On Struggling Students

While I have been amazed with some of my students’ work, occasionally I have a student who is completely unmotivated or does not apply him/herself to learn or even pass. From my discussions with other educators in the US system, this experience seems to be shared by most, regardless of institution.

However, one of our first impressions with Swiss university students was that they demonstrated a business-like approach to their studies. Before integration of the Bologna Process objectives, many schools delivered lessons in the “sage on the stage” format where an expert simply lectured and students were expected to self-regulate their studies so they could pass a final exam. While this approach doesn’t benefit from the advantages of learner-centered design, it places a clear responsibility on students to take their studies seriously because there would be no “hand-holding” to help them pass their exams.

In a previous post, I discussed my concerns about encouraging similar personal responsibility in a learn-centered design. I also recently finished reading Herbert Kohl’s “I Won’t Learn from You” and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment which challenges my perspective on instructors’ responses to students who are not meeting expectations. He discusses (and gives examples) of students who are often labelled as “at-risk,” “underachiever,” “dropout-prone,” “remedial,” or similarly described. However, Kohl advocates cases where an instructor can practice creative maladjustment by strategically breaking school rules and challenging status quo to enable these individuals to engage in something that really motivates them, even at the sake of neglecting standard curriculum.

With this in mind, I think a lot of discussion needs to take place in regard to the responsibility of both instructors and students with particular attention to struggling students. As instructors, should it be our responsibility to find a way to engage even students who would not even show effort or desire to pass our classes? What becomes of these students and what is the eventual impact on society? We got some notion that while these types of students are more rare in Swiss universities, they may be more common in the universities of applied sciences.

Where should the line be drawn where instructors’ duties to encourage and enable students end and students’ personal responsibility to fit within the guidelines and expectations of the instructors begin?


  1. I’m not sure if Swiss students are really more motivated than other students. Maybe in the second and third year, the majority of students seems to be motivated because the others (“I don’t know what to study, so I chose economics”) did not pass the selective exams after the first and second semester. It is very common to have such exams for study programs that seem to be attractive to a large audience but are challenging at the same time (like economics, law, and computer science). I personally distinguish students struggling with classes but show desire to pass and students showing no effort and no desire. For them it might be better to know as soon as possible that this subject isn’t the best for them — I had some fellow students who did not pass the introductory courses in computer science (a mandatory part of the computational linguistics program) and then were much happier (and more successful!) studying veterinary medicine or doing an apprenticeship with Siemens.

  2. That is a complicated and messy question, as we found in our group discussion. I agree with Cerstin that there is often a noticeable difference between students who are putting in effort but struggling, versus those not even bothering. I hate to say it, but I think the line between instructor and student responsibilities needs to be determined in a case by case basis by the instructor, depending on the level of the course, the total number of students and the time the instructor can reasonably offer to students in need of more attention. Should an instructor teach in an engaging way? Yes. Should students take responsibility for putting forth effort to learn? Yes. Beyond that, it’s grey area.

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