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Supporting Vulnerable Students

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There are two kinds of academically vulnerable students: those who struggle with material and those who believe that their instructors and peers doubt their abilities. It is important to recognize both threats to a student’s achievement and construct an environment where students who need help are comfortable asking for it and do not feel pressure to dispel stereotypes about their race, ethnicity, age, or gender.

Students Struggling Academically

Students in academic trouble may feel reluctant to show weakness and so conceal their problems until an exam or deadline passes. One way to identify students in need of extra help is an ungraded background knowledge quiz the first week of class. You can also introduce graded assignments or exams early in the quarter. Students who do poorly can be given supplemental material or be advised to meet with a tutor. It is important not to discourage these students from taking the course, unless there is a good reason to do so.

You may also want to invite struggling students to your office hours. When meeting, take the time to find out why the student thinks he or she is struggling. There may be extenuating circumstances, such as family or personal problems; at the least, you may gain insight into their study habits and can direct them to these academic skills coaching resources offered by CTL.

Remember that your primary role is to help students learn, and you do not need to solve all of the students’ extenuating problems to help them do better in your course. In addition to helping students who clearly are struggling, make a habit of offering clarification, feedback, and assistance to all of your students.

If you feel like a student may benefit from psychological help, you should feel comfortable both informally counseling them as well as potentially referring them to CAPS

Students Who Feel Vulnerable Because of Background

One common assumption held by instructors is that students from low-income households, and some students of color, may be underprepared for college work. However, many of these students perform at the highest levels of academic achievement at Stanford.

It is true that some of these students do not come from a home or neighborhood with role models for university-level academic achievement, and in the beginning they may ask themselves, “Do I really belong here?” The FLI Student Success Center offers several resources for these students and their teachers. However, you cannot always tell which of your students come from such a background, nor is self-doubt limited to students without role models. 

Most Stanford students go through a stage of believing that they were admitted by mistake. It is important for you to assume that yes, all of your students belong here, and it is important that each of your students knows you believe this.

It is crucial that you not allow your own assumptions about students to compound students’ self-doubts. Challenge students to their limits by holding them to demanding standards while also building up and supporting their abilities to meet those standards. For example, you might encourage a student to rewrite a paper and give clear guidelines on how to approach the revision; this is demanding, but supportive.

Dean of the Graduate School of Education Claude Steele’s research has found that certain groups of students are vulnerable to the consequences of stereotypes, even when they know the stereotypes aren’t true or don’t believe the stereotype applies to them individually.

For example, members of a stereotyped group may feel an extra burden to disprove the stereotype, resulting in increased anxiety during exams or in other classroom situations. Steele believes that this “stereotype vulnerability” may help explain why many talented women and minorities drop out of math, science, and engineering programs, and why the African American college dropout rate nationally is higher than for other groups (though at Stanford the African American dropout rate is not higher than that of other groups).

To counter stereotype vulnerability, Steele recommends that instructors demonstrate their confidence in students’ abilities through challenge, mentoring, research groups, and peer advising. Recent research has shown that when faculty and TAs can create learning or mastery-oriented classrooms, students focus more on developing their understanding of the material rather than on how they are being evaluated in comparison to their classmates.

Encouraging Students

You might get undergraduates involved in your research, an effective way to motivate and inspire promising students who may not yet feel that they belong at Stanford.

In addition, instructors should emphasize the positive and avoid harsh remarks whenever providing criticism. Students often trust an instructor’s judgment about their ability; this is why a simple encouragement can launch a student’s passion and a simple criticism may devastate a student. The idealized notion of an excruciatingly critical yet brilliant and inspiring professor is more fiction than reality. You will best inspire your students with a balance of encouragement and constructive criticism.

See Also:

Stereotype Threat:  How it Affects Us and What We Can Do About It (Claude Steele's 2013 lecture in the VPTL Teachers on Teaching series)

Claude Steele's book on stereotype threat, Whistling Vivaldi.