Module Twelve
Identifying Students at Risk: Warning Indicators of Dropout and Strategies for Success
Identifying Students at Risk: Warning Indicators of Dropout and Strategies for Success In the classroom—whether online or face-to-face—instructors can identify students at risk by watching for warning indicators. While we would hope that students have the self-reliance to seek help, as faculty we often need to intercede to direct students along paths of success.
Frequent absences
Students may be overwhelmed by their classes as well as their lives of multiple responsibilities. If you intercede early enough, the student will not fall too far behind and complete the course successfully. 


  • Track attendance and discuss absenteeism with student.
  • Learn your students’ names and establish a personal contact.
  • Establish and maintain channels of communication.
Low test scores

Low test scores may be an indicator of students’ lack of comprehension as well as lack of study skills.


  • Review material before the test.
  • Encourage study groups.
  • Develop study strategy with students.
  • Review answers after the test.
  • Recommend tutors or on-campus support services.
Incomplete or missed assignments

If you provide a detailed framework at the beginning of the semester, students will have a clearer understanding of expectations.

  • Provide detailed calendar of assignments.
  • Provide detailed assignment instructions.
  • Provide model assignments when appropriate.
  • Provide rubrics (see Best Practices, Module 10)
Poor comprehension

As students progress throughout their college careers, reading materials become longer and more complex. Work with students to develop analytical skills.


  • Preview material by providing objectives and main ideas.
  • Teach students to skim, looking at first sentences of paragraphs for main ideas and closing sentences for conclusions.
  • Teach students to use visual clues such as headings and bold text to identify main ideas and supporting details.
  • Teach students to interpret tables, charts, and figures, which can summarize or explain the accompanying text.
  • Ensure students understand subject-specific vocabulary.
While the four indicators above are easily identified, other factors are not as obvious and would require a closer examination of your students’ demographics and psychographics, such as values and interests.
Low income and minority students
Faced with limited resources and services, low income and minority students enter college at a disadvantage to their counterparts.
First-generation students
Students attending college for the first time in their families are often not aware of the educational culture and processes. What’s an “hour”? Where do I enroll? How do I know what courses to choose? The starting line is farther back for these students who must become acclimated to a new experience.
Unprepared for academic rigor
Regardless of their high school experiences, many students find the transition to college-level work more difficult. Couple this rigor with less self-discipline and students often flounder. See How College Differs from High School.
Job and family responsibilities
Traditional college students are no longer the overwhelming population in student enrollment. In 2011, about 40 percent of U.S. college students were non-traditional students—single parents, former military, workers returning for a college degree. And it is these students who are at risk.
With rising tuition and mounting student loans, college students and their families feel burdened by increasing financial demands. When deciding among rent, food, and household expenses, people have to make hard choices about college. These concerns can detract from a student’s focus and inhibit academic success.
Personal motivation

Attending college is an intense commitment that some students find overwhelming. As a result, their personal motivation may waver. Are they depressed or homesick? Are they facing peer pressure to party? Do they have personal or relationship problems? Are they worried about their career goals?

What is the role of classroom instructors with these non-academic risk factors? You can certainly commiserate and offer words of encouragement. More significantly, you can provide them with a list of community and campus services that are equipped to assist students with these stressors.

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