"Red Flags" Save Failing Students

A second semester senior with only two courses to complete fell into a serious clinical depression and was unable to complete his work and graduate that spring.

Thanks to the alert faculty member who passed his name on to Alice Kelley, the faculty liaison to Student Services and an associate professor of English, the student returned to Penn in the fall to complete his degree, took five courses and got A's in all of them.

Now is the time of year for faculty with failing students to pass their names on to Kelley, who places a notice in the Almanac to ask for mid semester "red flags," which signify a student may be performing poorly in class (see "'Red Flags' for Early Warning," p. 3).

The program aims at rescuing students in trouble, students like the undergrad who had lost both parents while at Penn and had a record full of failures, or the student in deep psychological pain who ended his second term at Penn with three incompletes, nearly finishing his career at the University. The orphaned student ended up with marks in the strong B range, and the student with psychological problems later completed his courses, garnering A's in all of them, and was gradually able to overcome the problems that had prevented him from keeping up with his work.

Each of these students was in deep academic difficulty and "about to go down for the third time," as Kelley put it. In each of these cases, the students were able to recover and achieve academically, because of what Kelley called "the immense value of early intervention."

Referrals have increased every term, Kelley said, although she thinks there is still a long way to go. Since July 1 Kelley has had referrals from 34 members of the faculty and staff from 13 academic departments and 13 other offices.

"I would love to see this number increase," she said. "It is not uncommon for me to hear that a student is having trouble in one class, and, when I check, to discover that he or she is doing badly in four or five classes, but that only one teacher has sounded the alarm."

According to Kelley, much help is available to the students. Academic Support Programs offers, first of all, tutoring in a number of venues, including on site tutoring in various classroom buildings and dorms; individual tutoring; and Athletic Study Hall tutors, where specific nights are devoted to specific subjects.

Secondly, Academic Support Programs offers help through Learning Resources. "This is a wonderful program that addresses the particular problems a student may have with time management, studying for tests, writing academic papers, taking notes from lectures or from texts or bulk-packs, and overcoming learning disabilities," she said.

"And we have the Counseling Service, which works with exam panic, procrastination, problem solving, as well as assisting students with clinical depression or other more serious ailments that interfere with work."

Kelley often works with the different services to adjust a student's schedule to allow for appropriate pacing, given the problem at hand. Sometimes she recommends a trimming of the course load, often working with faculty to adjust assignment deadlines.

"Advisors in the Undergraduate Offices do the same when students in trouble are referred to them, I am sure," Kelley said.

Earlier this year a freshman was having a very hard time adjusting to Penn, and again, according to Kelley, early intervention was pivotal. "I connected her to Learning Resources for help in study skills, worked with Residential Living to straighten out an unfortunate roommate situation, and with Counseling to help with homesickness and anxiety," she said. "I also met frequently with the student, and with her father, during the early weeks of the term."

The intervention helped. Recent news both from the student and from Academic Support is that she is flourishing in her work and in her social life. "In short, she just needed short term crisis intervention and then she was ready to fly," Kelley said.

Originally published on February 25, 1997