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6 ways to help struggling students

6 ways to help struggling students

4 min read
  • The science of learning

As schools prepare to welcome students again, they are also bracing for all the catching up they will need to do. After several months of school closures, many students will no doubt have a larger-than-usual learning gap to overcome.

Since education is one of the single most important things in driving forward social mobility, it is important to consider how we best help our struggling students. Fortunately, more and more research is emerging that can give us guidelines on how to support these students. So, here are six evidence-based strategies that might be worth considering…

1. Ban mobile phones for all students

Recent research conducted over a number of years, tracking differing mobile phone policies in schools, has highlighted the positive effects of banning mobile phones. The researchers found that students who attended schools where mobile phone bans had been enforced showed a significant improvement in exam results. However, this effect was found to be more pronounced for struggling students. This is why it is a good idea to help give students some ideas about how best to manage their phones.

2. Encourage parents to get young children reading

To investigate the effects of reading development on academic performance, one study looked to compare children considered to have good comprehension skills with children considered to have poor comprehension scores between their 8th and 16th birthdays.

The researchers found evidence for a Matthew’s Effect, a concept which states that the differences between struggling students and high-performing students increases overtime. This effect is thought to occur because struggling students do not understand what they are reading, hence are less motivated to read compared to their higher performing peers.

Therefore, in order to reduce this distinction, teachers and parents need to encourage leisure time reading from a young age. This in turn should provide opportunities for vocabulary development, which will aid struggling students across all subjects.

3. Don’t stream by ability

Fascinating research has highlighted the negative effects of streaming students (placing them in different groups based on their abilities for all their lessons). This research tracked 19,000 students over a 5 year period, comparing schools who streamed students with those that did not. They found that struggling students and those placed in the middle stream scored lower in Maths, Science, Reading and Writing in comparison to struggling students and average students who had not been streamed.

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4. Develop a Growth Mindset culture

Recent research has found that Growth Mindset interventions are more likely to be useful for struggling students. But how do we develop this Growth Mindset? One study showed that this is possible by convincing struggling students that their intelligence is not fixed and can be improved through hard work. This in turn facilitates improved academic performance.

Find more information about developing a growth mindset in schools on our handy guide page.

5. Encourage a sense of purpose

Recent research has looked at whether other interventions should be used alongside those that foster Growth Mindset. One particular study looked at a sense of purpose intervention, which encourages students to reflect on how working hard and learning in school can help them accomplish goals not only for themselves but for others or society as a whole. Looking at a group of 1,594 students, they found that combining growth mindset and sense-of-purpose interventions were more beneficial for struggling students.

The researchers found that, amongst students who were most at risk of dropping out of school, such interventions raised grades in the core subjects by 6.4 percentage points. Click here for tips to improve goal-setting.

6. Enhance a sense of belonging

The extent to which someone feels as though they belong can help improve grades for struggling students. For example, research suggests that removing the belief that maths ability is fixed and that females have less ability in this subject than men (developing a Growth Mindset) increased the female students sense of belonging, improving their grades.

Additionally, this sense of belonging increased both males’ and females’ intentions to pursue maths in the future, maths confidence, and their perceived utility of maths, whilst also decreasing maths anxiety.

Final thoughts

The above strategies offer some options to help our most struggling students. There are no easy fixes or quick wins, and shifting the needle on student grades is notoriously difficult. However, by creating the right sort of environment where they can learn and develop, we give these students the best chance of improving their abilities, knowledge and skills.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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