From “Under-Prepared” to “At-Promise”: Reframing Student Preparedness

Jessica Babcock
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Throughout the recent semesters, as Temple and the world continued in pursuit of a “return to normal” after the pandemic, many of us found our classrooms to be anything but normal.

Sentiments that years of disrupted learning, increased mental health concerns, social unrest, and various other factors have led to a new and more seriously underprepared population of students radiated through faculty conversations.  “I’m used to students not knowing…, but now they don’t even know…” became a common phrase amongst instructors.  Attempts at improving student ability increasingly yielded lower rates of assignment completion, higher rates of student burnout, and feedback with phrases such as “unreasonable amount of work” and “pointless assignments,” thus creating a seemingly unbreakable cycle of underpreparedness and higher DFW rates.  I know that I, at least, started to wonder: is it the students who are underprepared for my class, or am I underprepared to teach this population of students?

To address this issue and hopefully find reassurance that both the current population of students and I could find success, I joined the Center for the Advancement of Teaching’s Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on Underprepared Students in the Fall 2022 semester.  Joined by twelve other faculty members representing the College of Liberal Arts, College of Public Health, College of Science and Technology, Kornberg School of Dentistry, Fox School of Business, Katz School of Medicine, and the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, our group met biweekly throughout the semester to discuss research about, experiences with, and potential solutions to underprepared students.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our group came in one of our final sessions.  A simple change in terminology, suggested by a participant from CST–based in turn on a conversation with a colleague at another institution–managed to encompass nearly the entirety of our conversations.  When asked if there is a better phrase by which to refer to “underprepared” students, the colleague replied that the current scholarly phrase being used is “at-promise.”  This singular phrase got directly at the heart of what we had spent months discussing.  As described by a participant from CLA, this shift away from the deficit-minded “underprepared” label demonstrated that these students are working toward something rather than working without something. 

Acknowledgement of this fact changes not only the way we view these students, but also one’s view of self and sense of one’s role as an instructor.  Rather than working to “fix” what is missing with these students, our focus can be redirected toward finding ways to support these students in their pursuit of fulfilling their promise.  But to provide this kind of detailed support for each student in our classes seems like a massive undertaking!  How can we possibly take this on, while still teaching the necessary content and maintaining our professional responsibilities?!  It turns out, we had really been answering that exact question all along throughout our FLC sessions – we just didn’t know it at the time.

Our early conversations focused on identifying what was meant by the term “underprepared” and exploring what this looks like in our classrooms.  Our discussions found that while we were from a variety of disciplines, we all saw similar presentations of underpreparedness in our students.  Many of us initially thought being underprepared was largely related to content knowledge, but through deeper exploration of this, we identified that academic underpreparedness is only one piece of a much more complex puzzle.  We then explored the factors that contribute to underpreparedness, and this was perhaps the most eye-opening conversation in our early sessions.  Through research, conversation, and reflection, we identified long lists of personal, academic, economic, social, and institutional barriers to student success, causing them to appear underprepared on the surface.  Simply recognizing the existence of these challenges as an obstacle course of barriers for our students to overcome is a critical component to reframing our thoughts towards our “at-promise” students and their pursuit of success.

The other essential component of our role in helping these students is admittedly more involved than acknowledgement of barriers and was discussed throughout the second half of our FLC sessions – using strategies to create an atmosphere in our classrooms designed for all students to truly learn.  Again, this seems like an enormous task made up of sweeping pedagogical changes, but, actually, success in this venture can be found through a series of small modifications, most of which will improve learning not only for the at-promise students in your class, but for all!  Seeking out these tasks may seem daunting at first, but once you know what can be helpful to these students, there is plenty of information and support!  As stated by an FLC participant from CPH, “If I had known what to look for [before the FLC], this would have been really helpful!”

And our FLC group is here to help YOU with exactly this!  Upon realizing how valuable all of this information was, we wanted to create a resource and means to share with the University at large.  We want all faculty to benefit from the rich discussions, deeper understanding, and lingering questions we have found so important over the past several months.  In service of this goal, we have created this document containing some of the information and strategies we found to be critical in understanding and supporting our at-promise students.  In this document you will find information regarding the barriers students face, tips for classroom modifications, and related articles, blog posts, and other resources we believe to be most helpful.   

Additionally, we wanted to not only continue our conversations, but open them up to the Temple community through round-table discussions.  In these sessions, we hope to share even more insights that we have gained, as well as the questions and concerns we still have, and invite you to join the conversation with your questions and insights as well!

From “Under-Prepared” to “At-Promise” roundtables

  • Wednesday, March 15th, 3:00-4:30pm, TECH 109 (register)
  • Tuesday, March 21st,  3:00-4:30pm, TECH 109 (register)

With the ever-changing population of students needing our support, our Faculty Learning Community hopes that these resources will serve to provide you, our colleagues, with the same sense of deeper understanding of and appreciation for our at-promise students that we have developed through these sessions and inspire changes to support these students at all levels and in all disciplines university-wide.


Jessica Babcock is Assistant Professor of Instruction in Temple's Department of Mathematics and serves as Director of Developmental Mathematics.

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