Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How To Cope with Failing Students

Like teachers everywhere, online teachers seek a way to assess and grade their students that is effective, efficient and fair.

Many of the teachers in the E-Learning and Online Teaching Graduate Certificate program are making the transition from teaching face to face at the k-12 level to working in online professional development or the online university environment.  When I first started teaching online I brought a K-12 sensibility to my work. I never gave up on kids.  I wasn't going to quit on adults.

What do you do with adult learners who just can't learn online?

  Time has taught me that most adult adult students show up to learn. But some, for a variety or reasons just are going to make it.  Over time I've learned when to turn off some of my empathy. It's an act of self-preservation.

Despite 40 years of teaching experience, I still take it personally when a student fails.  It really bothers me. However, I've come to recognize that most of the time it isn't about me or my course designs. It's a problem the student has to solve to succeed.  I've also found that some adult students will drain you of time, energy, and teaching spirit. No matter what you do, it's never enough.  I now recognized these kinds of destructive situations more quickly and act more decisively to preserve my teaching spirit.

I always encourage. I always reach out.  But I also guard my own time and spirit. I am intensely aware that time spent with dysfunctional students, is time taken from those present and ready to learn. (And I remind myself I'm working with ADULTS, not kids.)

When I see a  "no show, irresponsible pattern"  I start systematically documenting my attempts to contact and encourage the student. I get very specific about what's wrong, how to fix the problem, and the consequences of ignoring my advice.

This means sending email, making evaluation comments, and referring the student to the syllabus. The quicker you catch the pattern, the better your chance of turning things around.

It's important to document your attempts to help because some under-performing students will protest a low grade and you'll need to defend your decisions.  It you have good records, it's less traumatic to go through a protest process. Keep in mind that everything you write in the CMS might be called into evidence. So make sure you offer feedback that is clear and unambiguous.

There's  folk wisdom among online teachers that goes something like:  Beware the 1% of students that can eat up 50% of your time. 

Thankfully, in my online graduate classes I rarely have to deal with problem students. Still, many of the rules, regulations, syllabus tweaks and procedures were put in place to deal with that 1%.

Nothing wears out your teaching spirit as fast as long administrative procedures dealing with a reluctant student you tried to help, who has now decided that their failure is your fault.


When I deal with these situations I think in terms of triage.  I have only so much time.  My time should go to those who are willing and able to learn.  The others get a fair shot, but I'm saving my teaching spirit for the majority that are ready to learn.

Of course there are always exceptions and accurate information can change everything.  If a student won't tell you what's really going on you can't make an informed judgment.

If you don't know about a medical emergency, a death in the family, or a traumatic incident in a students life you can misinterpret things. Life happens and empathy is part of teaching.

But how can we know if students won't share?  If students don't feel safe in the environment they are reluctant to share. If you're too rigid or distracted to really hear what they say you can easily make a bad call. That's why it's important to reach out with a friendly reminder as soon as you see a problem pattern developing.

So the flip side of the triage approach, is keeping an open mind about the hidden causes of problems. We tend to think that the 'absent' or low performing student is somehow our fault, when any number of things could be going on that makes the class you are teaching irrelevant to the missing student.

That's why I always ask directly (via private email) if there are problems I need to know about. The next step is to call. If I can't get through I leave a brief phone message.  If emails and calls don't work, I let the consequences show in the grade book.

The other reality is that online teaching and learning isn't for everyone. Sometimes this format just doesn't fit a learners needs and personality.  In those cases early intervention and a frank talk can save everyone a good deal of grief.

I do have to admit, even after all these years as a teacher, when a student fails I take it personally. (I shouldn't, but I do.)