MET:At-Risk Learners

From UBC Wiki

'Jesse Anast 2009 Richard Biel 2010

Janelle Therien 2016


There is something missing from mainstream public schools. Since the advent of public school education in the 1840's there has existed a segment of the population that just does not fit the mold and are disconnected from main stream public schools (Brown, 2004). These students are often referred to as "at-risk", or marginalized or can also be members of the digital divide. These students for a host of psychosocial, health, cultural, ethnic and class reasons are at-risk of not graduating from High school and many are learning disabled. Multiple Intelligence Theory highlights that many at risk students have other intelligences not highly valued in mainstream education. Social reproduction theorists have theorized that the Fordist school structure and organization coupled with internal dynamics form extant inequalities that form extant inequalities (Smith, 2000)contribute to at risk youth dropping out. Many have theorized that principles of Post-Fordism need to become more widespread which will assist the marginalized in having their needs met. There is much research that outlines a correlation between academic performance and delinquency (Sampson and Laub, 1993). Marginalized youth suffer from a disconnect from the greater school culture (Battistich and Hom, 1997) and belong to a set of different Semiotic domains then the mainstream culture. There is little research regarding how school structures and organizations have increased marginalization of at risk youth (Smith, 2000).

As we immerse ourselves into a global market we need to appeal to a variety of target groups and ensure that all learners are equipped with the tools to ensure success in today’s society. With an emphasis on technology and the pressures to reduce the digital divide among Canadians, we must consider the implications that this quest to remain on top of the world markets had done to the educational systems; and in particular the e-learning environment in North America and to explore what role course management systems will play in addressing these gulfs.. According to Veronica Lacey, CEO - The learning Pertnership (2004), “Highly skilled adults will be the source of competitive innovation in the global knowledge economy - and public K-12 education system is the indispensable human resource feeder to produce these skilled adults”.

Defining the At-Risk Learner

According to the National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students (2002) an at risk learner is any student who may not graduate or might give up and drop out is at-risk. These students are also commonly referred to as marginalized.

Batsche (1985) successfully compiled the common characteristics that define at-risk students. Characteristics of the Individual

  1. history of school absenteeism,
  2. poor grades,
  3. low math and reading scores,
  4. low self-concept,
  5. history of behavioral problems,
  6. inability to identify with other people,
  7. employed full time while in school,
  8. low socioeconomic background,
  9. more males than females,
  10. feel alienated and isolated.

What should be happening

Research findings indicate that, “By not challenging at-risk students or encouraging them to use complex thinking skills, schools underestimate students’ capabilities, postpone, interesting and meaningful work they could be doing and deprive them of a meaningful context for learning and using the skills that are taught” (Means & Knapp, 1991). Means, Blando, Olson, Middleton, Morocco, Remz and Zorfass (1993) note that technology can engage students in challenging, authentic learning: environments.

“teachers can draw on technology applications to simulate real-world environments and create actual environments for experimentation, so that students can carry out authentic tasks as real workers would, explore new terrain’s, meet people of different cultures, and use a variety of tools to gather information and solve problems.’ (p.43)

In a way computers have an, "equalizing capability in education”, (Romi, Shlomo, Hansenson, Gabriel, and Hansenson, Arie 2002). For many students in a classroom scenario the thought of participation and interacting with fellow peers is a stressful situation. Computers thus have the ability to perhaps take away some of the anxiety. As long as scaffolding of the technology takes place, at risk youth who are members of those that have grown up with technology, digital natives, can be more than competent with its successful usage in the classroom.


With Constructionism becoming popular in today's teaching pedagogy more and more classrooms have embraced the use of technology as a tool to aid not only those students at-risk, but all students within the classroom.

A whole child approach

Dr. Lee Brown from the University of British Columbia dealt with the issues of what was most missing from mainstream classrooms in his PHd. dissertation (Brown, 2004). Brown (2004) outlined that one of the most critical elements missing from mainstream public schools was the lack of an emotional connection between students and teachers. This emotional connection is the foundational element that allows teachers to teach and students to learn. Emotional connection is important with mainstream students but becomes critical when working with at-risk youth. Without this connection no learning can occur and the likelihood of students dropping out is increased.

Te Riele (2006) expresses how technology can lead to further marginalization of “at risk” youth specifically by examining how the vast majority of programmes designed to assist students begin by trying to determine the issue with the student and not how the system conflicts with the student. It is challenging to motivate and educate at risk youth as typically they lack the social and/or academic capabilities required of mainstream education (Fitzgerald, 2005).

