August 5th, 2015

What Kind of Feedback Helps Students Who Are Doing Poorly?


Teacher talking to a student

Students perform poorly in our courses for a variety of reasons. Here are some students you’ve likely encountered over the years, as well as a few ideas on the type of feedback that best helps them turn things around.

The student who’s doing poorly because he isn’t trying. For whatever reason(s), he just doesn’t care to put forth any kind of effort and happily cruises along at half speed. I have to admit, these were the students I found most frustrating and challenging. Can you make a student care? Not often, my experience inclines me to think, but can you afford not to try? How many of us cruised along, at least in a few classes?

Here are two approaches I have used with students who weren’t trying (please suggest others). First, I tried to discover something that might interest the student, even if that meant offering different assignment features or alternative assignments. “What would make this assignment more interesting to you?” “Is there an assignment I could give you that would motivate you to do your best work?” Second, I would try the constructively in-your-face approach—privately, of course. “You are wasting your time and somebody’s money!” “When are you going to get serious about preparing for the rest of your life?”Teaching Professor Blog

The student who’s doing poorly because she has no self-confidence. These are the students who set out to prove what they believe. “I can’t write.” “I’ve never been any good in math.” “I’m not coordinated.” First and foremost, these students need teachers who believe in them. I admit, sometimes I have faked it a bit here. In my heart of hearts, I’ve wondered about their chances of success, but to their faces I am all about believing they can. I can’t do it for them and I’m not saying it will be easy, but I’m alongside them as they work to learn the content or master the skill.

The feedback these students need is specific and descriptive, not vague and certainly not evaluative. “Here’s what you need to learn or do next.” And what needs to happen next is a bite-size chunk. The feedback doesn’t assume or proclaim that it’s easy, because to this learner it may be the toughest thing she’s chewed so far. It’s focused feedback, and the focus is on the task at hand. It’s also feedback about progress and celebration, which the learner needs to note and celebrate. “Are you seeing any signs of progress?” “Where?” “What about in this part of the paper?” “How will you know when you’ve succeeded?” “How will you celebrate?”

The student who’s doing poorly because he doesn’t have the necessary knowledge or skills. It could be the student’s fault or where he went to high school, but who’s to blame isn’t the issue when it comes to the kind of feedback that will help. This student needs a clear (but not overwhelming) delineation of what he’s missing, and where that knowledge can be found or how those skills can be acquired. Here, too, it’s descriptive feedback, not evaluative. Realistic feedback is needed in cases where much that’s essential is missing. It’s about what the student doesn’t know or can’t do, not his ability to master what he needs to know or do. But when a student is missing a considerable amount of knowledge or skills, success in this particular course at this time is not likely.

The student who’s doing poorly because she isn’t getting a certain concept. She’s trying, attending class, asking questions, and showing up during office hours, but the light of understanding is not coming on. She is frustrated, angry, upset, feels like quitting, and thinks she’ll never get it. She needs teacher feedback about persevering. She needs to hear stories about how understanding sometimes descends unexpectedly—while taking a walk, when falling asleep at night, or perhaps a day or two later. She needs feedback, but not an overwhelming amount. In the study referenced below, students in clinical settings were underperforming. In their efforts to help, teachers provided more and more feedback—more explanations, more examples, more demonstrations, and more supervision. More didn’t always help. It’s better to keep the feedback focused and encourage her to consult others (including peers) who understand. Maybe they can help her find the switch.

Reference: Bearman, M., Molloy, E., Ajjawl, R., and Keating, J. (2013). “Is there a Plan B?”: Clinical educators supporting underperforming students in practice settings. Teaching in Higher Education, 18 (5), 531-544.

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  • Prof.John Inzero

    Dr. Weimer,
    I read your article with great interest. I've come across all of the student types that you mentioned. I appreciate your suggestions and definitely will use them in future dealings. There is another type of "student doing poorly" that you didn't mention. This is the student who is capable of the work, cares about the work, but because of job and family responsibilities doesn't have the time to get the work in correctly and by the due date. To these students, I recommend time management. I sometimes start with a brief time management video and recommend books or articles for their use. I found that this can be useful to them. Thank you.

    • Prof Kathy Dumont

      I have many of these type students also. It is a struggle because some are working two jobs. However they also paid for the class which will cost them money. I try to help them budget their time and explain the cost of not passing. Sometimes it is a choice of just to get a C.

  • Laura

    I had a student this semester who was a chronic procrastinator, a problem he's had for a while, apparently. How do you motivate a student like that?

