Teaching Tips: Fostering Academic Succes

by: Karen Springsteen

It’s that time of the semester when, to some degree, we’ve gotten to know our students and perhaps started to notice some early issues in their classroom behavior and approaches to academic work. In this post, I’d like to present two contrasting cases of (fictional) students who are struggling in different ways with life at the university. I present these cases in order to suggest some points of focus and strategies for instructors who wish to foster students’ academic success not only in the courses we teach but in college, generally.  These points of focus and strategies are not rocket science, but they could be used in conferences or meetings with students who exhibit the kinds of behaviors represented in the cases below.

Case 1: Michelle

Michelle is never without her multi-colored set of highlighters and large day planner. When she receives her syllabi for the semester, she transcribes and color-codes key information into both the planner and her iPhone. Constantly on the go as an Educational Opportunity Program mentor, Writing Center tutor, Center for Diversity staff assistant, and part-time server, she is currently organizing a Phenomenal Woman dinner for women’s history month. She budgets in several hours for studying the night before assignments come due, but has still been getting low B’s in her humanities class. She often receives and sends email and text messages during class and study time.

Points of Focus: Time Management and Prioritization

  • Choosing an efficient physical and/or digital organizational system
  • Realistically assessing the amount of time needed for various courses and projects
  • Setting limits, including limits on communication; saying “no” or “not right now”
  • Balancing short-term and long-term goals

Strategies for Instructors

  • Ask questions about a student’s priorities: “How does this class relate to your other responsibilities, activities, and goals?” “Where does it rank?” “What do you want to get out of it?”
  • Encourage realistic academic time commitments by breaking large assignments into smaller parts and setting intermediary due dates
  • Suggest alternative time management strategies: spacing out or staggering study sessions, increasing the volume of time devoted to studying, enhancing the quality of designated study time

Case 2: Austin

Austin is a first-generation college student living in the dorm for his first semester. He was raised on a dairy farm several hours drive from campus and feels that he can’t really talk to his parents about his college experiences. His girlfriend, who is still in high school, is trying to get him to move back home. He often shows up to class in sweats, sleeps during lecture, and is having trouble choosing a topic for his research assignment. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he claims.

Points of Focus: Finding Direction

  • Caring for basic needs (e.g. exercise, sleep, nutrition)
  • Constraining unproductive or distracting communication
  • Thinking positively; setting one’s own course at the university
  • Seeking additional assistance when necessary

Strategies for Instructors

  • Encourage an “eye-on-the-prize” mentality by suggesting varieties of opportunities available through the university
  • Avoid shame and blame by contextualizing student struggle and helping students consider their academic performance within a holistic framework, such as the following:
Family Friends Leisure
Personal growth Academics Work (employment)
Partner Relationships Contribution to Community Self-care
  • Refer students to university resources (e.g. Wayne State University Mt. Harris Recreation Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, Academic Success Center, Office of Community Engagement)
  • Inform students about university protocol regarding incompletes, add/drop periods, and course substitutions

Karen Springsteen is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Wayne State University, where she teaches first-year composition and coordinates Community Writing initiatives for the Composition Program. Her most recent publication appears in “Reflections: A Journal of Civic Rhetoric, Public Writing, and Service Learning (special issue on veterans’ writing, January 2017)”. She also serves as faculty advisor for Writing Warriors, a student and veteran collaboration at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.

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