Handling students who are in over their heads

John Doe has had a glaze over his eyes from the moment you went over the class syllabus. What do you do when students don't have the skills and knowledge they need to complete the class? David Egan shares his tactics for dealing with these kinds of issues.

There’s one in every crowd: A student shows up for a network administration course with GUI interface experience and little else. The course you’re leading requires knowledge of installations and manual command entries. After the first few cries for help, you realize that this student just doesn’t have what it takes to get through the course.
TR contributor David Egan shares his advice for handling students who lack the prerequisites for a course. David, who has over 20 years of experience in the computer field, is a UNIX and NT systems integration consultant and technology “edutainer.” He is currently a course director and developer of UNIX-, NT-, and Linux-based courses for Global Knowledge, Inc., of Cary, NC. When not on the road preaching the virtues of Linux and NT, he resides near Vancouver, BC, with his wife and children.
High-tech training often brings together students with a diverse set of credentials. During your preparations, you must realize that you might have some students who are not up-to-speed. Let’s look at some ways you can prepare for and handle these students when they show up for your next training class.

What should you do?
You can “coach” a weak student through most examples and labs. I like to ask the entire class to try a sample problem, and then I stand behind the novice user and coax the student through the process. The entire class will have gained experience, and the novice user will feel both empowered and more knowledgeable.

You can also have the entire class participate in reviews. I constantly get my classes to answer in unison to questions like "and how do you quit this application?" By having them answer together, no single person is put on the spot, and those who are likely to know the answer have an outlet for participating. In the end, everyone remains focused on the course.

What should you not do?
Never single out a weak student with a direct question or too many questions, or, alternatively, ignore that person’s questions by putting off your answer until a later time. If you feel your class is being bogged down with too many interruptions and regressions, talk to the student at the next break, not in front of everyone else. You may be able to answer several basic questions at that time.

Open discussions
My classes often digress into discussions that interest the more knowledgeable students. During these debates, the more technically weak students are unable to participate or unwilling to comment for fear of appearing stupid. I personally like these discussions because they keep my more advanced students engaged, but I do make the effort to get my weaker students involved in the debate. I do this by asking whether anyone has experienced the same problems, by having the entire class search for possible solutions, or even by soliciting the students’ opinions of a related topic. The goal here is to make sure that everyone is engaged and that no student feels inferior.

In conclusion
Technically weak students are always going to show up in high-tech classes. Be prepared to coddle them a little more than the others and remember not to lower your teaching level to the lowest common denominator. Also, try to keep “off the topic” discussions as focused and short as possible. You are in control of your class. Keep it that way and have fun.
If you have any good suggestions for handling students who lack the skills and knowledge needed for your class, please let us know by posting your comments at the bottom of the page. We’d like to hear from you! If you have any topic ideas for future articles, please let us know by sending us a note .

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