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How to Engage At-Risk Students

February 20, 2019

Student engagement is a challenge for all teachers and training, especially for underachieving "at-risk" students who are treading a path to failure. VET can be an accessible alternative to mainstream education—a way for everyone to learn valuable workplace skills, no matter their situation. This makes it even more important for trainers to know how to address the problems of at-risk students.

This is easier said than done. How do trainers support and motivate those at-risk students? What strategies will re-engage them, boost their motivation, and lead them to educational success?

Thankfully, there's a significant amount of research on student motivation and engagement. When trainers are supportive, their students have better morale and a higher level of performance[1]. When trainers are unsupportive and have low expectations, it diminishes the performance of their students. This might seem obvious, but it shows the relevance of a teacher's behaviour on the success of their students. We also know that teachers who express confidence and determination to their students end up with better attendance rates and better end of year results, compared to teachers who didn't behave in this way.

"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.”
—Professor Alderman

Other researchers draw similar conclusions. Data from PISA's (Program for International Student Assessment) 2015 research found that students who received positive feedback and self-belief from their teachers performed 68.2% better than students who had limited interactions.

Motivating students through encouragement is a vital practice for trainers, but the amount of online and distance education in VET can make it difficult to do. Constructive feedback—whether written or oral—can do wonders for motivation, helping students to realise that their actions and efforts will directly affect the success of their course. This feedback must include both positive and constructive elements, helping the student to identify the problems, and laying a path to resolution.

On the subject of tools, research from Loretta Smith has shown the importance of the learning environment. A traditional setting where the trainer strictly controls the content, pace, and direction of lessons has shown to be ineffective for at-risk students[2].

“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”
—Loretta Smith

Smith found that learner engagement was most successful in an environment where students are able to interact and share what they've learned with their peers. She gave smartphones, tablets and iPads to low-performing VET students, and found that those students performed much better than usual.

These results show that online learning environments can break down barriers for at-risk students, improving their learning and chances of success. Advances in mobile technology will improve the situation further. By incorporating more of these tools into their training, teachers will help at-risk students to become more engaged, and achieve better results.

Another way for trainers to support at-risk students is to examine their assessment tools. Do they meet the necessary standards? Are the tools appropriate for their learning style? Insources CEO Javier Amaro urges us to "remember that compliance doesn’t necessarily equate to quality," and that “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”. He recommends applying a variety of assessment tools in a single course, to cater for a range of learning styles. This might include online assessments, RPL practices, and work-based learning, in addition to traditional exams and assignments.

When evaluating or creating assessment tools, Insources also recommend that trainers consider the following:

  • The 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.

It can be difficult to keep at-risk students engaged in their course, but with the attitude, tools, and assessments, trainers can transform them from downcast strugglers, to confident achievers.


  1. M.Kay Alderman, 1990, "Motivation for At-Risk Students"
  2. Loretta Smith, 2015, "Engaging At-Risk Vocational Education Students with Mobile Devices", Queensland University of Technology

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