Teaching At-Risk Students Workshop

Week 3:  Discipline-Specific Strategies for Teaching At-Risk Students
Step 1: Identifying Strategies

Underprepared and at-risk students benefit from explicit instruction, scaffolded assignments where each small step builds on the subsequent one, and expectations that are clear and visible. Review the following list of teaching strategies and reflect on changes that you might make to your courses that will help students develop both the learning strategies (what students do in specific courses) and academic literacy (knowledge about how college works and the ability to think, read, write, and do math at a college level) necessary for successfully completing degree-credit coursework in your discipline: 

Designing Courses to Build Independent College Learning

  • Actively teach discipline-specific strategies for reading, writing, quantitative learning, and test taking
  • Model and encourage effective study strategies (annotating and marking texts, taking organized notes from reading, etc.)
  • Connect written homework to reading assignments in ways that require critical reading instead of just reading for information (i.e., connecting ideas to the students own thinking about course issues and not just to the ideas presented in the text)
  • Encourage revision and rereading
  • Choose difficult but high-interest texts
  • Select reading and homework assignments that become increasingly more complex as the semester progresses
  • Consider using full-length nonfiction texts instead of a series of unrelated essays in a reader
  • Provide students with feedback on their understanding of reading assignments (not just their written work)

Designing Writing Assignments

  • Scaffold writing assignments so that they gradually move away from summary (or reporting on an author’s ideas) to analysis (connecting ideas from reading to the student writer’s own thinking)
  • Create short writing assignments (such as journal responses) that help students practice analyzing reading assignments and serve as prewriting for a longer assignment
  • Provide models for effective discipline-specific, college-level writing
  • Base writing assignments in introductory courses on texts read and discussed in class; include end-of-semester assignments in more advanced courses that require students to read and analyze independently located texts (such as scholarly research sources)

Teaching Independent Learning During Class

  • Base classroom activities on assigned readings and students’ essay writing
  • Use students’ own writing as a model for discussing writing about reading
  • Develop in-class writing assignments and quizzes that require students to analyze assigned readings in connection to their own thinking rather than just reporting on or summarizing the content
  • Have students work in groups to take responsibility for analyzing a text independently (for example, have them present a text to the class, lead a discussion, or write a handout on a reading assignment)
  • Design classroom activities that require students to bring their books and use each reading assignment during class (i.e., do something with the text instead of just talking about it)
  • Model effective reading strategies during class
  • Model how to complete application questions and other textbook learning activities, especially if they help develop the academic learning skills that students need to use on exams or other graded activities

Designing Classroom Activities That Build Reading Comprehension

  • Model effective techniques for marking, annotating, and taking notes from assigned texts
  • Do pre-reading activities for early assignments, focusing on discipline-specific learning strategies:
  • Preview major reading assignments by analyzing the structure of the text for clues about how to read it
  • Create questions about the text while previewing the title, subtitle, headings, and introduction
  • Establish a context for each assignment
  • Make predictions about full-length texts
  • Help students to identify main points and key supporting details—and to separate them from less important and irrelevant information
  • Organize information from the text into logical categories during small and large group discussions
  • Connect the main points of chapters to a book’s overall thesis
  • Use class discussions to help students connect the text to what they already know about the topic

Designing Assignments That Develop Critical Reading

  • Design writing assignments and activities that emphasize analyzing information from sources rather than reporting on or simply summarizing texts
  • Identify and evaluate an author’s thesis and supporting evidence
  • Identify an author’s purpose, audience, and tone
  • Analyze and evaluate the author’s research methods.
  • Distinguish between fact and opinion in an argumentative reading assignment
  • Compare the denotative and connotative meaning of words from a reading assignment
  • Analyze the literal and figurative meaning of words and phrases
  • Discuss the meaning of ambiguous words in the context of a reading assignment
  • Make inferences based on implied meaning

Teaching Explicit Test Taking Strategies 

  • Provide students with study guides that model the level of difficulty and types of studying required for successfully completing exams for the course
  • Frequently discuss the connection between components of a course (lecture, discussion, lab, reading assignments, etc.) and course exams
  • Show students examples of discipline-specific test questions and discuss strategies for successfully answering them
  • Introduce students to discipline-specific vocabulary (e.g., analyze, synthesize, etc.) related to what they need to do as learners on an exam
  • Have students work on and discuss practice questions in small groups
  • Discuss sections of exams after students receive a grade, focusing on effective strategies for reading and responding to the test questions (in addition to the required answers)
  • Introduce students to a variety of methods for testing and assessing their learning in your discipline; actively discuss strategies for successfully adapting study and test taking strategies to each type of exam
  • Encourage students to create discipline-specific test review sheets for exams, using a model that shows them how to organize information before memorizing it for the exam
  • Read and discuss examples from students’ responses to essay exam writing prompts

Teaching Quantitative Learning Strategies

  • Introduce students to academic support services (such as learning centers, TRIO programs, or tutoring labs) for quantitative learning; early in the semester, instructors can take their students to the math tutoring lab to help them develop a familiarity with and comfort with the setting. Throughout the semester, emphasize the availability of tutoring.
  • Offer a homework quiz each class period where students copy out a problem from the previous day’s homework out of their notebooks (textbook can’t be open) to try to get them to do their homework in a timely manner.
  • Use different styles of teaching so students may learn the material in a variety of ways: PowerPoint presentations, discussions, short lectures, writing on the board, group work, having students do problems at the board. 
  • Seek out curriculum materials that connect to different careers and everyday life. Students will never again ask, “When will I ever use this?” and they will find more meaning and interest in what they are learning. 
  • Provide various methods for solving a problem. This may include soliciting suggestions from students about how they solve a problem. 
  • Set up groups at the beginning of the semester. One method is to assign groups after the first class period. Scott Friess suggests the following approach: 
    • “I have each student do 3 problems that they may know how to do but they might not. I ask them if there is anyone in class they would like to be partnered with and also if there is anyone they don’t want to be with. I don’t want the groups to be uncomfortable, but I also don’t want them to be too comfortable either. I have found that groups of 3 seem to work best for what I do, but do have groups of 4 because of the numbers in class. I assign group homework during every class period, and it gets graded. I found out the hard way that if I don’t grade it they don’t put in the effort. Of course not every group works well, but most do and I think that it helps both those who can do the work, because they get to explain the concept again, and those who can’t, who then get to hear a peer’s explanation.” 
  • Introduce some history of mathematics into the classroom, just enough to get them to think about where and when the subject arose.

Pause for Reflection

Think about these teaching strategies in connection with your own discipline and courses
  • Which seem most relevant? 
  • What additional teaching strategies would support underprepared students' learning in your discipline? 
  • How might these strategies help you restructure your course or simply revise an assignment or unit to better meet the needs of underprepared students?