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How to engage at-risk students

February 20, 2019

Student engagement is a major concern for most teachers and trainers, but especially for those who are aware of under-achieving or ‘at-risk’ students enrolled in one of their courses. Students considered ‘at risk’ are defined as those in jeopardy of not successfully completing a piece of assessment/course or unit.

Addressing these students is imperative, especially within the VET sector, which has traditionally been a way to ensure those who find mainstream education challenging can still access the necessary skills and qualifications required for the workplace. However, this is easier said than done (as the media attention on corrupt training providers demonstrates). The key question becomes, how do we support and motivate these at-risk students? Who are these students and what strategies will help to re-engage them in their course-work, boost their motivation and eventually lead them to successfully pass their particular unit/course?

Thankfully a significant amount of research has been done regarding student motivation and engagement. However, when delving into the subject of student motivation, many reports cite psychological factors as a key reason for why a student struggles. For example, research conducted in 1990 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, found that students attending schools where teachers were more supportive and had better morale, were less likely to be low performers, while students whose teachers had low expectations or were often absent, were more likely to be low performers.

This finding might seem obvious, however, it indicates a strong connection between a teacher’s behaviour and interaction with the student and the student's performance. The study went on to reveal teachers that expressed confidence and determination to their students recorded higher attendance rates and higher end of year results, compared to teachers who had limited interaction with their students. The study was conducted by Professor Alderman who commented on the results saying, ”teachers that communicate with the student; acknowledge that they are experiencing difficulty, but that there are ways to overcome this difficulty, seem to have more success. The teacher lets the student know that they want them to achieve and assures them that they will be taught the skills necessary to achieve.”

All these years later, researchers within education are still drawing similar conclusions. Data from the 2015 global 'Program for International Student Assessment' (PISA) found that students who received positive feedback and self-belief from their teachers performed 68.2% better than students who had limited interactions with their teachers.

While encouragement and instilling confidence is a key goal for teachers, this cannot always be easily achieved in the VET sector. Training organisations often have a substantial amount of components conducted online or have students doing distance education, which makes providing constant communication and support that much more difficult.

PISA state that a key way to motivate students is through ensuring the student knows their actions and efforts directly link to the outcome they receive. A key way to reinforce this is through providing constructive feedback during and after each piece of assessment. According to PISA ‘this feedback can be written or given orally, but is something that all teachers should provide, no matter the structure of the course or the geographic location of their student’.

When providing a student with feedback, PISA recommends including positive and constructive elements, so the student can identify where they went wrong, and that improvement is possible, and a path of action has been provided. For example: “The latest version of your presentation, shows me you have been able to absorb the content theory. To improve this for next time, I would like for you to demonstrate how you can apply this theory by showing real life-examples where this theory is used”.

Apart from the behaviour and interaction between the teacher and student, research has also been conducted on the tools and resources used within the VET sector, to ensure students have developed the necessary skills and knowledge required.

In 2015, Queensland University of Technology student Loretta Smith conducted research for her masters in education on the effects mobile devices had on struggling and at-risk students. Smith had discovered from her research that to increase learner engagement, educators and trainers needed to consider the learning environment they were providing their students. While some training providers provide this learning within a traditional, hierarchical classroom setting where the trainer controls the content, pace and direction of lessons, this often isn't an effective learning environment for students ‘at-risk’ or suffering from low engagement.

“We have to take into account, that many students within VET, especially those classed as ‘at-risk’ aren’t attracted to mainstream or higher education, where this ‘classroom’ style of learning is most prevalent. The classroom environment provides little in the way of stimulus and assistance, and eventually these conditions become so overwhelming that the at-risk student becomes disengaged and eventually leaves the system,” Smith commented.

In her study, Smith found that learner engagement was most successful when students were in an environment where they were frequently interacting and sharing what they had learnt with others. Developments in technology have made this very easy; virtual chat rooms and classrooms allow students to easily share and interact with a group. Her research revolved around a group of low-performing vocational education students, who were given mobile devices to conduct course-work and certain pieces of assessment. Within the study, mobile devices were made up of smartphones, tablets and iPads. It was observed that these same students performed much better using mobile devices than they had in their usual classroom setting.

These results demonstrate that when these students engage with the online learning environments provided through the mobile devices, the barriers they had previously experienced in the classroom were reduced or removed altogether, allowing them to focus on learning. This discovery has been corroborated by numerous literacies on mobile technology and the role it plays in the new learning landscape. This study suggests that incorporating more interactive tools via mobile devices may be a useful way for trainers to re-engage ‘at-risk’ or under-achieving students.

Of course, another key way to ensure at-risk students are being supported is by examining the assessment tools used to evaluate their progress and status (fine vs at-risk). Do they meet the necessary standards? Does the tool used meet their learning style? The learning and development organisation Insources, which specialises in the VET industry highlights the need for organisations to implement assessment systems that support the learners. “We have to remember that compliance doesn’t necessarily equate to quality,” Insources CEO Javier Amaro said at a conference earlier this year, “Just because an organisation has compliant assessment tools in place, doesn’t mean the assessment is necessarily suited to the learners- especially those at risk”.

Consequently, Insource recommend applying a variety of assessment tools within the one course, to not only thoroughly access how well learners have attained the relevant skills, knowledge and experience but to increase the likelihood that all learning styles and strengths of the individual are catered for. This includes online assessment, the use of RPL practices and on-the-job practical assessments in addition to traditional exams and assignments.

When evaluating or devising appropriate assessment tools, Insources also recommend training organisations consider the following parameters:

  • Amount of training provided
  • Frequency, nature, and use of industry consultation
  • Relevance of training methods and resources
  • Relevance of assessment systems, practices and resources
  • Effectiveness of assessment validations
  • Suitability of educational services
  • Capability of trainers and assessors
  • Effectiveness of administrative arrangements
  • Quantity, quality and use of students/employers/trainers' feedback.

For more information on assessment tools and what tools are recommended to maintain compliance, you can visit the Insources website.