Supporting Struggling Students Through Collaborative Problem Solving

Student who is frustrated holds hand to face

Every semester faculty are faced with students who struggle with completing assignments, understanding the content, or just find it difficult to participate in class activities and discussions. For many, these struggles are connected to low grades, negative perceptions of the instructor and class, increased absences, and indicative of a general lack of engagement.  It is not uncommon for faculty to misinterpret these students as lazy, unmotivated, or just unprepared to do college-level work.  Faculty regularly reach out to assist, but some students are put into the university machinery of “student support,” where their worlds become more complex with emails connecting them to support services like tutoring and counseling, or notifying them that they are in danger of failing or not passing a course. Although this outreach is intended to motivate and help, there is a very real cognitive and emotional load that can be demoralizing if not debilitating. This is complicated, if not impossible terrain to navigate for all of us who genuinely want to see students succeed. Greene (2009) developed a framework for collaborative problem solving as a way to organize, support, and deeply engage students in identifying realistic ways to get back on track and succeed within the classroom. This framework has three steps that can be applied across multiple modalities.  All three steps are based on the fact that we are not merely disseminating information, but teaching human beings to think through content to build disciplinary skills, insights, and understanding. 

Step 1: Connect to identify the root cause

Meet with the underperforming student and work to identify the root causes for their classroom performance. It seems simple but getting to the root cause is quite difficult because it positions us to take into consideration different factors, many of which may be personal and that can be uncomfortable. 

  • Observed behaviors/actions: Let the student know what you have observed and focus on the behaviors, not what you think may be the underlying reasons. Ask if the student agrees with your observations and/or has more to add or change.
  • Seek and clarify reasons: Ask the student for clarification as to why these behaviors are occurring. 

Successfully completing Step 1 requires that we, as faculty members, be specific in identifying the behavior. This step may also be the first time you have spoken with this student in a one-on-one setting and offers an opportunity to break down the barriers that may exist while opening up the opportunity for a conversation.

Step 2: Explain impact on oneself and others

Explain to the student how their behavior is impacting their success in the classroom and what impact it is having on the rest of the class. This is an important step since often the student does not realize that their behaviors can take away an opportunity for the class to be a community of learners, where students’ voices are heard and learning is done in small and large groups through the sharing of information. This may also be the first time the student has looked beyond their own learning and viewed their own behavior as a negative impact on the learning of other students. Below are some prompts to get the conversation started.

  • “Now that we understand what the problems are, let me explain the type of impact I believe it is having on you, me, and the rest of the class….”
  • “How do you think that your behavior may be affecting others in the class?”
  • “Have any of your class peers asked if you are doing okay?”
  • “We previously discussed your reluctance to engage in the class discussions, have you thought about how that has impacted the learning of yourself and your peers?”

Step 3: Collective Problem Solving

Now is the moment for mapping out solutions. The problem(s) have been identified, the points of view and implications have been clarified, so the stage is set to create an action plan.  What makes this step different from traditional problem-solving approaches is that the student takes the responsibility to lead the discussion.  Specifically, students work to identify ways in which they can get back on track. Your job, as the instructor, is to support and guide the student, being honest of their own expectations and what is possible based on the academic expectations of the course. We should remember that most students upon meeting during office hours or after class are waiting to be told what they have to do. This system of faculty problem solving for the student does not address the larger issue. It may also further decrease the motivation of the student by putting unrealistic expectations in front of them and does not address the problem as to how the student arrived in this situation. Greene (2009) points to the power of this phase as the opportunity for the student to identify a new strategy that can support them now and in future situations that are similar.

Teaching is no easy task, but strong and consistent approaches can help us help students to help themselves. With restrictions put in place across a majority of universities, and students possibly feeling more disconnected from the instructors of their courses, the chances of students encountering different unforeseen obstacles has become heightened. What we can say with confidence is that the current landscape of higher education has reminded us that often the best path to supporting student learning is focusing on what we can control…and that is what we do in the classroom. 

David Adams, PhD, is an assistant professor of kinesiology at Cal Poly Humboldt (HSU). He teaches classes within the kinesiology department. His research focuses on improving the movement abilities for children with disabilities, as well as improving the learning experience and academic experiences of students in higher education.

Enoch Hale, PhD, is the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Cal Poly Humboldt. Dr. Hale has 18 years of teaching experience of which 12 of those years are in higher education. His research focuses on faculty development, teaching and learning in higher ed, and embedding critical thinking into curriculum, instruction, and classroom culture.


Greene, R. W. (2009). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. Simon and Schuster.