    • Prof.John Inzero

      Laura, Have you tried the polite in your face approach? I had a heart to heart with a recent class about assignments coming in late and expressed to them that, whether they are paying out of their pocket or through loans they took on, they are invested in this education. My message was fail because you don't understand the subject matter. don't fail because you turn things in after the deadlines.

    • Alan

      I'm coming to the conversation fairly late, so I apologize for that. You may well have forgotten all about this. I have found that most procrastination is caused by one of two things: very bad time management and fear of failure. In the latter case (which I think is more serious and if the student chronically procrastinates over a number of years seems more likely than the time management issue) I try to get to the student to do a step at a time, show them they've succeeded at that step, and then do the next step. It's very time intensive, but I've had success. Hope that helps.

  • Laura

    I did try that, John. I had to talk to the student several times before he submitted his work. Apparently he was able to get away with this in high school so he was not properly motivated to change this behavior. I have implemented other methods to address this in the past – 10 points off automatically for every assignment turned in late; no assignment will be accepted after it's two weeks late. I go over these rules in detail at the first class meeting, but still some just aren't motivated to get their work in.

    • Prof.John Inzero

      This is just a thought and may be the consequences will be unworkable. But how about a grading equivalent of the old payment terms of 2/10, Net/30? In other words, if he turns the work in early, he gets a couple of extra points. It may not be a good precedent to set, but maybe this can be a positive motivation, in the case the stick doesn't work so well.

  • Emily

    Dr. Weimar, thank you for inviting a discussion about this very real challenge that educators face. One thing I noticed throughout the article was the stereotypical use of pronouns. "She" is used when discussing a lack of confidence and "he" is used when imagining a student isn't trying hard enough. Something we can do before we even engage with students about their performance is check our own bias. What assumptions are we making about them? How do these assumptions interfere with how we might best support them?

    • stellabeth

      This is a very interesting topic, Dr Weimar. I definitely have felt the consequences of "overloading" feedback. In the spirit of Emily's comment, I also think we can also increase a student's agency by involving them in figuring out "what to do next." Rather than telling them, asking them to come up with the "next steps" also helps build this kind of planning skill. I believe that lack of confidence sometimes comes from not knowing where to begin or lack of time management and study skills, not necessarily an inherent lack of ability or intelligence.

      • Meg Spencer

        Yes, I agree with helping the learner engage in the next step by asking the questions– To improve, this aspect of your paper, what is the next step you need to do? If you need more help, what resource will you access? I ask students to write this down on the form I have provided with my comments. I have had good results with this. It helps students learn more about the writing (creating) process, about accessing resources, and about engaging in the revising process. I also feel the put my feedback to work rather than forget about it.

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  • Julie Mendosa

    I teach graduate students who are, on average, in their mid-thirties, and many are military. I find that none seem to be in the "don't care enough" category, although some of my peers place people there. On closer scrutiny, it's likely to be that they don't understand. They hide this scary truth, maybe even from themselves. This means it is hard for a teacher to discern the true issue, and address the need. We have to develop finely-tuned senses to pick it up, and early in the quarter or semester we can miss it. I find that specific, logical feedback is useful for everybody, no matter their particular challenge. I always frame it with compliments for what they did well. I would love to hear what other teachers of adults find successful, and how often the "don't care enough" category is actually encountered.

  • Salah Mohamed

    The question is that do they really do poorly or did the teacher hadn't taken in consideration their real capacities and talents. A teacher should judge and evaluate the output of each learner individually and not in comparison with other learners. Thus he would know the real capacities of each learner and hence give him adequate drills matching with his mental and learning capacity. Then the teacher should find creative means for developing and building learning capacities of each learner to raise them to the desired standards. Results should be judged poor only If exercises, duties, homework and tests are based on the individual capacities of each learner. Traditional educators have strong tendency to judge the output of learners compared with average out put of the group without taking in consideration individual differences…

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  • Dr. Alajab M. A.

    Thanks Dr. Maryellen for highlighting this very interesting topic. From my experience in teaching learning theory course for the Arabian Gulf University -Distance teaching & training diploma and masters students (Kingdom of Bahrain), I came across all of the three types that you mentioned in addition to a learning problem related to English language. Because the program material was written in English ( it was developed by Sunderland University -UK) my students have got two types of learning difficulties related to the language and the subject. In their course evaluation they used to report the language is tow difficult to understand or the subject is abstract and need more time to understand. To overcome these problems I started translating my class presentations into Arabic as well as the students workbook units summaries. As a results my students are highly motivated to learn learning theory , but still the language of instruction remain as a major problem facing teaching learning theory for a graduate student with no educational background/ and week English language skills.

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