What Do You Do When Good Students Seem to Go Bad?

As an educator, I care about my students – all of them. Even the students who challenge me and occasionally cause me to walk away from my laptop for a short break. I believe it stems from my belief in the potential that every student has to learn, even if students do not learn at the same pace or comprehend the course topics at the same time. Most of the classes that I have taught have been online, and I have enjoyed teaching in a virtual learning environment – even though it was challenging at first when I could not see the students like I could when I was teaching in a traditional classroom. Over time I developed an ability to tell when students are engaged in the class and when students are slowly starting to disengage. I know that some form of outreach is needed when students are struggling, to help re-engage them back in the class.

The easiest aspect of online teaching, and I know that it applies to teaching adult students in general, is working with students who are highly motivated and want to perform well in your class. Those are the students you do not have to worry about or spend a lot of time trying to help them improve upon developmental issues as they are usually your top performers and earning the best grades in the class. At the other end of the teaching spectrum are the students who seem to put in the least effort possible and need a lot of attention, and I do not mind that either as I want to show those students that someone cares enough to help them when they need it – even when they may not think they need help. As long as they are receptive to receiving help, they can improve.

A challenge for teaching adult students, and this applies for instructors who are teaching students online and in traditional classrooms, occurs when the performance of high achieving students suddenly declines. Their involvement in class discussions may diminish significantly, they may miss assignment deadlines, or they stop submitting assignments. With poor performing students it can be easy to make an assumption that they are not applying themselves, not trying hard enough, or they are not utilizing the feedback and coaching provided. What does an instructor assume when it is a top performing student whose grades and performance begins to decline? At what point should an instructor intervene and try to ascertain what is causing the issue? I have learned that there are always steps to be taken and solutions that can be implemented, whether internally or externally based, and these are the strategies I will address.

Finding the Root Cause

Whenever a student is struggling, regardless of how well or how poorly they have been performing throughout the duration of the course, I always make an attempt to reach out to them and assist them. When the performance of a student who has been doing especially well begins to decline, there is likely something more going on. For those situations, I have learned that it may not be possible to get to the bottom of the issue – especially if it involves something going on in their personal life. More importantly, is not my responsibility to ask questions of a personal nature when contacting students.

However, I need to be diligent in my outreach attempts and determine if there are any factors that are within my control. For example, within an online classroom it is possible that a conflict has occurred between this student and another student. I can usually spot incidents like this during class discussions and when I do, I make certain to intervene. Other factors that cause disengagement from online classes include a dislike of the course, course topics, or discussions. When there are visible symptoms within the classroom that provide indicators as to why the student’s performance has been adversely affected, I can then better address the root cause of the problem.

Finding Solutions to Help Your Students

Before you can develop solutions to help the top performing students recover from a time of declining grades or performance, you need to speak with that student in some manner. The most effective method would be direct one-on-one communication, either by instant messaging or phone. However, I understand that as an adjunct instructor finding time to schedule an appointment with students who live in different time zones can be challenging. Consider though how impersonal an email can be, and how easy it can be to misinterpret the tone and intent of the meaning of the message because you are being represented by the words you have written.

Once you have made contact with your student, you can then develop a solution. I view the possible solutions for helping these students from three different perspectives: Internal solutions, external solutions, and solutions discovered through self-reflection.

Internal Solutions: When I am able to contact a struggling student, and learn about the reason for the decline in their performance, I can better determine how to assist them. For example, if they have lost interest in the class topics, they are bored with the class in general, or they do not know how to respond to the class discussion; I can find a solution to help them and it is something internal or within the scope of my instructional practice. There may be other reasons identified when I am able to speak with the student that can be addressed, and would have remained unresolved if I would not have made an outreach attempt. As an example, if this student had a conflict with another student, I can implement conflict resolution strategies to help change the situation.

External Solutions: If I am unable to contact the student whose performance has declined, and I have been consistent in my outreach efforts, then I have school procedures I can follow. For example, I may be able to contact an academic advisor for assistance with reaching out to this student or submit a referral notice to classroom support. If I am able to communicate with the student, and the student expresses personal information that concerns their well-being, I can also make an immediate referral to the appropriate academic department. Regardless of the circumstances, if I cannot reach the student and they are now at risk for failure – I need to make certain that I have done my part and the school has been notified as well.

Solutions Through Reflection: Becoming a highly effective educator occurs over time and with practice. I have discovered that the times when I am challenged are also the times that I discover how to improve my teaching methods and instructional strategies. When a “good” student seems to go “bad” – that is a time when I look more closely at what I have posted in my online class, considered how I interacted with students through emails and posts, and what I did to encourage their best performance. I realize that I cannot control all possible circumstances; however, reflection is always part of growth and I know that I can always learn, just as my students can learn.

The most important lesson I have learned is that putting in my best effort does not always mean every student is going to stay highly productive and engaged in the class. If there are students who are not a good fit for the class or the program, then they need to be offered assistance and options – rather than be allowed to continue to decline until they fail the class or they are dropped by the school. If there is a reason for the decline, and one that can be corrected once it has been discovered through a conversation, that creates a teachable moment and strengthens working my relationship with them. Hopefully the next time they feel challenged, they will contact me right away.

I have also learned not to have pre-conceived assumptions about students when they are performing at different levels. Instead, I want to help students discover their own potential. However, I know that student performance is going to naturally fluctuate over time. I remember being a student and I did well in some classes but in others I had to put in a lot more time as the subjects challenged me. It was my instructor who made a difference and that helped influence me as I became an educator. When I demonstrate care and concern for a student, especially a student who is struggling for reasons I may or may not ever know about, I might be able to make enough of a difference to help re-engage them back into the class and see their performance begin to improve again.

Dr. J has been working in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005, with roles that have included Chief Academic Officer, online instructor, college instructor, and online faculty development specialist. Dr. J has also acquired significant experience with instructional design and curriculum development, having developed hundreds of online courses for bachelors, masters, and doctorate programs.

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson is a professional writer, resume writer, learning and development consultant, social media strategist, and career coach. Dr. J founded Afforded Quality Writing in 2003 and has written hundreds of resumes every year in most industries, utilizing a skill set based approach to highlight the best of each person’s career.