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How to Handle Students Who are Trying Their Best but Just don’t Seem to Make any Progress.

Eric Vargas

Over the past few years I have found myself offering advice to many of my co-workers over a very common and specific problem. It’s an issue every teacher will face at least once in their career, the feeling of frustration and even personal failure that comes when your teaching methods just aren’t working. I believe that in every class there will be at least one student who just won’t budge or simply can’t learn in the same way as the other students. It’s easy for a teacher to feel like they have failed, but as teachers we should always remember that not everyone learns the same way. Every student needs our help and it is our job to assist them and make sure that they leave the class with more clarity than when they came in.


To help you succeed and tackle this problem head on, here are some tips on how to handle this common situation:

1) Communicate: When you notice a student constantly struggling and lagging behind confront him or her privately. Make sure to be direct but encouraging and be careful not to be too aggressive or critical. Many students are hesitant to admit there is a problem and depending on their cultural background they may find it difficult to tell you what they’re struggling with. Come to them with some graded exercises and tests so that you may point out some common errors, make sure to offer ways they can improve as well. Most importantly, let them know you’re there to help and that they can come to you whenever they are having doubts.


2) Self-evaluation: Try to have the student express and verbalize what they think their main weakness is. When the student can identify his or her main weaknesses, it’s easier for both the teacher and the student to work together and solve the problem. This may sound cliché but self-realization is the key to self-improvement.

3) Follow up: After speaking with your student, make sure they stay on track and continue working towards their goal. Offer positive feedback and encouragement to help motivate them.

4) Make sure the problem isn’t you: Yes, sometimes we are the problem or perhaps not the problem but the obstacle. I’ve found that the most common issue for a student is listening comprehension. Sometimes a teacher may speak too quickly during a lesson or perhaps they don’t really enunciate their words. Make sure that your students are following what you say, make it a habit to have your students repeat important points back to you. Encourage them to say “could you please repeat that?” if they didn’t fully catch what you said. Again, depending on the country you’re teaching in a student might feel it’s rude to interrupt or ask to repeat what you’ve just said; in many Asian countries for example, it is common for a student to say “yes” and nod politely when in reality he/she didn’t understand what you said. Another important tip: If you have a regional accent, stick to your pronunciation but leave out the abbreviations and any slang or informal expressions you normally use.

Sometimes a teacher may speak too quickly during a lesson or perhaps they don’t really enunciate their words. Make sure that your students are following what you say, make it a habit to have your students repeat important points back to you.

5) Variety: keep your students constantly stimulated by varying your teaching method and style. Since not all students learn the same way, make use of different resources. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and put the textbook aside every once in a while. Use videos, magazines, and newspapers to keep your students engaged while learning. Many times if a student is working with something they find interesting or stimulating, the topic doesn’t seem like such a nightmare. Having variety in the lesson is also a way to get your students to look at a subject through a different perspective. A perfect example: many students get a better hang of phrasal verbs through videos or listening exercises rather than through work sheets. Often times the tone in someone’s speech and/or body language can give some clues as to what these terms means.

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6) Highlight the student’s strengths and growth: Perhaps your student isn’t getting the grade they want or perhaps they failed one or two exams. If this is the case, is your student making some progress? If so let him or her see this. It’s not all about grades, but do have them see where they’ve advanced and where they need improvement. In the case that they haven’t advanced at all remind them of their strengths. Have them see that they have a strong suit and then review what they may be struggling with. Try not to give them a different grade just because they put in some effort but didn’t fully grasp the concept. Remember that if they receive a passing grade and move on to a higher level, things will only be more difficult for them.

If you have followed these steps then you have done a perfectly fine job at helping your student. The common expression “there’s no such thing as a bad student just a bad teacher” may very well be true, but if both the student and the teacher don’t pull their weight, things will not move forward. This involves team effort; remember that even after doing all you could to help, your student also needs to take some responsibility for his/her advancement and success.

What about you? Do you have any other tips to add to the list? Let us know below!

About the author

Eric is an American expat currently living in Buenos Aires Argentina. When he isn’t working on his upcoming book or giving classes to his ESL students he enjoys listening to Spanish Alternative rock, painting, and exploring the Buenos Aires nightlife.