As a lecturer, at the start of each semester in all of my courses, I have students complete a first-day diagnostic quiz on topics from the prerequisite course. There are usually a few significant under-performers (say, 40-50% success where most students are in the 70-100% range).

I then follow up with those under-performers by looking at their prior total course history. I always find a few cases that look like seriously troubled fits for their academic major. For example: Failing core courses one or more times and then passing with a "D" before repeating at the next level (e.g.: Introductory Programming for a C.S. major, Precalculus or Calculus I for a math major, etc.). Failing 5, 10, or 15 core courses over several years in the major (so far).

I feel like I want to do something to counsel these students, reflect on their choice of major, find the most profitable use of their time and resources, and/or find how to support or remove roadblocks if appropriate. But as the instructor, I'm not sure how best to do that.

One option would be to have a meeting in the first week and ask, "What difficulties can we improve on?", etc., so as to get off on the right foot and make the most of the time in the current term. Another option might be to say nothing until they likely fail my first exam and then use that as a wake-up call in the course.

How should I, as an instructor, intervene or counsel students who are struggling greatly with their major over a number of years?

(This is at a large U.S. community college.)

  • Do you have an office of student success? Or similar? My school has a lot of struggling students and we adopted this process a few years ago where we can report students who we think are in danger of failing our course early in the semester so they can be counseled about their options.
    – Dawn
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 13:44
  • Do you think the students would be able/ willing to pay a tutor?
    – Dawn
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 13:45
  • @Dawn: We have a multitude of different student support services and counselors; since arguably they're not helping in these cases, I'd like to focus on what an instructor in the major can directly do to advise. I'd assume that students cannot pay for extensive outside tutoring (approx. half of the institution receives financial aid grants). Commented Sep 18, 2018 at 4:37
  • If they've failed multiple courses before, another failed exam in yours is unlikely to become a wake-up call, don't you find?..
    – Lodinn
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 6:32
  • Added detail on student support services: We have a new software system in place as of last year, and I used it to report students in danger of failing. I could see that the response from advisors was to throw it back to me: "Please contact your instructor, as they have indicated you are in danger of failing the course." Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 16:17

3 Answers 3


I can tell for you from a troubled student's perspective. I have some friends with similar kinds of problems here at Brazil in USP, and I think our academic cultures have similarities (including eventually diagnostic tests).

Some of my troubled colleagues have to work a part time job to pay for living in the city where the university is. Some have psychological problems triggered by pressure of university, or self induced pressure by a lot of expectations. A nonnegligible number have the three problems combined in different proportions. I think the culture of my generation (near 22-28 years) aggravates that scenario. People - having grown up with video games, the internet and shiny special effects everywhere - think to live fast and expect constant and fast feedback. This makes some throw things in the air when progress looks like very slow. Even when it needs to be because the situation - the expected reality and the experience don't match

There are educational sites, like coursera.org, duolingo.com, brilliant.org and even the Stack Exchange that have adapted for the expectations of new users with fast feedback. Maybe giving some 'landmarks' so people don't resign in the middle of the way can be helpful if is this kind of problem that is occurring. This can be real, I know a lot of strange examples, but the most intriguing for me is the case one friend of mine who had completed all calculus courses in coursera.org but got stuck for 3 years in calculus 2. (Now he works as a data scientist in a good enterprise.)

If the problem is triggered by some kind of anxiety, I think that if students feel they can count on you for a little and sincere talk in the final of some lecture or another, without being harshly judged - because probably they had heard hints for changing the major or something like that, a kind of talk that could be uneasy and even kills the trust - I just can think a good outcome being constructed along the semester.


Just my couple of cents, mostly from things observed back in my student years.

Quite a few students couldn't keep up for one reason or another. Our associate dean was kind, wise and experienced, and the nugget of wisdom I gained from them was that "successfully" graduating the program is not necessarily the best option for the student. At the end of the day, what you want is them living a happy and fulfilling life. You also want to help them use their potential to the fullest extent possible, but not everyone can get to the same level.

Now, this is trivial - what is less obvious, however, is that many of these young adults have been following a path in life without that much consideration. Some of them are actually not in a position to not think of themselves as of failures when being unable to reach what they dreamt of.

