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Reducing DFW Rates with Tutoring


Learning centers often struggle to engage students who need the help most. This month's LCU walks through the basic three-stop process for this: (1) Identifying target students (e.g. enrolled in high DFW course), (2) increasing engagement in that segment, and (3) reporting on success to demonstrate your impact to leadership. This article highlights some of the key ways you can approach each step.
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Written by
Ben Holmquist
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Published on
June 18, 2024


Learning centers often struggle to engage the students who need support the most, particularly those enrolled in high DFW (Drop, Fail, Withdraw) courses. In a recent Penji Moderated discussion, academic support professionals from various institutions shared strategies for identifying at-risk students, increasing engagement, and measuring the impact of their efforts.

Step One: Identifying Target Courses and Students

The first step in reducing DFW rates is to identify the courses and students that require the most attention. Some institutions, like the University of Wyoming, obtain DFW rate lists from the registrar's office each semester to prioritize tutoring offerings. Others rely on their most frequently served courses or intuitive knowledge of challenging classes as a starting point.

Building partnerships with academic departments can also help learning centers pinpoint high-need courses and secure additional funding to support student success initiatives.

Step Two: Deepening Engagement

Once target courses and students have been identified, learning centers can employ various strategies to increase engagement with academic support services:

  1. Proactive Outreach

Tailored email and text campaigns can be highly effective in reaching at-risk students. Consider sending up to three messages per term, timed around key milestones like the start of classes, drop deadlines, and finals. Don't hesitate to seek permission from your institution's marketing or communications team to conduct these targeted outreach efforts.

  1. Faculty Partnerships

Investing in relationships with faculty teaching high DFW courses can lead to more student referrals and engagement. Consider scheduling brief meetings to learn about their perspectives and how tutoring can best support their students. Faculty may then be more likely to recommend, require, or incentivize the use of tutoring services.

  1. Diversifying Support Models

Adding new modalities of support, such as Supplemental Instruction (SI), embedded tutoring, or weekly study groups, can attract students who may not have otherwise sought assistance. Tailoring these offerings to the specific needs of high DFW courses can further enhance their impact.

  1. Collaborating on Course Materials

Provide faculty with pre-designed slides about your services that they can easily incorporate into their course presentations. Additionally, explore opportunities for tutors to give brief in-class talks about the benefits of academic support.

Step Three: Reporting on Success

Demonstrating the impact of targeted tutoring efforts is crucial for securing continued funding and institutional buy-in. Learning center leaders can:

  1. Prepare annual or per-term reports highlighting the growth in usage for high DFW courses
  2. Estimate GPA differences between tutoring users and non-users, even if the analysis is imperfect
  3. Examine persistence rates among students who engage with tutoring services

By showcasing intentionality and positive outcomes, learning centers can build a strong case for further investment in their programs.

I know that this is a bit light on actionable guidance - we plan to publish more detailed instructions on how to build and format these reports in the future.


Reducing DFW rates through targeted tutoring requires a combination of data-driven decision-making, proactive outreach, and strong partnerships with faculty and academic departments. While the process may seem daunting, learning center leaders are encouraged to start small, experiment with different strategies, and continuously build upon their efforts. By sharing insights and best practices, the academic support community can collectively work towards improving student success in the most challenging courses.

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