (e.g., Have students bring an outline one day, a rough draft for peer review the following week, and the final paper a week later.)
  7. Model how you would study for the class if you were taking it, using statements such as "I would..." versus "You should..." Students tend to hear "I" statements better.
  8. If applicable, collect homework on occasion to assess their level of thoroughness, understanding, etc. Provide them with specific feedback on how they might improve.
  9. Early in the semester, present your students with tips on outlining the chapter, taking study notes, and asking for clarification in class.
  10. Consider inviting a representative from the counseling and advising center to speak to the class about resources on campus, particularly if it is an introductory or required college course.
  11. Assign an in-class activity where students discuss and evaluate different suggestions for improving study skills.
  12. Develop a case study illustrating poor study habits and have students analyze it and make suggestions for improvement.
  13. On the last day of class, have students write a letter to future students including suggestions for studying. Share these with subsequent classes. (Better Endings, 2002)

Strategies to Assist Students in Developing Motivation

Once again, students must ultimately identify and work toward their own goals and they must rely on themselves for motivation. However, faculty are not powerless in this area. By using positive reinforcement and learning opportunities that empower students, we can create an atmosphere where students can identify their goals and become internally motivated. Research has demonstrated that getting students interested, involved, and cooperating builds internal motivation. (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998)

  1. Deliver class presentations with energy, interest, and enthusiasm. You have the opportunity to demonstrate how to be interested and why students should be enthusiastic about the class. (Nilson, 1998)
  2. Encourage collaborative modes of learning, such as paired and small group work. (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998)
  3. Design activities that foster critical thinking, defined as "the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference, and evaluation." (Angelo, 1995, p.6)
    • For example, ask the students to write a "One-Minute Paper" in response to the question "What were the most important concepts that were discussed in the class today?" (Angelo, 1995). Then ask students to share their ideas and discuss the similarities and any differences.
  4. Include activities that allow students to examine issues and concepts of concern to them. For example, encourage students to select topics for research or study that they find interesting.
  5. Encourage students to apply course concepts to "real life" case studies.
  6. Create sample problems to be analyzed and evaluated and have the students develop solutions.
  7. When possible teach by discovery, allowing students to come to conclusions or answers on their own. (Nilson, 1998)
  8. Involve students in the process of constructing course objectives and the means of accomplishing the learning outcomes.
  9. Offer flexibility and choice when possible.
  10. Avoid perpetuating demoralizing stereotypes that suggest limited abilities (e.g., men aren't very good communicators).
  11. Set challenging but achievable goals and encourage students to set reasonable goals for themselves. (Nilson, 1998)
  12. Make the material accessible and easily understandable in common language. Avoid jargon or using terms that are more complicated than necessary. (Nilson, 1998)
  13. Regularly provide students with constructive feedback on their work, including information on what they've mastered and on what concepts need further study.
  14. Invite feedback from students on how the class is going and what works (or doesn't) for them in the course.
  15. Whenever possible, emphasize the usefulness of classroom material to an occupation or other "real life" situation. (Nilson, 1998)


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Davis, B.G. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1993. Print.

Downing, S. "Student Success Strategies." On course Workshop. Sept. 2002. Web. 6 May. 2010.

Howell, C. "Facilitating Responsibility for Learning in Adult Community College Students." ERIC Clearinghouse for Community College. Mar. 2001. Web. 6 May. 2010.

Johnson, D.W., and Roger T. Johnson. "Cooperative Learning and Social Interdependence Theory." Social Psychological Applications to Social Issues. 4. (1998): 9-35.

Johnson, D.W., Roger T. Johnson, and Karl A. Smith. Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina: Interaction Book Co., 1998. Print.

McCabe, R. "Underprepared Students." Measuring Up 2000: The State by State Report Card for Higher Education. May 2002. Web. 6 May. 2010.

Montgomery, S.M., and Linda N. Groat. "Student Learning Styles and Their Implications for Teaching." Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. 10. (1999): 1-8.

Nilson, L.B. Teaching at Its Best: A Reasearch-Based Resource for College Instructors. Bolton: Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 1998. Print.

Sleigh, M.J., and Darren r. Ritzer. "Encouraging Student Attendence." American Psychological Society Observer. 14.9 (2001): n. pag. Web. 6 May. 2010.

"Civility in the Classroom." Faculty Guide at Texas Tech University. Sept. 2002. Web. 6 May. 2010.

"Critical Thinking." Grayson H. Walker Teaching Resource Center at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Nov. 1999. Web. 6 May. 2010.

"Taking Notes from Lectures." University of Minnesota Duluth Student Handbook. Feb. 2002. Web. 6 May. 2010.

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