George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Getting Middle and High School Students with Low Grades Back on Track

By sitting down with students and laying out just what they need to do to pass, teachers can give them the tools to succeed.

April 8, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

Nearly every high school teacher knows the end-of-the-semester scramble. During the last couple of weeks of the term, students scurry to finish last-minute assignments and complete test retakes, and teachers are buried in grading.

In an ideal world, this scramble to pass classes wouldn’t occur; however, research shows that 53 percent of modern high school students consider themselves to be “frequent procrastinators.” Research points to teenage procrastination being strongly correlated to the underdeveloped executive functioning skills caused by the still-developing prefrontal cortexes of teenagers’ brains.

An Antidote to Procrastination

There are effective preventive measures that teachers can take to support middle and high school students with time-management and organizational skills. Still, some students inevitably may find themselves behind at the end of the semester and need individualized Tier 2 interventions as a result of their procrastination.

A Tier 2 strategy that teachers can use to support student efforts to pass classes during the end-of-the-semester scramble is the creation of individual PDSA (plan, do, study, act) cycles. A PDSA cycle is a process in which teachers and students work together to create a plan for improvement; implement, or do, the plan; study if the plan’s actions were successful; and act to create long-term improvement actions based on the results of the plan.

In PDSA cycles, teachers work with their students to create plans for success. These plans can be used either with a whole group or on an individual basis. Through working one-on-one with students this way, I’ve seen large gains in student achievement and agency.

In January as the end of the semester was nearing, I knew I needed to make a plan to support my students who were not on track to pass my class. With four weeks until it was time to make report cards, I closely audited my grade book and made a list of all of my students (29) who were currently not on track to pass my government and world history classes.

A Simple, Practical Approach

For each of these students, I got a piece of paper, wrote the student’s name and PDSA at the top of it, and made four quadrants, labeled with plan, do, study, and act. Then, over the next couple of days, I met with each of these students individually. We sat down and had an honest conversation about the student’s current non-passing status. These meetings, which took no longer than five minutes, happened during regular class time while their classmates were working independently on another task.

Together, we analyzed the student’s grade book page and created a plan for how we could work together to help them experience academic success. On the piece of paper, in the plan quadrant, we wrote down what exact actions the student needed to take and what actions I as the teacher would take to help them.

These are examples of specific actions we listed:

  • “William will look at feedback Mrs. Boatman provided on his World War I essay and revise and resubmit it by January 15.”
  • “Emma will come in after school on Thursday, January 11, to give her Bill of Rights presentation.”
  • “By the end of today, Mrs. Boatman will email Jose the directions for the World War I essay.”
  • “Mrs. Boatman and Maddie will meet on Friday morning and review the process for writing thesis statements together.”

As I worked with students to create these individualized plans, there was a look of relief on many of their faces as they realized it was possible for them to complete a few specific actions and pass the class.

Over the next week, students got to work, taking these plans seriously and beginning to implement the actions listed.

After making the initial plans, students were held accountable. I prioritized meeting with each of them weekly. During these meetings, I got out the PDSA plan and together we filled in the study quadrant of the paper, charting the student’s current grade and their progress toward passing the course. Many students moved from a strong likelihood of not passing to success in just a couple of weeks.

Positive Results

As I calculated grades at the end of the semester, out of the 29 students I had started individual PDSAs with four weeks prior, 25 moved from not passing to passing. The day when grades came out, one of them came up to me and said, “I didn’t pass any of my other core classes, but I passed World History because you cared enough to take the time to show me exactly what I needed to do to be successful, and you kept me on track by meeting with me every week.”

After grades came out, at the start of the second semester, I met with each of the 29 students again individually. Together, we filled in the act section of the PDSAs. We wrote specific actions the students could take to hopefully not find themselves in the same situation again—students were very reflective, listing things like the following:

  • “Take teacher feedback on assessments more seriously.”
  • “Don’t procrastinate on writing essays.”
  • “Make sure I am checking in with my teacher about work when I am absent.”

Students kept the lists they made, and moving forward, I watched them make a concerted effort to implement the things they had listed.

While student procrastination and end-of-the-semester scrambles are not ideal, if framed correctly, they can be a great opportunity for students to learn life skills and gain ownership over their own learning.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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