Skip to main content

Surface Signals and Underlying Causes

Surface signals are often the outward manifestation of an underlying cause.

Common Surface Signals in At-Risk Students

A teacher advising and talking to a student.

Faculty and employees can watch for some of these common surface signals that may indicate that a student is at higher risk of poor academic and professional performance:

  • Low attendance or consistent tardiness in class or at work
  • Missing assignments or late project submissions
  • Low exam or assignment scores in class
  • Unusually low-quality work
  • Little interest in class discussions and lectures
  • Lack of engagement with co-workers and supervisors
  • Negative comments in class or in written assignments
  • Negative comments at work or through email

After noticing surface signals in students, employees are encouraged to meet with them. Students who have developed genuine relationships with employees and faculty are more likely to openly discuss the underlying causes that may be affecting them.

Common Underlying Causes in At-Risk Students

The following list includes some of the most common, but not all, underlying causes for at-risk student behavior:


Students who have disabilities, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, may struggle in the classroom and at work.

Mental Health

Students who have depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns may struggle with class assignments, tests, and attendance.

Mentors should not attempt to diagnose students. There are many resources available for students who struggle with mental health.

Working more than 20 hours a week

Students who work more than twenty hours per week may not have sufficient time to complete assignments, study, or attend class regularly.

Part-time Students

Students who take a part-time load of classes may not have time to dedicate their full attention to their studies. Often, work, family, or other responsibilities take priority in their lives.

Difficulties with Financial Obligations

Students who struggle with finances often report financial issues as one of the primary reasons for dropping out.

First-generation College Student

Research shows that first-generation college students are at greater risk of dropping out. Lack of financial or family support and general unfamiliarity with the demands of college life can become overwhelming for these students.

Feelings of Isolation

Students can often feel isolated from their family, roommates, classmates, and peers. Although peer connections can encourage students to stay at the university, negative peer relationships and isolation can cause students to drop out.

Early or Non-returned Missionary

Students who return early from their mission due to physical, emotional, or spiritual reasons or students who have not served a mission may feel isolated from the culture at BYU-Idaho.

“I’m not college material” Mindset

Some students have a difficult time transitioning from high school, a mission, or a break from school to university-level academics. It’s common for these students to feel like they are failing as they struggle to balance homework loads, class expectations, and other financial and social responsibilities.

Declared Major Concerns

Students who are unsure if they are in the right major may struggle with feeling passion for their current courses and may experience anxiety and stress.