Universal Design for Learning:

One learning initiative that has been developing since the mid 1990’s is Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a framework for designing learning based scenarios that has been a major push of the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). UDL is a research based framework for designing curricula- that is, educational goals, methods, materials, and assessments- that enable all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. This is accomplished by simultaneously providing rich supports for learning and reducing barriers to the curriculum, while maintaining high achievement standards for all students.”

Currently the BC Universal Design for Learning (BC UDL) Project will provide an opportunity for 7 schools in British Columbia to receive training, equipment, mentoring and support to implement UDL based practice at their schools. To have a look at some of the blogs and wiki’s related to this project you can visit the Set BC site.

Use technology for Expressive outlets

The most frequently reported effects of computer use on at-risk students are in behavioral and attitudinal areas such as motivation, self-confidence, and self-discipline (U.S. Department of Education, 1994). “These students often better express themselves more creatively, artistically, and expressively,” reminds Gillespie. “Technology seems to offer them the independence, motivation, challenge, and interactive, hands-on learning approach that works best for them,” she said.

A good example would be the use of wiki’s as exit slips and ejournals for writing.

Community involvement

It is imperative that we associate the involvement of community in the forefront of involving and motivating at-risk students. The learning community is a vital aspect in the growth of today’s youth. It is critical for teacher and school administrators to form partnerships with the community they serve. Formulating communities of practice with members of the community designed around authentic learning environments should be part of every teacher's practice that works with at risk youth. Ideally the experiential learning environment would be something that is central to the community, like a Maritime Services training programme, for a coastal community.

Use of assistive technology to support at risk youth

Marginalized youth often come with a host of issues that are resulting in their risk of not graduating. These issues span the spectrum of cultural, familial, economic, medical, physical, psychological and cognitive to name a few. Assistive technology is most commonly thought of as applications that support the blind, visually impaired, deaf, hard of hearing, physically and more recently the cognitively impaired (Edyburn, 2004). Edyburn (2004) points out that there are a number of challenges that have impeded the successful use of assistive technologies in schools. Peterson-Karlan’s(2005) research points to the lack of consideration about student usage preferences around assistive technology (AT). The direct result of not consulting with students is a marginal adoption of technology. Johnston and Evans (2005) have examined how to mitigate this abandonment of the affordances that AT can have for marginalized youth. Hall (2004) has made some recommendations in the use of technology to support “at risk youth”. Successfully adopting technology when working with “at risk” youth is a challenging task however there are recommendations, “best practices” if you will, that should be considered in any programme that makes use of technology.

Fortunately there are a number of recommendations that schools can be conscious of and implement to better support the integration and use of technology to support marginalized youth. Hall (2004) points to the use of learning management systems such as Moodle, WebCT and Desire to Learn as a key component in assisting teachers to formulate individualized instruction. Collaborative learning, peer mentoring and teaching across the curriculum with real world applications are key components in encouraging “at-risk” youth to successfully make use of technology and e-learning affordances (Hall,2004). Edyburn (2005) also recommends increased resources be provided to leadership in order to facilitate the personnel preparation necessary to ensure successful technology enhanced teaching, learning and performance. A screening system of all students that is not referral based but more broadly applied as well as promoting increased collaboration between AT and ITstaff (Edyburn, 2005) are other recommendations that are very valid and should be part of successful programme. Johnston and Evans (2005) also recommend frequent, consistent and continued support to the students in order to facilitate adoption.

Pedagogical Practice

The change in encouraging at-risk learners must come from the classroom teacher. The classroom teacher is the one who possess the ability to reach out and make a difference with the students entering the classroom. With a pedagogical shift that looks at incorporating real world scenarios, knowledge creation, constructivist learning paradigms, formative, and summative assesment will all help in gaining success for today's at-risk learner. One such program developed thoughout the United States has been the Success for All program.

As Ben Levine has pointed out, most success in serving at-risk students is not coming from pull out programs and structural changes within the school but, “changes in mainstream programs”.

Howard et al suggest that their research,

...indicates that what makes the difference between ineffective and ineffective schools are direct practices over which classroom teachers have greatest control...achievement in school is made more likely when: teachers teach for mastery; curricula are relevant to students’ present and future needs...

External Links

Universal Design for Learning
blogs and wiki’s
BC Universal Design for Learning

Adult At-Risk Students: The Marginalized, Non-Traditional Student

Rates of adult learners in colleges and other post-secondary institutions are rising. Adult learners, or non-traditional students, differ from traditional students in age, life experience, enrollment status, and learning styles.

