At-risk students present a specific challenge to the faculty and administration of a college or university because the term “at-risk student” can mean so many things. For the average college instructor, grading the work of anywhere from 20-100 students per course, maintaining expertise in his/her field, and delivering high-quality instructional material is already difficult enough—watching out for students who have a variety of extensive needs in the classroom is often an additional and sometimes unmanageable task. At-risk students can get lost in the shuffle and drop-out. That’s where online courses and online support systems can help keep all kinds of students on the path to graduation.
The definition of “at-risk students” is comprehensive and embraces a great variety of different issues. At-risk students can include those who are ethnic minorities, have academic, intellectual, or physical disabilities, come from backgrounds of lower socioeconomic status, or are already on academic probation. As Pat Walsh of Iowa State University reports, researchers have argued that the definition of at-risk students can also include those students whose “skills, knowledge, motivation, and/or academic ability are significantly below those of the ‘typical’ student in the college or curriculum in which they are enrolled.”
Such students, Walsh points out, may also possess “low academic self-concept, unrealistic grade and career expectations, unfocused career objectives, extrinsic motivation, external locus of control, low self-efficacy, inadequate study skills for college success, a belief that learning is memorizing, and a history of passive learning.” Students at risk of failure or dropping out “may be those who have made poor choices or decisions that impacted negatively on their academics, or they may be an adult student who returns to higher education after an extended absence, or students with academic or physical limitations not identified before enrolling in higher education.”
After studying at-risk high school students, researchers Cathy Cavanaugh, Jeanne Repetto, and Nicola Way argued that faculty must employ a model they call the 5Cs:
- Students should understand the Connectionbetween their school work and their lives outside of school.
- Students should have a supportive Climatein which to work.
- Students should be able to learn how to exercise some measure of Controlover their work.
- Students should be instructed with effective Curriculum.
- Students should have a sense of being part of a Community.
These practices can also help all college students who struggle from time to time with similar issues. Given the great diversity of at-risk students, the variety of online educational programs and tools available can help keep them on track to graduation. The following educational options and tools all employ one or more of the 5Cs for at-risk college students:
- Online courses: According to the North American Council for Online Learning, “Online learning offers the advantage of personalization, allowing individualized attention and support when students need it most. It provides the very best educational opportunities to all students, regardless of their zip code, with highly qualified teachers delivering instruction using the Internet and a vast array of digital resources and content.” For students with learning challenges or emotional difficulties, the opportunities for self-pacing, individual contact with the instructor via email and personal distance can lower the stress of the face-to-face contact of a traditional classroom and create a supportive environment. Faculty can employ many different kinds of discipline-specific interactive curriculum.
- Mobile learning: Project K-Nect is a program recently implemented in North Carolina’s secondary schools to assist high school students. Ninth grade math students were given smartphones and used them to work on supplemental match activities, with support from tutors and frequent contact with their peers and teachers. The results have been striking: Not only did “90 percent of the Project K-Nect students in Algebra I and 100 percent of the Algebra II students demonstrate[d] proficiency on their end of course exams,” the majority also expressed greater comfort with learning math skills and an interest in taking more math classes, along with a greater desire to go to college. This model, if implemented in higher education, could be a great asset to at-risk students, encouraging their participation in a larger learning community.
- Intrusive Advising: In this model of advising, faculty, counselors, academic advisors and others demonstrate an active concern for students’ academic progress and a concomitant willingness to assist students to understand and utilize programs and services that can increase the likelihood for their success. Intrusive advising programs and advisors understand that many students, especially those who may be at greater risk for dropping out, often do not seek assistance in time for the assistance to have a positive impact on their progress. Frequent contact via e-mail, Twitter updates, and regular internet discussion sessions about grades and schoolwork can all help keep at-risk students on track by creating a supportive community.
- Online tutoring: For students who struggle with learning disabilities, supplemental online tutoring is a valuable opportunity for students to get extra practice on course material. Companies such as EduWizards.com offer such services, but many schools and colleges provide tutoring, both in person and online, for students who qualify or request additional assistance. This can also help students develop control over their own work and foster personal initiative.
Many of these tools and tactics were developed to address the growing rates of drop-outs in both high school and college. But the benefits of such web-based interaction with students can also address students who typically perform at lower levels, who are at-risk of dropping out but have not yet done so. Web tools can be used to both raise their commitment to their work and create a sense of inclusiveness. For at-risk students, alienation from school often began at an early age, and making students feel part of a larger community can help motivate and inspire them, because they know that they are not alone in their endeavors. For example, I recently started using Twitter to remind students about upcoming papers, and several students, with and without learning challenges, have told me that they would not have remembered these assignments. This minor change in my teaching style—the inclusion of more interactive tools–makes only a tiny difference in what I do for my students—but it could make a world of difference for a student struggling to stay enrolled.
Are there any tools you have used to help at-risk students stay enrolled? If you are a student, what did your instructors do to help you stay on track? Please submit your comments here!