Re-defining and Teaching Today’s At-Risk Student: A Post-Secondary Perspective

In an effort to better serve, teachers must understand their student.  As Director of Transitional Studies and primary course researcher, developer, and instructor of my institution’s transitional studies, my definition of the at-risk post-secondary student has changed over the years.

Although my institution has yet to publish a definition of at-risk, I believe the statistics are the definer, which includes 67% of all students who are first generation college attendees, 92% who receive financial aid, and the 40% identified as deficient in core subject areas of reading, writing, and/or math (National Center for Education Statistics).

In my work with the Kaleidoscope Project, the definition of at-risk was Pell Grant eligibility, which is based on financial need.

The exhaustive work of Hunter Boylan, published largely by the National Association of Developmental Education, has defined the field supporting at-risk students as:

“Developmental education is the integration of academic courses and support services guided by the principles of adult learning and development.

Remediation is a sub-component of developmental education involving the provision of coursework addressing pre-college material.”

And the Founding Director of UCLA’s renowned Higher Education Research Institute, Alexander Astin (1998) stresses the importance of educating this population of student:

The education of the “remedial” student is the most important educational problem in America today, more important than educational funding, affirmative action, vouchers, merit pay, teacher education, financial aid, curriculum reform, and the rest. Providing effective “remedial” education would do more to alleviate our most social and economic problems than almost any other action we could take. 

Neither the terms of “developmental education” nor “remediation” (the latter’s stigma still stings) fit what I wanted to accomplish with my institution’s support programming, so I named the work I do as “transitional studies” in an attempt to reflect the nature of “preparing the underprepared,” a nod to what National Association of Developmental Education aims to do, but also to reflect the growing support seen at other institutions: Utah State University-College of Eastern UtahGeorgia Gwinnet College,  New Mexico Junior CollegeCity College of San Francisco, Lower Columbia College (WA), The Art Institute of Institute of California-SanDiego, Fort Lewis College (CO), Bay College (MI), and more.

Yet the definitions and many of the current programs I’ve seen feel antiquated and do not appear to address a critical need today’s at-risk post-secondary student must have to be successful in academia and beyond: digital literacy skills.

Real, Hinson, and Christian’s Digital Literacy, the Community College, and Student Success presentation from March 2012, states “…researchers assumed a uniform degree of digital skills and information literacy and were surprised to the degree at which it varied.”  This is the ever-present conundrum for the educator of post-secondary at-risk students: building, developing, and nurturing the student for improved core subject area success in the face-to-face classroom and now online.  Just as in reading, writing, and math literacies, the degree of individual preparation is far and wide in digital literacy as well.  The growing presence of technology in the classroom, at times “being” the classroom, is proving to be a great challenge for at-risk students.

Since the research is lacking and resources for experimenting at my institution are scarce, my instinct is today’s at-risk student needs at minimum an integrated, hands-on, and technologically blended learning environment to experience success and develop individual weaknesses.  My challenge as a teacher is the current paradigm of higher education riddled with assumptions and sporadic research.

Integrating what I know about the the traditional model of developmental education with what I experience in the classroom, I am now for the first-time beginning to think about the “at-risk post-secondary education model.”  If it is seeded in traditional developmental education, then where is the place for technology?  What would Cormier’s rhizomatic learning (thanks OpenEd12!) look like in the context of this at-risk post-secondary model of education?  How does this affect how we integrate technology and use Wiley’s 4Rs of OER?

As my philosophy of openness teaching hinges on Boylan, Astin, and Wiley, I’m embracing Cormier’s vision that successful learning is “something flexible that is already integrated with the other things a learner knows” (2011).  Before one can discuss the current education model for the at-risk, the definition of the at-risk needs developed.  I extend this notion of flexibility to my definition of at-risk and wonder: will I every fully know my student?

What I do know about the students I teach is most:

  • are deficient in reading and writing skills (based on ACT or concordant test scores)
  • believe they are “bad with computers” and expect failure in online learning
  • lack resiliency skills, ex. have difficulty “bouncing back” after earning a poor grade
  • do not seek instructor feedback
  • do not apply instructor assignment feedback to future assignments
  • will not seek Student Services assistance in tutoring or counseling
  • lack critical digital literacy skills, which impacts their ability to understand directives and ask for help
  • largely are only comfortable learning in a “K12 technology” environment defined as “PC, Microsoft Office, and Internet Explorer“
  • lack skills in downloading, updating, and trouble-shooting since K12 technology (and most college campuses) does not extend IT administrative permissions to perform these skills
  • have little experience with multiple devices, operating systems, applications, and browsers
  • have access to a cell phone and use texting as a means of primary communication but do not use email on a regular basis
  • will use cell phones as an educational mobile device
  • may not be able to afford to purchase the word processing applications they are familiar with, such as Microsoft Office, for their mobile device
  • are not aware of open technologies

Although the definition of at-risk is still elusive, the need for improving instructional models serving this population never fades.

Astin, A.W. (1998). “Remedial education and civic responsibility.” National Crosstalk, 6(3), 12-13. Retrieved from

Cormier, D. (2011). Rhizomatic Learning – Why we teach? » Dave’s Educational Blog. Retrieved October 21, 2012, from


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