Underperforming and At-Risk Students

The college classroom is more diverse now than previous generations, which presents unique challenges for students who may not be traditionally equipped for college and professors who desire their students to learn effectively. Students who struggle in the classroom can face various consequences. Underperformance can prevent or delay progress through academic programs, graduation, or jeopardize scholarship and graduate work opportunities. The financial cost for at-risk students can also be significant through repeating courses, delaying entry into employment, or movement into another career (Dobele et al., 2013). The following content outlines some reasons for student underperformance as well as potential solutions.

Why do students underperform?

There are many reasons why students underperform in college, and some reasons are related to heightened college admittance standards and freshmen who are not sufficiently prepared for higher education. Traditionally, college preparedness has been measured by courses taken and grades received in high school as well as scores on standardized tests. A more holistic, vigorous consideration of college preparedness may help evaluate reasons for student underperformance in the college setting. Research highlighted in a report about college readiness (Conley, 2007) describes several categories of attributes that may be as important or more important than subject knowledge in influencing college performance:

  • “Key cognitive strategies” such as intellectual openness and curiosity, analysis and reasoning, interpretation, precision and accuracy, and problem solving
  • Academic behaviors such as study skills, time management, persistence, and self-evaluation
  • Academic skills, namely the abilities to write well and conduct research
  • Contextual awareness related to higher education, such as understanding the difference between high school and college (and having the ability to adjust/cope); understanding the norms, values, and conventions of interactions with professors and peers; and possessing interpersonal and social skills to interact with a diversity of backgrounds effectively in classroom and informal settings

Besides knowledge, skills, and behavioral attributes, there may also be psychological or cultural reasons leading to student underperformance. Poor mental health has a strong influence on inter- and intrapersonal resilience as well as academic performance (Hartley, 2011). Student-athletes, ethnic minorities, and women in STEM fields may experience anxiety from stereotype threats that affect their academic performance (Dee, 2014; Levine et al., 2014). First-generation college students may experience extra pressure to succeed, but struggle with low self-confidence in academic settings, financial stress, lack of network connections and models, as well as feelings of guilt at being away from family.

Related to underperforming students is the problem of student retention. Much work has been done to investigate the underlying reasons affecting student success. Two of the most-advanced and comprehensive theories are Tinto’s Theory of Student Integration (1975, 1993) and Bean’s Model of Student Attrition (Nora et al., 1996). Tinto’s theory of student integration proposes that certain background factors—such as family, socio-economic status, and high school performance—help determine a student’s integration into an institution’s academic and social structures. Student integration, in turn, affects student performance and persistence in the college setting. Bean’s model, which has been tested under several conditions, also suggest that factors outside of the university, such as family approval, can greatly impact student persistence through shaping their attitudes and decisions.

Help for underperforming and at-risk students

Being aware that students are struggling in the classroom is a positive step for professors towards helping underperforming and at-risk students. Once underlying reasons for underperformance are identified, the next step is to employ strategies to help the student. It is important to realize that just as there are different causes of underperformance and strategies for addressing it, the timeline of a successful intervention can be unique to the student (Dobele et al., 2013).

  • Active learning includes instructional activities that engage students in the knowledge-building process through activities (reading, writing, discussing, or other forms of activity) and higher-order thinking (such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). Especially in STEM subjects, active learning can lead to improvement in examination performance (Freeman et al., 2014). See Interactive Learning
  •  Academic and social integration through involvement in classroom activities and campus culture are important for enhancing students’ commitment to their institution and their academic goals (Robbins et al., 2004; Nora et al., 1996). Moreover, increased academic and social integration can help students gain a sense of belonging and perceive that they have a support system, which can help students persist through difficult parts of their academic program. See Community in the Classroom
  • Intervention strategies that seek to address both academic and non-academic factors for student underperformance may be more successful because they meet the social, mental, emotional, and academic needs of students (Lotkowski et al., 2004).

Campus resources for underperforming and at-risk students

The Paul L. Foster Success Center (PLFSC) is comprised of several departments offering specific academic and non-academic student support including: Supplemental Instruction (SI), online Progress Reports and follow-up, academic planning, scholarship opportunities, and career and professional development (CPD).

Resources, including scholarship opportunities and programs to facilitate academic and social integration when entering college, for first-generation college students and their parents to support student success at Baylor and beyond.

The New Student Experience is a combination of courses and programs designed to help students transition well to the “rigorous academic environment at Baylor” and seeks to engage students academically, socially, and spiritually. NSE wants to help students form meaningful connections and academic community, as well as find success at Baylor and beyond.


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