Many college students, even the best college students, struggle at one time or another. It may be a difficult time for the student, it may be a difficult subject for the student, or there may be a teaching/learning style issue with the instructor. Whatever the reason for the difficulty, it is often hard for a parent to watch a student struggle. Parents may feel helpless and may want to step in to help. Parents can be helpful, as always, by being supportive. However, they can also be helpful by encouraging their student to address any difficulties. By encouraging your student to take some action, you are sending him the message that you believe that he can take charge of what is happening in his life.
The first and best place for the student to begin dealing with the issue of academic difficulty is to talk to his instructor. Students and their professors have the same goal: the student’s success. This involves a shared responsibility. A conversation with the instructor is a good way to explore the problem and begin to formulate a solution. Most difficulties only get worse when they are ignored or when there is no communication.
Although e-mail is a convenient, and often ideal, form of communication, if your student is having difficulty in a class a face-to-face conversation with the professor may be more productive. It allows for more interchange between student and professor, and it will help the professor get to know your student better and the student the opportunity to get to know her professor.
Most professors have office hours set aside each week for meeting with students. Making an appointment is a good idea. It allows the professor to prepare for the meeting by reviewing the student’s work and/or to think about some options. Encourage your student to e-mail the professor to ask for an appointment, call to ask for an appointment, or stop the professor briefly before or after class to ask for an appointment. If your student’s schedule conflicts with the instructor’s office hours, most professors will make arrangements to meet at an alternate time.
Once your student has made arrangements for an appointment with the professor, she should give some thought to how she can make best use of the time. Although it may work for her to arrive and say to the professor, “I’m having trouble in your class”, that may not be enough information to be truly helpful. The following are some suggestions which you might pass on to your student to help make the meeting most productive.
- Be prepared. Gather your tests, papers, notes. Take the syllabus with you. Think about what you want – and need.
- Be specific in pinpointing the problem. Are you having difficulty understanding the material? Getting notes down in class? Do you think you understand the material but not do well on tests? Do you have difficulty understanding assignments? Understanding the textbook? The more specific you can be in describing your problem, the more the professor can help to address the problem.
- Be honest. Don’t make up excuses. Don’t lie about problems or study time or doing assignments. If you want help with problems, the instructor needs to understand the real problems.
- Start early. Don’t wait until the end of the semester to ask for help. Don’t wait until the day before a major test or exam. If you have a hint that trouble is brewing, get in to talk to the professor early.
- Ask for your professor’s advice on how to move forward. The point of a meeting with the professor should be to address the problem and discuss options. This is the time to jointly plan strategies for success. Discuss options available: Is tutoring available and recommended? Can the professor help you form a study group? Are lectures or powerpoint slides available on line? Will the professor accept an early draft of a paper for review?
- Ask for clarification of anything confusing. Make sure that you understand what the professor is suggesting. Write it down.
- Leave with an action plan. Know what you need to do next. Will you find a tutor, read the text differently, do an extra assignment, study differently or different material? Be ready to move forward.
- Thank the professor for working with you. You have now established a valuable connection.
Communication with a student’s college professors is often one key to success. However, because the communication needs to be between the student and the professor, parents often feel helpless. As a college parent, you can be an important source of encouragement and guidance for your student if she is struggling. Help her learn the skill of being her own advocate by being clear, specific, open to suggestion and by taking action. These skills will benefit her throughout her life.