The third realization is that they usually don't even know what that dream is, and the goal itself is foreign to them - it could be tiger parenting, peer pressure, seeing how everyone around is seemingly successful at completing their assignments. Such mental health issues are well-documented at this point and are best resolved with professional counseling (given that you are in the US). Our local culture is much different, so the aforementioned associate dean had to don the counselor hat every now and then, and facilitated transfers to less intense programs or even other universities, talked to parents and whatnot.

The above was about the dean office directly responsible for managing students, but instructors typically communicated their concerns to them, sometimes through the chair*. As an instructor, then, you could offer a set amount of your time to help these failing students and/or advise on modifications to their programs. From there on, it would be up to the dean's office to handle. And hey, even if the students end up quitting, it might be for the best for them in the long term. You can not - and should not - strive to live their life for them. But you can and should try to help them. As an instructor, you are not in the position to help them personally, but you are in the position to help them professionally. To a limited extent.

*I am not quite sure about the world choice here, academia is diverse :)

  • It's fascinating that the dean would get involved and have that attitude. Where I am, dean-level administrators have publicly said things like, "If any faculty member doesn't believe that every student can succeed, then that faculty member doesn't belong here". Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 14:11
  • 1
    @DanielR.Collins Well, in my alma mater deans are pretty hands-off with the students but the dean office is very very involved (associate deans, secretaries - they would know every student's situation and try their best to help them out). Since well, "academia varies more than you think it does", YMMV. AFAIK, we have it structured differently - in here, deans have fairly limited control - if any! - over chairs/faculty (ugh, word choice again!). And with education being state-funded, universities have no issue discarding students - some EXPECT (or would, back in a day) to expel 40% of freshmen.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 14:41
  • So yes, quite a different mentality/situation. I'm sorry I couldn't be helpful here and assumed you would have some kind of similar facilities to leverage. I would hate to be entangled in such a classic kind of conundrum. In here, faculty would push back with "we can't make black white, it is in your power to allow students to retake the course but there is no way we would agree to mark this performance a pass". Instead of retaking ad nauseam, students usually get advised to change the program or get extra help.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 14:47
  • 1
    Yes, in prior years our faculty have pushed back with overwhelming no-confidence votes, and lawsuits which we've unfortunately lost. There's a book by Ginsburg, The Fall of the Faculty, about the situation in the U.S. Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 16:15
  • Thank you for the suggestion, I will look it up.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 16:17

So, a few thoughts based on my past experience in such a case:

What you can do to help such students improve is partly dependent on how many students are in your class(es), and by extension, how many students would fall in the category of needing help. I did my undergraduate at a large university, so take this with a grain of salt. The average class size of an introductory lecture was ~150 students; since you said you teach at a community college, what you want to do may be more manageable, but still there is only so much you can do as an instructor at the college/university level.

On the note of advising/counseling students, there is absolutely nothing wrong with e-mailing students individually to express concern about their ability to perform well in your class or recommend them to make use of advising or office hours if necessary. However, it is also on the student(s) to put the time in to learn the material to set themselves up for later success. My thought would be to let students who fall in your category of concern about your concerns of their ability to succeed in your class once at the start of the semester and see if any of those students would like to consult your advice regarding major/career choices or study habits. Likewise, if any issues persist after the first examination, you could reach out to struggling students individually in this regard as well.

If a student has failed a class or several classes before and you want to advise, a place to start for me would be how much time did you dedicate to this class, and how difficult was it to grasp the material? Perhaps what are/were your study habits like? (I failed my introductory programming class and barely passed my linear algebra class after bombing the final in my first semester of undergraduate, and these questions, including the latter, were what I reflected on between that semester and the next semester, when I retook the former class I failed)

Do note that there are a variety of students who may be dealing with a variety of issues (as a previous answer mentioned) and that addressing student performance issues is really a case-by-case situation. Also, as unfortunate as it is, there is only so much you can do as an instructor while drawing the fine line between instructor and student. Not sure how the case is for a community college where class size may be smaller, but at my undergraduate university, at least a few students failed a class every semester. As said before, it is on the students to ensure their own success; instructors have very limited hours (especially if they also have to do research) to help students and they are best spent with the students who are more actively seeking help in any given course.

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