Having their lecturer or supervisor initiate a conversation with them can have a positive effect for students who are struggling. This can make them feel seen, heard and accepted, and they typically feel that they and their challenges are being taken seriously.
If you as a lecturer are in a position to initiate a conversation with a struggling student, then do so. It’s often a big help, although you yourself may not be able to help the student with the challenge they are facing. Once you understand why the student is in distress, you can always refer them to the appropriate university support resource.
Below are some examples of the topics students talked to lecturers and supervisors about:
I’ve had students tell me about their diagnosis on several occasions, for example depression, anxiety and stress. This can be difficult to talk about.
I find that it can be difficult to tell a student that they are not ready for a work placement or are not qualified.
I’ve had conversations with students about whether they belong at university.
Make space for the conversation
How can you prioritise conversation with your students in your busy schedule? Can you set aside time after class once a month? Do you have regular office hours? If you set aside time for conversations with struggling students, you can plan them better. And if students approach you spontaneously, you can suggest a specific time for the conversation. This will enable you to make time to talk to the student without it disrupting your day or your schedule.
Use the conversation to deepen your understanding
When preparing for conversation about their well-being with a struggling student, you may find it helpful to refer to the student life model, which will aid you in formulating open-ended, nuanced questions:
What challenges is the student experiencing?
With what aspects of student life are the student’s challenges particularly associated?
Are the challenges primarily associated with the students’ ability to acquire knowledge and skills?
Or is it more a question of challenges in participating in student life and the culture of the degree programme?
Are the challenges primarily related to difficulties in maintaining a good balance between study and leisure time?
Be honest with the student
If what you observe gives you cause for concern, for example frequent absence from class, then say so. Explain what requirements the student is expected to live up to. If you are unable to help but don’t feel that you are able to, say so.
This guide will help you prepare for a conversation with a student who is struggling. The conversation can be initiated either by the student or by you as lecturer/supervisor. Regardless of who takes the initiative, there are some important issues you should consider before, during and after the conversation.
Select an appropriate time and place. It’s important to set aside plenty of time for a conversation about their well-being with a struggling student and to select an appropriate venue. Where and when would it be appropriate to have the conversation? In your office or in a group room? It must be possible to speak together without outside interruption.
Consider the objective of the conversation. Who initiated the conversation: the student? Or you yourself, out of concern or because there have been incidents or observations you would like to discuss with them? What do you hope to achieve with the conversation?
Consider writing a formal agenda. Writing a formal agenda can be a good idea. It can create a good flow in your conversation and give the student a sense of security.
Consider how much time to allocate. It’s important not to schedule the conversation too tightly: make sure you set aside enough time. At the same time, make it clear that the conversation needs to end by a specific time.
Start by stating explicitly why the conversation is taking place.
During the interview, it’s important that you take a curious, exploratory approach and remain non-judgemental. It’s a good idea to describe what you observe about the student, and to ask questions in an open, empathetic manner.
Involve the student if the conversation isn’t going anywhere. Tell the student that you feel that the conversation isn’t going anywhere and ask them if they feel the same. Invite the student to contribute their ideas about how you can move forward in a way that is useful to them.
Make room for a break if the student gets very upset or gets stuck. Or if you sense that both of you need some air, then say that you think it’s time for a break.
Conclude: the conversation by summarising what you’ve discussed. It’s a good idea to inform the student when you’re running out of time.
Consider following up on the conversation. You may wish to invite the student to a follow-up discussion at a later date or send a follow-up email. Ask the student how things have been going since your conversation.
Consider sharing your experience with a colleague. conversation with struggling students can be challenging. You may feel a need to ‘get it out of your system’ afterwards. If so, it’s important that you share your experience with a colleague or your manager.
Please contact the editors at AU Educate if you have any questions about the content of the platform or if you need consultation on your teaching from one of the many skilled professionals at the Centre for Educational Development.