For a variety of reasons, some students may come in to your classroom underprepared for the concepts and challenges you’ll cover in your course. Though they must do work on their ends to get up to speed and succeed, you can also adopt some strategies that help you support underprepared students and increase the likelihood that they will ultimately perform well.

If you’d like to support your students in this manner, review these strategies, adapted from McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, Fourteenth Edition, which can help you address the needs of the underprepared students who enter your courses.

Strategies for reaching underprepared students

1. Direct students towards supplemental study resources. 

A student who’s serious about success will be willing to put in the effort. However, he or she may not know how to bolster the level of knowledge and skills in your course’s subject area. As the instructor, you’re well positioned to provide or recommend study resources that will help such students reach their goals. Some ideas offered in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips include:

  • Lists of online tools that support the development of skills related to your course
  • A selection of useful books and resources on reserve at the library
  • Sample questions from previous terms’ exams
  • Tutorials that break down the concepts that often challenge or confuse students

The authors also mention that you could collaborate with others in your department to create a website that features a variety of online resources that help students build their knowledge and skill in the topics and concepts central to your discipline.


2. Encourage students to form study groups. Students can then support one another in their quest to succeed in your course.


3. Create a list of “Frequently Asked Questions” for the course. Devote a section of your online discussion board to students’ questions about the course. Students can post their questions, and either you or their fellow students can answer. This will soon become a reference for the entire class. Once you’ve started this list, you can build on it from term to term; post it at the beginning of the course, then ask students to add their questions to the thread. (Don’t have an online discussion board? Consider starting a blog, wiki, Google Doc, or other online resource that allows for sharing and collaborative editing.)


4. Test early (and often). By beginning to give quizzes and tests early in the term, you’ll be able to identify where students are struggling, and which students are struggling the most. You might also encourage students who want to improve their performance to visit you during office hours to discuss a plan for future success. Frequent quizzes also offer students a regular opportunity to check their own progress. If you provide checklists, rubrics, or other helpful guidelines, you’ll further aid their ability to measure their own understanding and develop self-regulation skills. Looking for ideas? Read about the formative assessment approach used by Christine Harrington, which features online quizzes as a means of promoting learning. You may also be interested in reading how Bridgett McGowen-Hawkins uses assessments to measure student learning in an effective manner.


5. Encourage students to use the support services offered by your institution. Whether they operate from a traditional or online campus, most schools provide students with academic advising services that support their college success and boost student retention. In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Svinicki and McKeachie recommend keeping flyers promoting these services on hand, then providing them to the students who could benefit from the assistance. You might also check in with these students to see if they pursued the assistance, and then note any change in performance that may have occurred as a result. (Svinicki and McKeachie, 175-177)


Reference: Svinicki, Marilla, and Wilbert J. McKeachie. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.


How do you address the needs of underprepared students in your courses? Share your ideas and insights in the comments.