Marginalized non-traditional adult learners (Hyland, R.T., Groen, J., 2011) add one or more elements of marginalized populations to the term non-traditional student. These include:

  1. older persons
  2. recent immigrants
  3. women
  4. people with disabilities
  5. people from working-class backgrounds
  6. people affected by poverty
  7. people affected by generational literacy deficiencies (Tighe, E. L., Barnes, A. E., Connor, C. M., & Steadman, S. C., 2013)
  8. lack of, or limited, media and technology literacy (O'Neill, S., & Thomson, M. M., 2013)
  9. inadequate academic and psychological preparation for college learning (Wyatt, L. G., 2011)

As a result of factors such as these, these adult learners are at-risk of not completing their educational goals.

Barriers to Success

Marginalized non-traditional learners are more likely to experience barriers to success than their traditional and non-traditional learner counterparts. Barriers may be external or internal (Falasca, M., 2011). External barriers are beyond individual control and include:

  • the effects of aging (capacity to learn)
  • changes in health or life events
  • role changes at home or at work
  • motivation factors
  • Internal barriers reflect person attitudes and include:

  • failure or inability to consider multiple perspectives
  • depending on previously learned educational structures (reliance on rote memory)
  • inability to situate information (narrow focus)
  • low self-efficacy
  • Poverty Poverty is a recurrent theme in examining barriers to success. Poverty limits social mobility and opportunities for growth. Poverty presents three types of barriers (Hyland, R.T., Groen, J., 2011) :

    1. dispositional or psychological (fear of education, low self-esteem, mental illness)
    2. situational (finances, daycare and transportation, multiple roles)
    3. institutional (rigid time tabling, physical building locations, entrance requirements)

    Dispositional barriers are the most difficult to address. Barriers have a compounding effect; impacting self-efficacy beliefs and self-concept. All barriers are seen as connected to one’s poverty.

    Economics, Living Conditions, and Life History

    Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs posits that before goals of education (self-actualization) can be met, needs lower on the pyramid must be satisfied. Marginalized non-traditional adult learners face many challenges that must be addressed prior to successful learning (Hyland, R.T., Groen, J., 2011). These include:

  • economic – depth of poverty
  • unstable living conditions
  • life history- homelessness, addictions, violence, chronic illness, disability, and war
  • It is rare that only one barrier is present. Concept of Self as a Learner Dispositional factors also impact the ability of a learner to succeed (Hyland, R.T., Groen, J., 2011). These include:

  • previous negative educational experiences
  • mistrust of institution and educators
  • inability to seek assistance as required
  • internalized negative self-talk (“I do not belong here.”, “I am stupid.”)
  • bureaucratic processes (accessing resources, registration)
  • Technology Jenkins (2009) discusses a participation gap whereby those without consistent, home access to technology, such as marginalized non-traditional adult learners, are less able to compete with peers who are privy to this access. This is a new facet of literacy that is, as of yet, seldom acknowledged in current adult education theory.


    Motivation sources of marginalized non-traditional adult learners vary from other learners. Learners cite goals beyond attaining a diploma or getting good grades, including: avoiding parental paths, being role models to children, personal fulfillment, family encouragement, celebratory ceremonies, career goals (Tighe, E. L., Barnes, A. E., Connor, C. M., & Steadman, S. C., 2013), and mastery of skills/ knowledge (O'Neill, S., & Thomson, M. M., 2013). Motivation can be intrinsic (self-fulfillment) or extrinsic (goal oriented). Intrinsic is desirable as it is enduring.

    Adult Learning Theory

    Learning theories specifically aimed at adult learners include:

    Expectancy-Value Theory

    Expectancy- Value Theory was originally derived from Eccles, Wigfield et al in the 1980s, this theory posits (O'Neill, S., & Thomson, M. M., 2013):

