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Faculty Council Brief

How faculty can help students thrive as scholars:
five suggestions from the Faculty Council on Access and Academic Support

Although Penn students are very talented, they can also struggle academically and personally. In this brief, the Faculty Council on Access and Academic Support, a council that advises the Provost under the leadership of the Vice Provost for Education, offers five things to keep in mind to help our students thrive, including some key resources to assist students in doing so.


1. Recognize that students’ performance in our classes depends, in part, on factors unrelated to their academic abilities or inclinations.

Some of those factors stem from things outside of the Penn classroom: a student’s health, family, economic situation, preparation, or extracurricular activities, for instance. Some of those factors, though, are related to what may go on in the classroom, e.g.:

Stereotype threat: If unaddressed, students’ concerns about stereotypes that exist in society can weaken their own performance in a variety of fields. Click here or here to learn more.

Unconscious bias: The biases we have – and do not know we have – can influence how we assess the work of others. Click here to learn more


2. Help students to see that struggle is normal.

Some Penn students may interpret struggling in a class as a sign that something is wrong with them or that they cannot succeed in a field or at Penn. Help students to understand that struggle and confusion are normal parts of learning. Click here to learn more.  


3. Communicate regularly with students about their progress.

* Provide frequent assessments and feedback. Be sure to give students substantive feedback before the drop deadline. TAs can play an important role here.

* Course Problem Notices are an effective way to let struggling students know how they are doing in your course. CPNs allow faculty (or their TAs) to reach out to students, with a copy of the message sent to the student’s advising office so the office can detect any patterns.           

* Reach out also to students who are doing well. The connection with a faculty member can help build a student’s sense that he or she can excel in the field.


4.  Take advantage of available resources to support students.

For students who are struggling, either inside or outside the classroom, Penn offers a network of resources. These resources are generally available for both undergraduates and graduate students.

Faculty Guide to Support for Your Students


5.  Contact academic advisors if a student is having difficulties.

If undergraduate students are struggling or in crisis, for whatever reason, faculty seeking a single contact point can contact or refer those students to their academic advising offices. Advising offices will, as needed, connect students to other sources of support.

For SAS students: col-casenet@groups.sas.upenn.edu or 215-898-6341

For SEAS students: sgwak@seas.upenn.edu or 215-573-8369

For SON students: advisor@nursing.upenn.edu or 215-898-6687

For Wharton students: advising@wharton.upenn.edu or 215-898-7608

If you have a student in crisis after hours, contact Public Safety (215-573-3333 or 511 on campus) and ask the Student Intervention Services team to reach out.

Faculty may be more comfortable recognizing signs of academic struggles than other difficulties. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) suggests some signs to consider.


Related Studies


On stereotype threat:

Shapiro, J. R., and Williams, A. M. "The Role of Stereotype Threats in Undermining Girls' and Women's Performance and Interest in STEM Fields." Sex Roles. 66, 3-4. 175-183. 2011.

Aronson, J. "Stereotypes: Some Effects on Academic Performance and Evaluation." University of Pennsylvania, Department of Computer and Information Science Colloquium, January 2014.


On unconscious bias:

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovido, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., and Handelsman, J. "Science Faculty's Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students." PNAS 109 (41) 16474-16479. 2012.


On normalizing struggle:

Cutts, Q. I., Cutts, E., Draper, S., O'Donnell, P., and Saffrey, P. "Manipulating Mindset to Positively Influence Introductory Programming Performance." Proc. 41st ACM Tech. Symp. on Computer science education, Milwaukee, WI. March, 2010.