The term academic support may refer to a wide variety of instructional methods, educational services, or school resources provided to students in the effort to help them accelerate their learning progress, catch up with their peers, meet learning standards, or generally succeed in school. When the term is used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what “academic support” is referring to. The terms support or supports may also be used in reference to any number of academic-support strategies.
In practice, academic support encompasses a broad array of educational strategies, including tutoring sessions, supplemental courses, summer learning experiences, after-school programs, teacher advisors, and volunteer mentors, as well as alternative ways of grouping, counseling, and instructing students. Academic support may be provided to individual students, specific student populations (such as non-English speakers or disabled students), or all students in a school. State and federal policies may require schools to provide academic support to certain student populations, such as identified special-education students, or schools may voluntarily create support programs to address specific performance results or trends, such as large numbers of dropouts, course failures, behavioral problems, etc. While the term academic support typically refers to the services provided to underperforming students, it may be used in reference to “enrichment” programs and more advanced learning opportunities provided to higher-achieving students.
While the design and purpose of academic-support programs may vary widely from school to school, the following are some representative examples of common forms of academic support:
- Classroom-based strategies: Teachers continually monitor student performance and learning needs, and then adjust what they teach or how they teach to improve student learning.
- School-based strategies: Schools create academic-support opportunities during the school day, such as learning labs, to increase the instructional time that academically struggling students receive, while also varying the way that instruction is delivered. For example, if students in a course primarily learn in large or small groups that all work at the same pace, students in a learning lab or other support program might work one-on-one with a teacher and be given more time to practice skills or learn complex concepts.
- After-hours strategies: Schools may provide after-school or before-school programs, usually within the school building, that provide students with tutoring or mentoring, or that help students prepare for class or acquire study skills, for example.
- Outside-of-school strategies: Community groups and volunteer-based learning programs, often working in partnership with local public schools, may provide a variety of programs, such as reading programs for young children, that are connected to what students are learning in school.
- Vacation-break strategies: Strategies such as summer school or “summer bridge programs” may be created to help students catch up (if they fell behind during the previous year) or prepare for the next grade (if there are concerns they might struggle academically or drop out of high school). Similar support programs and learning opportunities may be provided during vacation breaks in the fall, winter, and spring.
- Technology-assisted strategies: Schools may use digital and online learning applications, such as visual simulations or gamed-based learning, to help students grasp difficult concepts, or teachers may use course-management programs that allow them to archive course materials and communicate with students online. These options may be self-directed by students or overseen by teachers, or they may be provided during the school day or they may allow students to work from home at their own pace.
In addition to the various support settings and delivery methods described above, academic support may also have a specific educational focus or goal. A few representative examples:
- Relationship-based support: In schools, strategies such as teaming or advisories may be used to build stronger and more understanding relationships between teachers and students. The general idea is that students will be better served and more effectively taught if teachers know students well and understand their distinct learning needs, interests, and aspirations.
- Skill-based support: In some cases, schools may decide to create a literacy program, for example, that provides all students with more concentrated instruction, practice, and guidance in reading, writing, and communicating. The support may be provided during regular classes, during the school day, or after regular school hours. Support that focuses on math skills or technological literacy are two other common examples.
- Needs-based support: Many or most forms of academic support are based on identified learning needs, and schools will provide supplemental or intensive instruction, practice, and guidance to students who are struggling academically or who have specialized needs—these can include students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or developmental disabilities; students who are learning English or cannot speak English; students who recently immigrated to the United States, or students who are performing academically or developing intellectually well below or above the expectations for their age or grade level.
For a related discussion, see expanded learning time.
The provision of some form of academic support to students is typically one of the principal goals of most contemporary school-reform efforts, since the general intent of these strategies is to improve the performance of schools, the effectiveness of teachers, and the learning of students—and increasing the amount of “support” students receive, in whatever form, is one of the main ways schools can improve the educational achievement, aspirations, and attainment of students. From school to school, however, what specifically constitutes “academic support” may not only vary widely in design and execution, but schools may perceive or interpret both the purpose and obligations of academic support in significantly different ways.
For example, one school may provide only a few support options, such as an after-school program and tutoring services, while another school might have been entirely restructured to provide ongoing academic support, both inside and outside the classroom, to all students throughout the school year and over the course of the summer. In the first case, the school may view academic support as something that is “added on” to an academic program and that is provided only upon request or in response to clear evidence of need. Unless school regulations require the provision of academic support, a student, parent, or guardian may be seen as having the primary responsibility for requesting support services. Teachers are responsible for teaching courses and helping students succeed in those courses, but other forms of academic support and guidance are the responsibility of counselors, support specialists, and parents.
In the second example, the school may have an entirely different philosophy. Academic support might be considered a fundamental, inextricable component of an effective school that should to be provided to every student and integrated in some way into every course, learning experience, and student-teacher relationship. In this case, administrators, teachers, counselors, and other staff members would assume responsibility for providing the academic support students need to succeed regardless of whether parents request additional support or whether state and federal policies obligate the school to provide supplemental services. For teachers, providing academic support to students is part of their daily professional responsibilities, and the school may create the necessary conditions that allow teachers to provide that support by modifying schedules, adjusting workloads, or offering specialized training. In fact, many reform strategies, initiatives, and debates hinge on these two general approaches to “support” and fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two philosophical poles.
The collection and analysis of academic-performance data is another relevant feature of academic support that intersects with school reform. In recent decades, districts and schools have been placing an increasing emphasis on evidence-based reform strategies, leadership decisions, and student support. The general idea is that by analyzing school data, reading academic studies, or conducting action research schools can more precisely determine their programmatic and instructional weaknesses, and then develop more focused and effective ways to improve those weaknesses.
In addition, state and federal policies also affect the kinds of academic support provided in schools. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, for example, a student with a disability is defined as having intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments, speech or language impairments, visual impairments, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities. For children ages three through nine, based on the discretion of state and local education agencies, the definition of a disability can include any child who is experiencing delays in physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development. In public schools, various forms of specialized academic, emotional, and social support and services are provided to students who meet the criteria outlined in educational regulations.