How to Help Struggling Students

October 25, 2017 Christopher Ruel

We’ve all encountered hardworking students who, for whatever reason, are not grasping the material. What strategies do you use to identify these students early on, to keep them from falling further behind?

Take a Deep Dive Into a Challenging Topic

A few years ago, I was teaching an Income Tax Preparation class and I had a student who maintained a B average or better in the class. That was until we got to the chapter on depreciation. This student asked to talk with me after class one night and she indicated she was going to drop out of the class because she felt like the topic was too difficult for her. She was a pretty strong student and I felt that with some extra effort she would be able to grasp the material. We discussed her concerns and we decided to schedule a meeting outside of class to review the material further. We sat down for about two hours on a Sunday afternoon and worked through some exercises and reviewed the depreciation tables from the Internal Revenue Service in a little more detail. After our meeting, she decided to remain in the class.

While it was a little extra time on my part, it was worth it for the student as she passed the course with flying colors. I see her occasionally and she still thanks me for helping her get through that class. Here are some tips from other educators about this topic.

Professor helping student.jpg


Talk to your students. What are they struggling with outside of the classroom? Are they overwhelmed by work or family commitments? Perhaps they could use some coaching around time management. Or, a more difficult question involves asking for an honest answer about how much effort they are putting into studying. Feel free to ask these questions to get an understanding of how you may be able to help.


How many of your students are first-generation college attendees? Sometimes these students become very concerned when they don’t get the material right away. Reassuring them that learning takes place over a period of time aids their ability in setting realistic expectations.

The Tutoring Center

Directing students to the campus tutoring center is not an abnegation of your responsibilities as an educator, nor does it mean you are bad at communicating the material. Different people explain concepts in different ways and if a tutor puts a unique spin on a topic, and the student “gets it,” then that’s a win for everybody.

What’s the Motivation?

Students usually have a motivation for taking a course. It may be as simple as “I have to” in the case of required courses. Others may have a deep desire to learn and have chosen your class as an elective. Then there are the students who are highly motivated by grades because they realize their next step depends on a certain level of achievement. If you see a student struggling, ask him/her what it is they want to get out of the course. From there you can work on a success plan.

Step Into My Office, or Perhaps, Let’s Get Some Coffee

Knocking on your office door and saying “I’m having a difficult time understanding the material” can be daunting for some students. Encourage them to visit you in a way that communicates your willingness to help. Maybe the first time they’ll do a “drive by” and notice that there are a few other students hanging about and waiting their turn. They will see they’re not alone. If you notice a student doing multiple “drive-bys,” maybe the office setting is intimidating. Suggest a neutral place on campus such as a café or the library, where you can meet.

Studying Is a Skill

Many students don’t know how to study effectively. Highlighters, Post-it notes, color-coded tabs within binders, etc., may not be part of a student’s study toolbox because they weren’t taught to use such items. A little advice on how to get themselves organized and incorporate best practices can go a long way.

Some Food for Thought

1. What do you do when you see a student struggling?

2. What resources do you make available or offer students when they ask for additional help?

Share your own strategies or struggles in the comments below.

Image Credit: Hero Images


About the Author

Senior Marketing Manager, Wiley //

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