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I am supervising a senior reading course. As I cannot give a name to a problem I am having with one of the students, I will give an example.

We are reading a paper, and he was not making progress. He was not able to read the introduction and present an overview of the paper's method and main results. I held an extra meeting to outline the paper and review the methodology step by step. I explained the first two outcomes, and asked him to fill in the steps joining them. I checked on him two weeks later, and he has been reading a book that is related to the paper only in title.

I have two other students who are working on similar topics and they get it. I can tell they have not mastered the topics yet. They are still good at figuring out and presenting intermediate steps on their own. Maybe they have different abilities, or maybe they are better at interpretting what I am saying. I do not judge anybody based on their abilities or skills. That is, I am not holding this against the student. I still want to help him and myself learn to be more efficient at whatever this is.

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    It is hard to give advice from a distance. Inexperience alone could explain it. At the other end is a reading impediment or other learning issue. For the former, patience is required. For the latter, professional help. The question may also be close enough to your earlier one to be a duplicate. – Buffy Nov 7 '19 at 21:15
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    For starters, maybe it would help to meet more often than every two weeks? – Nate Eldredge Nov 7 '19 at 21:52
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    Does the student lack confidence in their ability to figure things out for themselves? Let me take a chess analogy - suppose (before the days of good computer chess engines) you're given a chess position and asked to find the best move with a lot of time. You can try to read a bunch of relevant chess books to see what they say, but probably at some point you'll need to set up pieces on the board and try a bunch of possibilities and see how they work out. Does your student not believe they can set up the board and calculate possibilities? – Alexander Woo Nov 7 '19 at 22:52
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    @NateEldredge They have a full-time job beside school. – Mustafa Azzam Nov 7 '19 at 23:12
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    1 anecdote is not enough stuff to work from. Voting to close. – darij grinberg Nov 8 '19 at 4:38
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He has been reading a book that is related to the paper only in title.

This along with him not making progress might be a sign that he is missing pre-requisites. Maybe the paper requires mathematical tools he is not familiar, or has several words which are new to him.

Usually, I'd go with some assisted reading/reviewing. This is very harsh, so be careful and prepared before attempting.

Set up a meeting with plenty of time, explain that you'll be studying the paper and he should try to read and understand by himself first. Mark some time you know he should be calm (i.e. don't do it last hour of Friday or right after a difficult test, also make sure the student isn't hungry). Schedule at least two hours, but preferably have more allocated time on your schedule, and try to know that he'll be free after the scheduled time as well. Ask him to bring a laptop or have a computer in front of him at the meeting place.

Then, the strategy is to tell him to read the paper and interrupt him at least once per sentence asking for clarifications (what does this word mean? Can you rephrase this? Why is the author making this exception?). He should know that your are trying to measure gaps in his knowledge and habits, so tell him to be honest if he does not know anything and that it doesn't matter if that's the case (might be a particular poor strategy when dealing with people from a cultural background who have issues admitting they don't know something). The tense scenario will naturally keep him focused (though you should try to put him at ease).

When he doesn't know anything (I don't know this word!) you can either explain to him (and check if he understood) or say something like "and how would you look it up?" (that is why I've suggested leaving the computer close by). Very often, you'll notice he has poor googling skills, so you'll present him with some useful websites (Linguee comes to mind when dealing with translation issues, it is simple to use when you know it exists, but a student might not find it out by himself). Maybe you'll need to introduce him some book on the matter, and go through its index (some students may have only learned an important topic over classroom notes that he/she threw away, he might be unable to name a single book he could check some equation if needed be).

Additionally, this will reveal gaps in the student background, maybe there is a complete theory that is relevant to the paper but the student knows very little about (something like: "yes, you need to know trigonometry before learning calculus" or "Yes, you need to study electrodynamics before studying quantum mechanics"). Many elective courses try way too hard to remove pre-requisites for students, and then student simply don't know about things that should be the pre-requisite in any sane place. The process of asking for clarifications over each sentence usually reveals this kind of gaps.

Often, people read complex texts ignoring parts they don't really understand. Maybe because they expect that part to be clearer as the reading progresses, perhaps they think they'll get it with more context, or they just hope that weird word lies in a sentence that isn't actually important. This is a poor reading habit that almost everyone has at some degree. However, struggling students might take it to a whole new level of reading without understanding. Part of the idea is to identify when this is happening and forcing the student not to ignore too much of the text.

After a while doing so, you should:

  1. Have taught the student how to use some tools that you are used to, be he never heard about.
  2. Have provided him with good basic references if he needs them.
  3. Have identified topics you expected him/her to have mastered, but he/she actually knows little about.
  4. Improved his/her reading habits a bit.

Explain to him that this is not to be done often, as it is too much time consuming and stressing for both of you. Also, the whole point is to fill basic gaps, once they're filled, this tool should no longer be used. Over time, he should get better at identifying these gaps by himself, and asking for assistance as needed.

Another note on how to handle the student:

I have two other students who are working on similar topics and they get it.

Unless they have very similar backgrounds (i.e. same bachelor degree at same university) to the struggling student, the comparison is more likely to be unfair than otherwise. Even if just in your mind, avoid comparing colleagues directly, and specially never compare colleagues in front of them (or speaking to either).

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There are too many possibilities to give a definite answer. But one thing stands out:

He was not able to read the introduction and present an overview of the paper's method and main results.

The student may have a learning disability, like ADHD or dyslexia. Most universities have a service that will test students, diagnose the problem, and provide them with the assistance they need to perform as well as anyone else.

Most faculty members are not trained to recognize the problems or to treat them. Since you are clearly a well-meaning teaching who wants to help this student, the first thing to do is to refer them to the school's service for learning disabilities. If that turns up nothing, then at least you can move on to other possibilities, like anxiety or even language issues. But if it turns up something definite, your action will make a huge difference in the student's academic success.

  • I would absolutely not suggest to do this!!!! Think how horrible it must be for a stusent without diabalities to be sent to this center on such little evidence! (The idea is nice in theory though.) – user115896 Nov 11 '19 at 21:02
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    @Heutl Nobody gets "sent" to disabilities services and there's nothing horrible about it. The answer only suggests that the OP refer the student there for assessment, but it's ultimately the student's decision. – Elizabeth Henning Nov 11 '19 at 22:47
  • @ElizabethHenning: It is absolutely horrible when you are "referred" there on such little evidence and find out that you are not disabled (or you don't go there because you don't think you are disabled). You must thing your advisor thinks about you as being really stupid. (It would be different if there was some real evidence beside not being able to understand one topic.) – user115896 Nov 12 '19 at 6:06
  • @Heutl Where did you get the idea that thinking someone might have a disability is the same thing as thinking that they are stupid? – Elizabeth Henning Nov 12 '19 at 6:13
  • @ElizabethHenning: this is what people (in my area) believe: if and only if you suck at something more than most of the people, you are either disabled at this task (then you are "not guilty") or stupid at this task. (Twenty years ago, the conclusion would be "you are stupid", so a lot has improved!) It's good the profs care about having their students' disabilities diagnozed, but thy should do based on actual evidence. – user115896 Nov 12 '19 at 6:48

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