  • The perception of ability to succeed (expectancy) + the impact of choices made (value) = self-efficacy
  • Values comprise four components: attainment value (importance), intrinsic value (enjoyment), utility value (applicability), and cost (effort investment).
  • If value is greater than expectancy, a high-stakes situation exists and anxiety results.
  • Goal Theory Goal Theory assumes that if students set goals, they are more likely to sustain the effort required to attain the goal (O'Neill, S., & Thomson, M. M., 2013). Self-Determination Theory Self-determination Theory focuses on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It determines that extrinsic motivation can be utilized in developing the more desirable intrinsic motivation through increasing a learner’s autonomy, improving competence and feelings of competence, and creating a feeling of relatedness. These factors contribute to the emergence of capable, independent, intrinsically motivated learners (O'Neill, S., & Thomson, M. M., 2013). The Melded Cognitive Model O’Neill and Thomson (2013) combine tenets of the above theories to create the Melded Cognitive Model (O'Neill, S., & Thomson, M. M., 2013). Tenets include:

  • Motivation is necessary to begin the pursuit of a goal. Persistence is the increase of applied effort necessary as initial motivation diminishes.
  • Motivation is determined by self-efficacy, interest, and goal value.
  • Motivation applies a pushing force, while the goal itself provides a pull towards success.
  • The consequence of affect needs to be recognized. For marginalized non-traditional adult learners, the act of pursuing education is an act of hope.
  • Development of autonomy and a feeling of competence increase psychological security and willingness to persist and succeed.
  • Theory of Adult Learning Jarvis (1987) highlighted five assumptions regarding adult learners:

  • Adult learners need to know why they should learn something (self-concept).
  • Adult learners utilize life experiences in reflecting on and sharing concepts, interpretations, and understandings (Experience).
  • Adult learners will learn when the content is relevant and engaging
  • Adult learners will learn best when learning is problem-centred (tangible goals)
  • Adult learners’ motivation is primarily intrinsic.
  • Andragogy Malcolm Knowles’ theory of Andragogy, as described by Jenkins (2009) believes adult learners differ from children in the following ways:

  • Self-concept- Adult learners are self-directed learners.
  • Experience- Life and work experience provides an always-expanding resource for learning.
  • Readiness to learn- Learning is linked to social roles and specific goals.
  • Orientation to learning- Learning is problem-centered, must be applicable now.
  • Motivation- Adult learners are intrinsically motivated.
  • Strategies for Supporting Marginalized Non-Traditional Adult Learners

    Institutional, classroom, motivational, and personal strategies can be implemented to support marginalized non-traditional adult learners.

    Institutional Strategies

    Institutions can minimize barriers through simple changes in policies and procedures. For example:

  • financial schedules of institutions and third-party funders need to align to ensure money is available when it is needed (Hyland, R.T., Groen, J., 2011)
  • timelines of courses and programs need to reflect the multiple obligations and responsibilities of students (Hyland, R.T., Groen, J., 2011)
  • remedial courses in language, math, and technologies should be offered (Fincher, M., 2010)
  • tutor services, with appropriately trained tutors, to support concept acquisition; including media literacy support (Gom, O., 2009)
  • a basic orientation of campus, information about policies and practices, and cross-department communication should be offered early and mid-term (Wyatt, L. G., 2011)
  • Classroom and Instructional Strategies Studies repeatedly find that student progress is most impacted by classroom and instructor interactions. Marginalized non-traditional adult learners can be supported in the following ways: The physical classroom environment itself can support learners. Strategies include:

  • A well-decorated, aesthetically pleasing, personalized classroom (Tighe, E. L., Barnes, A. E., Connor, C. M., & Steadman, S. C., 2013)
  • Various materials accessible to students (books, workbooks, technology, desks, tables, etc) (Tighe, E. L., Barnes, A. E., Connor, C. M., & Steadman, S. C., 2013)
  • Comfortable chairs, in-class support faculty (Wyatt, L. G., 2011)
  • Teaching faculty and professionals teaching marginalized non-traditional adult learners need to be:

  • grounded, authentic, and humble (Hyland, R.T., Groen, J., 2011)
  • knowledgeable, supportive, and approachable (Tighe, E. L., Barnes, A. E., Connor, C. M., & Steadman, S. C., 2013).
  • current in adult education theory and best practices.
  • able to create a safe and supportive learning environment; characterized by caring and respectful relationships (teacher-student and student-student), open communication, and sensitivity and awareness of individual student barriers.
  • Curriculum content, delivery and timelines should consider:

  • The use of humanities based curriculum encourages perspective taking and reflective thinking beyond one’s own barriers and challenges. This may serve to contextualize barriers and reduce feelings of “it’s my fault” (Hyland, R.T., Groen, J., 2011).
  • Learning through dialogue (among equals); incorporating the unique experiences of the learners through narrative and story telling personalizes learning and provides relevance and connection with the content (Hyland, R.T., Groen, J., 2011) (Jenkins,H., 2009).
  • Media literacies, including play, simulation, performance, appropriation, multi-tasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, and navigation (Jenkins,H., 2009) need to be taught integrally with content. Media literacies can be addressed through situated practice, overt instruction, critical framing, and transformed practice (The New London Group, 1996).
  • Deadlines need to be flexible.
  • Multiple approaches to learning need to be applied (whole group, small group, workbook/text, individual, one-on-one instruction, technology supported learning, learner centered, etc).
  • Materials should be purpose-developed and of high quality.
  • Motivation To encourage persistence in this population, sources of motivation need to be considered.

