Helping At-Risk Students Succeed in the College Classroom

Only 51 percent of high school graduates who took the ACT met ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark for Reading, which demonstrates their readiness to handle the reading requirements for typical first-year college coursework. For some groups, the percentage is even more discouraging: African American students are at 21 percent, while Hispanic American students and students from families whose annual income is less than $30,000 are both at 33 percent.

These numbers, based on the 2004–2005 results of the ACT and featured in the report Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals about College Readiness in Reading, show that student readiness for college-level reading is at its lowest point in more than a decade.

As an educator on the front lines, you don’t have to read between the lines. You see it in your classes every day and it’s quite evident: an increasing number of students are arriving on college campuses unprepared for the academic rigors that await them.

But that doesn’t mean these unprepared students are destined for failure. Dr. Kathleen Gabriel, assistant professor at California State University-Chico, says student success starts with faculty and students who believe that it’s never too late to learn as long as you’re willing to put in the extra time and effort.

In the recent online seminar Teaching Unprepared Students: Success and Retention Strategies, Gabriel shared techniques for helping students with weak reading, writing, and study skills, as well as getting them to take responsibility for their learning. Unfortunately, one of the problems with at-risk students is, sometimes the instructor may not be aware of academic deficiencies until it’s almost too late. To address this, Gabriel recommends having students complete a short reading comprehension or writing assignment during the first couple of classes to get a baseline of their basic skills.

Also during that first week, reach out to your students by learning their names and encouraging them to learn the names of their classmates. Gabriel also conducts short informal “interviews” with her students during the start of each term to learn more about their background and interests, as well as to create the kind of faculty-student bond that’s so important to student success.

Another key to success, especially for academically unprepared students, is class attendance. Although simply knowing everyone’s name will help with attendance issues, Gabriel makes sure students participate once they’re there by having an interactive learning activity for every 15-20 minutes of lecture. For example, a class activity could be a “write-pair-share” activity or an activity where students have to engage with the content by creating a chart or graph that explains that day’s lesson. These items are then handed in for “class activity points” and can’t be made-up if a student misses class.

“It’s important to provide students with active learning experiences that will tap into their existing knowledge and experiences to help enhance their connection to the new material,” says Gabriel.