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Strategies for Helping Underprepared Students

According to Jenkins and Boswell, 2002, at least 50% of incoming freshmen at community colleges are in need of some "remedial" or developmental course work before being academically ready to enroll in college level classes. While the debate continues over the role and value of remedial course work offered on college campuses, the reality is that many students graduate from high school without the skills necessary to be successful in college. In addition, many students begin college with unrealistic expectations of the study time and effort that will be required of them. Fortunately, instructors do not have to throw up their hands in defeat. The following are steps that faculty can take to give all students support and to increase their chances of academic success.

  1. Familiarize yourself with campus resources, such as Academic Resource Center (ARC), Library Information Services, Tutoring Services, etc. Make sure your students are also aware of these resources. If applicable, sign up for library instruction, and/or invite personnel from other support areas to provide an overview in your class.
  2. When creating your syllabus, present a clear, well organized, informative and useful tool for students to use. For assistance, call the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) and/or see the CTE's "Tips for Creating a Learning Centered Syllabus."
  3. Dedicate part of your first class session to developing ground rules so that your students know exactly what is expected of them. Involving all students in this discussion allows the more experienced or mature students to suggest appropriate ground rules and increases "buy in" or student ownership.
  4. During the ground rules session, dedicate some time to sharing your expectations. Specific and concrete examples are often the most helpful. For example:
    • a. "No cell phones are to be used at any time in class. If you have a phone with you, it should be turned off and placed out of sight." (See LCC's Policy on cell phones in the classroom .)
    • b. "I respond to student e-mails within 24 hours (not including weekends) and only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. If you email me at 1:00 on a Friday afternoon, I will respond no later than 1:00 on the following Monday afternoon."
  5. Include a rough estimate of the amount of time your course will require. The general rule is that in a four credit face-to-face class, students can expect to spend an additional eight hours each week studying. You may want to emphasize that this is only an estimate and that the amount of time required will vary by individual student.
  6. Model clear, consistent and respectful communication, both in the syllabus and in all face-to-face interactions with students.
  7. Start "small." When possible, begin with small, less complex assignments to build both a solid foundation and student confidence. Provide early and frequent feedback. This reduces student anxiety about their class performance and catches any "problems" while there is still time to adjust study habits, and take advantage of campus resources such as Tutoring Services.
  8. Set and keep office hours and encourage students to utilize them. Frequent student-faculty contact is related to higher rates of student retention and success.
  9. When possible, incorporate learning activities where students can "do" rather than "listen." Students who are actively engaged with the material are much more likely to retain the information than those who only listen to a lecture.
  10. Purposefully construct your learning outcomes and base your activities and assessments on achieving them. Underprepared students can have a particularly difficult time determining the most important points. Again, for assistance with all aspects of course and syllabus design, contact the CTE!
  11. Consider distributing examples of papers or other assignments that would be considered worthy of a 4.0, 3.0, 2.0, 1.0 and 0.0. Underprepared college students are often unfamiliar with college standards.


Jenkins, D., & Boswell, K. (2002). State policies on community college remedial education: Findings from a national survey. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States.

Pascarella, E .T., and Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bransford J., Brown A., & Cocking RR. (Eds.) (1999) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington (DC): National Academy Press.

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