Why are good students failing? UHCL prof examines causes
School districts around Texas have reported the number of failing students has risen exponentially. The increase appears to be a dismal reflection of the struggle students are facing with online learning platforms.
University of Houston-Clear Lake's Associate Professor of Special Education Elizabeth Beavers said that numerous interrelated variables are impacting both teaching and learning.
"It might be easy to say, the teacher should have done something more, or the students should have worked harder, but the reality is that we must delve into underlying variables," she said. "Successful students have good organization and time management skills. Our focus as educators is on teaching them content. But we are in a transition whereby educators need to rethink and reapproach how students learn and the underlying skills needed, paired with content, that will foster success."
Beavers explained that formerly strong students were skilled in methods of instruction that may not be applicable in a distance learning environment. "Our methods of teaching had to change. That means how we access learning is not the same, and so it's about rethinking how to teach and learn," she said. "This is a real opportunity for students and educators not to teach just the content, but also the skills. Students need to have transferable skills associated with learning — time management, self-advocacy, and problem solving."
She said that some students may have realized they'd bitten off more than they could chew, taking on a 15- or even an 18-credit hour workload, thinking the online environment would make the coursework easier. "It's not necessarily the case. The successful learning methods they applied in the classroom aren't always the ones they need to be successful at home," she said. "In this scenario, a student has to figure out how to pull meaning from the information in a different way."
So, why are high-achieving students now getting poor report cards?
"If we are going to help the teaching and learning context, we have to look at the underlying problems from a teaching perspective," she said. "Is the teacher differentiating the instruction? Have students been taught how to learn in an online environment?"
She said that a student who was previously a good time manager might now find they are without the structured, dedicated time for class they once had. "Organizing yourself and your time is completely different now," she said.
"We need to teach students about advocacy — asking for help. Students in a room together might rely on someone else to ask the question they want to ask, but in an online forum, there's no such interaction. The key is to teach students more about time management, self-advocacy, and organization skills. This will promote engagement."
Getting confused and lost, she said, happens much more when students do not feel engaged. "Some students don't show their face on Zoom calls," she said. "There is privacy and self-concept to consider, but without that, I can't read facial cues. I can't tell if they're engaged. Students need to be taught that regardless of what's being presented and on what platform, how can this be meaningful? It becomes interrelated with self-advocacy. This is mind-numbing, and it takes a lot of courage for a student to say, 'I can't learn this way. How else can I engage?'"
A high-achieving student's skills aren't gone, she explained. "We as educators have to revisit those skills that were their strength and see how we can present them in another way," she continued. "You may be a great chef of Italian cuisine, but if you are asked to cook an Asian meal, you might first feel the task is daunting. The key is to recognize you have the transferable skills to cook a phenomenal meal in any cuisine.
"The same is true for learning. What are your strengths? Perhaps a student was a great note-taker while the teacher was explaining and modeling, but now they're being given the content to read instead. How can they learn the content while still using that note-taking skill? The answer lies in the shared ownership of the teaching/learning relationship and emphasizing pedagogy that will foster the content learning," she said.
Beavers said educators can help empower their students with transferable, generalizable skills that will truly foster lifelong learning more than the content itself. "But we need educators to create those learning experiences that are reflective of the diversity of our students' learning needs," she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a paradigm shift that people are either embracing or struggling with. "In the midst of this, there are no easy answers," she said. "We must look deeply. What is transferable that we can hold on to, but reconceptualize, for our new 'now?' Asking why a student is floundering is not a surface answer. We must keep asking till we get to the root. Is the content engaging? If not, how can students self-advocate? Teach them strategies to help them engage. The answers lie in the teaching/learning relationship."