  • Self-efficacy needs to be built up through a sense of community, purpose, competence, relevance, and stability (O'Neill, S., & Thomson, M. M., 2013).
  • Ensure the amount of tension and urgency of a deadline matches the importance of the objective (Falasca, M., 2011).
  • Encourage SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) goal setting and tracking (O'Neill, S., & Thomson, M. M., 2013).
  • Learning is viewed as a partnership among equals.
  • Remember that learner and institutional goals may not align.
  • Stop Motion Artifact

    To see more about marginalized non-traditional adult learners, click here


    Batsche, C. (1985). The high school drop out: Vocational education can help. Normal, IL: Illinois State University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 262 213)

    Brown, Lee. (2004). Making the classroom a healthy place: The development of affective competency in aboriginal pedagogy. Department of Educational Studies,University of British Columbia

    Carr-chellman, A. (Ed.) (2005). Global Perspectives on E-Learning: rhetoric and Reality. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage. Lacey, V (2003) CEO - The Learning Partnership, Date created:2003-02-28

    Edyburn,D.L. (2004). Rethinking assistive technology. Special Education Technology Practice, 5(4), 16-23.

    Falasca, M. (2011). Barriers to adult learning: Bridging the gap. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 51(3), 583.

    Fincher, M. (2010). Adult student retention: A practical approach to retention improvement through learning enhancement. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education,58(1), 12-18. doi:10.1080/07377360903552154

    Gom, O. (2009). Motivation and adult learning. Contemporary PNG Studies, 10, 17-25.

    Hall, G. (2004) Teens and technology: Preparing for the future. New directions or youth development. Vol.2006, No.111, pp.41-52.

    Howard, S., Dryden, J. & Johnson,B. (1999). Childhood Resilience:review and critique of literature. Oxford Review of Educatioon, 25(3)

    Hyland-Russell, T., & Groen, J. (2011). Marginalized non-traditional adult learners: Beyond economics1. The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 24(1), 61.

    Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    Levine, B. (2004) Students at Risk: A Review of Research, Prepared for The Learning Partnership, University of Manitoba.

    Means, B., Blando,J.,Olson,K., Middleton, T., Morocco, C.C., Remz, A.R., & Zorfass, J. (1993). Using technnology to support education reform. Wahington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Available on-line:

    Means, B., Chelemer, C., & Knapp, M.S. (Eds.). (1991) Teaching advanced skills to at-risk students: Views from research and practice. San Francisco; Jossey-Bass.

    O'Neill, S., & Thomson, M. M. (2013). Supporting academic persistence in low‐skilled adult learners. Support for Learning, 28(4), 162-172. doi:10.1111/1467-9604.12038

    Riele,Kitty te (2006) 'Youth 'at risk': further marginalizing the marginalized?', Journal of Education Policy, 21:2,129—145

    Romi, Shlomo, Hansenson, Gabriel and Hansenson, Arie (2002) E-Learning: A comparison between Expected and Observed Attitudes of Normative and Dropout Adolescents’, Educational Media International, 39:1, 47-54 To linkn to this article: URL:

    Sampson, R., and Laub, J. (1993). Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Smith, Brian. (2000). Marginalized youth, delinquency, and education: The need for critical interpretive research. The Urban Review, Vol. 32, No. 3

    Teague H, Teacher and Educational Consultant December/January 2004/2005 Connected newsletter Can tech save students technology techniques for at risk learners.

    The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60.

    Tighe, E. L., Barnes, A. E., Connor, C. M., & Steadman, S. C. (2013). Defining success in adult basic education settings: Multiple stakeholders, multiple perspectives. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(4), 415-435. doi:10.1002/rrq.57

    Wyatt, L. G. (2011). Nontraditional student engagement: Increasing adult student success and retention. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 59(1), 10-20. doi:10.1080/07377363.2011.544977