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Shortcomings in support for low-achieving students

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Low-achieving students feel that they are mostly offered simplified tasks that lower expectations rather than supportive measures that raise their grades to pass level. This is shown in a questionnaire encompassing 1,700 students.

Under Sweden’s Education Act, all low-achieving students, that is, students who have trouble achieving the expected proficiency in a subject, are to be additional support to help them to cope with their schoolwork. Despite this, one in four students leaves compulsory education without passing all their subjects.

To investigate what support students feel that they receive, Alli Klapp at the University of Gothenburg and Anders Jönsson at Kristianstad University distributed a questionnaire to which more than 1,700 students in year 9 at 79 different schools responded. The students were asked to answer a wide range of questions about their attitudes towards school and the support they receive from teachers in science studies.

One clear finding is that low-achieving students feel that they receive support. However, the support they receive is what the researchers refer to as simplifying support. This means that the teacher lowers the bar, such as by allowing low-achieving students to conduct simpler tasks. This differs from 'scaffolding', which entail the teacher helping low-achieving students to complete the same tasks as the other students in the class.

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Portrait of Alli Klapp.
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“The consequences of simplified tasks include the students not being given the same opportunities to learn, since the bar is set lower and the tasks are easier, and not building their academic confidence, since they don’t feel that they’re truly succeeding,” says Alli Klapp, associate professor at the Department of Education and Special Education at the University of Gothenburg.

Girls and students at schools with low socioeconomic status receive inferior support

The researchers have also analysed the responses to the questionnaire in relation to background factors such as gender, parents’ level of education and the school attended. One clear finding is that students at schools with high socioeconomic status receive better support.

“The major difference is that students attending schools with a high percentage of well-educated parents felt to a lesser extent that the support they received was what we refer to as simplifying support. This is interesting for several reasons, such as because while the students’ attitudes towards school and the difficulties they experience do not differ between the schools, their experience of the support offered does,” says Anders Jönsson, a professor at the Department of Educational Sciences at Kristianstad University.

Yet another clear finding is that it is mostly boys who receive good individual support.

“It’s mostly boys who feel that they receive scaffolding regardless of whether they are low or high achieving. Our study and others indicate that low-achieving girls do not receive the support that they feel they need in school,” says Anders Jönsson.

Scaffolding that helps the student

In contrast to simplifying support, the researchers look at the concept of scaffolding. This entails the school implementing supportive measures that provide low-achieving students with the opportunity to complete the same tasks as everyone else in the classroom. Low-achieving students are thereby given the same opportunity to learn as the other students, as well as to build their academic confidence.

“Academic confidence is, in turn, also important as it affects the students’ motivation and willingness to face new challenges. Low academic confidence can result in the students tending to avoid challenges, to avoid failure, but this also means that they don’t learn very much,” says Alli Klapp.

Scaffolding or simplifying: students’ perception of support in Swedish compulsory school
  • The article “Scaffolding or simplifying: students’ perception of support in Swedish compulsory school” is published in the academic journal European Journal of Psychology of Education.
  • The questionnaire was sent to 5,203 students in year 9 in a larger Swedish city. 1,731 responded. They were attending 79 different schools.
  • The questions covered attitudes towards school and the support received in sciences studies.
  • The responses were compared on the basis of low-achieving and high-achieving, gender, parents’ educational background and the type of school attended.