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College Success Resources for Faculty: I have a student who didn't implement my suggestions...

I Have a Student Who Didn't Implement My Suggestions to Improve His/Her Performance In My Class

Faculty often describe the following scenario: students come to conferences or office hours asking for feedback on a paper draft or project. The faculty member spends 20 or 30 minutes explaining what the student needs to do in order to earn good grade and the student leaves, full of good suggestions. Several days later, on the due date, the faculty member is dismayed, and maybe a bit angry when he or she discovers that the student hasn't made any substantive changes to his or her work. Faculty often attribute this to student laziness, and often make comments such as, "If the student didn't plan on making changes in the first place, why did he or she come in and waste 30 minutes of my time getting suggestions?" It is possible, even likely, that some students are lazy, but, in many other cases, something much more complicated may be going on.

What Can You Do?

When they speak to you, students might feel the same way you do when you discuss car repairs with a mechanic. Later, when your significant other or friend asks you what was making the nasty grinding noise when you turned a corner, you may know enough to say that the CV boots need to be replaced. If you had to describe exactly what was wrong with them, or how they worked you may not be able to do so, even if the mechanic explained all that.

Students may come away from a meeting with you knowing that their paper lacks detail, but not knowing, even though you explained it, exactly what to add. Certain conversational constructs can make this problem worse. Imagine being back at the repair shop: usually, your mechanic explains what is going on with your car, but doesn't do anything to determine if you actually understand the problem. You don't take a test over your car's problems, nor are you asked to explain back what you've just been told. You are rarely, if ever, given an opportunity to actually use the information you are getting from the mechanic.

Often, professors put students in a similar situation-the professor does the bulk of the talking in a one-on-one setting, while the student sits passively, nodding assent when asked if he or she understands. Likely, the student does understand what you are saying, but because they don't have an opportunity to use the information while they are there with you, they quickly forget all but the main message, "This paper needs more detail."

You may also say too much at once. The human brain is wired to hold roughly 7-9 concepts in short term memory at a time. If you spend 30 minutes with a student discussing a five page paper, it is entirely likely you will raise more than 7-9 issues. The average student just isn't biologically wired to remember all of that.

Here are some strategies you can employ to minimize these problems:

  • Stop frequently and let the student process what you've said. A few moments of silence can help the student retain your words. Your silence may also encourage the student to speak, and their active participation is the key to understanding.
  • Do a few examples in the office. Rather than just explaining what to do and letting the students go on their way, let them actually write down specific changes they need to make. When they make changes that are effective, make sure to say exactly what is good about them.
  • Ask them to explain back to you what you've said. This is a great opportunity to make sure that they have the same interpretations of the words that you have, and that they truly internalize what you've said.
  • Ask them to describe the procedure they will use to fix their work. For example, you can say, "When you go home tonight to re-write this paper, what is the first thing you're going to do?" The answers they give will let you know whether they really "get it." Other questions you can ask include, "What are you really trying to accomplish with this assignment?" or "What do you need to understand if you are going to get this problem correct?" Ask questions like this frequently. If you notice that the student keeps giving you different answers to the same question, he or she is still confused.
  • Encourage them to write down a plan of action.

Unless students are getting off track, don't ever interrupt them when they are speaking, and if they interrupt you, immediately give them the floor. When a confusing concept is in the process of becoming clear, many people almost involuntarily begin to express their new understanding out loud. If you interrupt this fragile new understanding by diverting a student's attention, you may well undo this new learning.

Remember, too, here at MPC we have some excellent resources to assist students: English Study Skills Center, Supplemental Instruction Tutoring, Reading Center, English as a Second Language Lab, TRiO for qualified students, and the Math Lab. There are links to these programs under the "got grades" link on the main page of the College Success website.