It all began with a simple message that I wrote on the tests or assignments of students who were struggling: “Please see me so we can discuss your performance on the test (or assignment). Let’s see what we can do to improve your grade.”
Although initially I was not collecting data on the effectiveness of my “invitation,” I soon realized that most of students—about 80 percent—responded to it. Notably, those who met with me began to do better on future tests; their assignments improved as well. When students did not respond to my invitation, after about a week I reached out to them with a simple email. Some responded, some did not. Over time it became difficult to ignore the benefits of having those meetings with students who were struggling. I think the most important message of these meetings was to convey to them that they were not simply a name in my gradebook but that I really cared about their learning and their success.
In time, I developed a structured approach to our meetings, the highlights of which I have summarized below. It is also interesting to note that there were some commonalities to the thoughts and feelings expressed by students. In most cases, the meetings started with the students apologizing for not doing well. “I’m sorry I didn’t study for this test.” Or, “I am so embarrassed for doing so poorly.” Less frequently, students expressed puzzlement: “I really studied for this test. I don’t know why I didn’t do well.” Either way, I made every attempt to make it clear to them that we were going to work together to find a way to improve their performance on subsequent tests and assignments. Here are the six themes that I feel capture the essence of such meetings and which have shown to be beneficial to both myself and my students.
- You are not alone; we are a team. If we are going to find a solution to any problem, we will be far more effective in our approach if we are working together, openly and constructively.
- History is a good teacher. We should use the past as a source of guidance, not a source of judgment. Self-punishment, defensiveness, and blaming oneself and others are not productive approaches; nothing can be gained from them!
- Patterns and trends emerge. During my meetings with students, we review the test or assignment in question together to see if there is a bigger picture. An overview of what went wrong can only lead to hints about ineffective approaches to studying, test-taking, and completing assignments. Identifying the types of questions that caused problems is a much more meaningful approach than a highly specific, microscopic evaluation. This analysis of patterns and trends provides insight into the gestalt of a problem that can be applied to other, similar situations. Completing a comprehensive overview of performance on a test can lead to improvements in other classes and courses. Indeed, more than 70 percent of students who met with me for such review sessions noted that understanding more about themselves as learners helped them to improve their grades in other courses as well.
- Learning to communicate effectively is the gift that keeps giving! Nurturing new habits can best occur through firsthand experiences. Our office meetings help students learn that it’s OK to openly explore and discuss their concerns, doubts, and fears. Rather than avoiding their problems, they learn that reaching out and sharing their concerns is the first step to breaking down the barriers that are holding them back. This is a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives. They also discover their profs are real people.
- A simple conversation may have far-reaching implications. In many cases, when we feel that others truly care about us, we tend to reciprocate by paying more attention to how we act in their presence. One comment that I have heard time and again from students who worked with me through difficult times is, “I worked harder this time because I did not want to let you down!”
- Note-taking is an evolving skill that demands attention, perseverance, and guidance. When I meet with students to review their tests, I always ask them to let me take a look at their class notes. This helps me give them some practical advice on how to take better notes. Verbatim notetaking or too few entries may suggest lack of focus. I also encourage students to ask questions during the lectures, particularly if they feel they are struggling with a term or concept. They can then incorporate the answers and the clarifications into their notes.
For some students, our brief meetings can lead to remarkable transformations. It may not be scientific evidence, but I see it in the form of better attendance, improved grades, more confidence, and a willingness to participate in class discussions. And it all began with a simple invitation: “Please see me!”
Dr. Micah Sadigh is a professor of psychology at Cedar Crest College. firstname.lastname@example.org