How To Identify and Diagnose Student problems

The key to responding to students in the panic zone is for the teacher to stay in the learning zone. Having students in the panic zone is completely normal and teachers should work to understand why before reacting. When teachers ask: "Who should I pay extra attention to?", I suggest they look for students in the panic zone. In this post, I’m going to cover guidance I give to teachers using my exit ticket survey tool, and then walk you through two examples of using the tool.


Strategies For Addressing Students In The Panic or Comfort Zone

It’s important to recognize that every class will have students in the panic or comfort zone. It will happen often and usually unexpectedly. This is normal. Here are a few notes on how to address students outside of the learning zone:

  • Use the Learning Zone and Enjoyability to identify problems, and the move to difficulty and the long-form answers to diagnose the problems.

  • If students are in the panic zone, but still marking the class as “enjoyable” or “okay” that could just be a blip. Reach out to the student to make sure they get help if they need it, but it’s not an emergency and may not even need to be addressed if it’s just once.

  • I always address the panic zone students before the comfort zone. Spending some time in the comfort zone can be good for students. Time in the panic zone is not.

  • Students often think that everyone is feeling the same thing as they are. The survey will often get you a better read than what a student believes from talking to other students.

  • If everyone is in the learning zone, there probably is room to push the class a bit harder.

  • If you are teaching the same class repeatedly, it’s helpful to keep this data from class to class so that you can observe trends. In every class I’ve taught there is always some turning point where everything is hard briefly. Often that’s normal and you just want to manage that.

  • Everything is relative. Be sure to use the learning zone dashboard to check the history of the student. Some students will report being in the panic zone every time the material gets hard and then immediately return to the learning zone.

Two Examples

For both of these examples, I always start at the class level, and then move to the student level. A class is made up of students. To fix that class, I need to understand the students. This is all fake data modeled after situations I’ve seen before. Here are the class charts from my exit tool tracker for the month of July:

Learning Zone, Difficulty Zone, and Enjoyability zone over the month of July

It looks like there are two different interesting moments: The 7/4 single panic zone and the 7/11 classroom panic zone. Let’s dive into those:


The 7/4 Single Panic Zone

Taking a look at the classroom chart we can see that we have one person who bumped into the panic room. It’s only one person so this means I should dig deeper but don’t need to change how the entire class works.


Next step is to see if I can gain any insight from the student’s history and survey feedback. I use the “Learning Zone Dashboard” tab to find out which student is struggling. In this example it’s joemburgess+studentl@gmail.com. Here is what I see:

Table of students with single student struggling with a comment in the anything else space

Ok this one is easy. They were sick and missed material. I now know I need to just reach out, probably calm their nerves a bit and focus that student on the right material. Additionally, I know this isn’t a huge issue as they marked the course as enjoyable still. That means they are taking the shift in learning zone well.


The 7/11 Classroom Panic Zone

Yet again, I start with the “class dashboard” tab and look for any issues. It’s pretty apparent that around 7/11 something happened with a bunch of students. Normally I wouldn’t let things get this bad before correcting them, but that’s ok. We can see that students in the panic zone started climbing around 7/11. Interestingly, there is a delayed rise in students in the comfort zone around 7/14. I’ve seen that before when a teacher sees the rise in panic zone, slows the whole class down and then the students who were fine all of a sudden are in their comfort zone. It’s a sign of over-correcting.


Now that I know there is an issue from the learning zone chart, I look to enjoyment to understand the severity of the problem. If students are in the panic zone, but rank the class as “Enjoyable” or even “Okay” often it’s nothing to worry about. Teachers should check up on the student but can expect things will correct themselves. However, in this case, there is a huge swing in unenjoyable students. Students are in the panic zone and not enjoying it. That is a recipe for drop-outs and a negative spiral. It’s time to act.


Next, I check the difficulty chart. It may sound odd but sometimes panic zone doesn’t always come with increased difficulty. Often, it could be due to inter-student issues or a student’s home life. I can see there is a spike in the “Very Hard” right around when students go into the panic zone. This is a classic presentation of the course moving a bit too quickly for a group of students. This happens frequently when classes move to a new module or if there is a particularly difficult topic that builds on top of previous topics.


To fix the problem, I need to talk to some students. Let’s figure out who I should talk to. I go to my “learning zone dashboard” and then look for students in the panic zone. I can see the list of students by clicking the drop-down in cell C2.

This is the list of students I should be paying attention to. Now I can go through each student and see what their responses look like for all questions. For example, here is a student who didn’t give me much but they are not enjoying class and are in the panic zone. I’ll reach out to this student and ask more questions.

Another student seems to really be struggling with the material and gives me a hint as to what caused the sudden shift in the class. When the issue is a full class issue like this one, a single student giving feedback often applies to all the students struggling.

It looks like when I introduced the topic “async/await” students became confused.


The next steps are to reach out to these students and start talking to them. The goal is to not only help them with their misunderstandings of the topic but to help students understand this feeling of being challenged is what learning something new feels like.


Once I start making changes to the class, it can take a few more sessions for the results to start to show. Often the difficulty measure will be a leading indicator over learning zone or enjoyability.


Conclusion

I’ll repeat it again, having students in the panic or comfort zone is completely normal. Focus on the response to the students. Start by observing if it’s a class or single student issue. Then dive into the student data until you get your first hunch as to what the problem is. Finally, reach out! The best part of this exit ticket is the ability to focus your efforts on the students that need it the most.