Obviously, grades are a big part of the college experience. Students attend college for many reasons, but classroom experiences, and the grades that go along with those experiences, are an important measure of college outcomes. Some students seem to care more than others about their grades, but all college students know that they matter. Families, too, differ in how they view college grades. Some parents are anxious to hear about every test or paper; others may not be interested in grades as long as they are passable.
Starting a conversation with your son or daughter about grades may be completely natural for some parents and more awkward for others. But talking to your student about their grades is important. Don’t take them for granted or assume that all is well if you don’t hear anything. Remember that in college, grades go to the student rather than parents. Your student has ultimate responsibility for their grades, but it is reasonable for you to ask to talk about them. This is especially important if your college student is a new college student in their first or second semester. Help your student consider what their grades may mean and what they can learn from them.
Here are a few suggestions to help you with that all important discussion about semester grades.
- If possible, establish even before the semester begins that you expect to see and discuss grades at the end of the term. This way, when you ask to see them later, it is a natural outcome of your earlier agreement. You are not “checking up”, but following through on an expectation already established.
- Set a careful tone when you ask to talk about grades. You are not going to make judgments, but rather help your student use grades as a measure of progress, to keep track of accomplishments or difficulties, and to understand and interpret what grades might mean.
- Take time for a real discussion. A “How are your grades?” in passing will probably get a “Fine” in response. Set aside a time when you both have at least a few minutes for a real conversation.
- Remember that first semester grades for new students are often lower than expected. They will probably be lower than high school, and the first semester is a time of tremendous transition for most students. Keep these grades in perspective. This doesn’t mean that you should dismiss them, but don’t panic if they do not look like high school grades.
- Don’t take good (or great) grades for granted. Congratulate your student on high grades and remind them that you recognize that good grades are usually the result of hard work and successful transitions.
- Look at the entire picture provided by grades. Are they generally good with one bad grade? That may indicate a particularly difficult subject (not all students do well in all subjects), a particularly difficult professor, or some other special circumstance. This is very different than grades that are all low. Don’t dwell on one low grade.
- Do help your student try to honestly evaluate one, or several, poor grades. What happened? What might they do differently next time? Ask about lessons learned. Insist on honesty from your student. Insist on accountability. How will your student change things next time around?
- Help your student understand that the purpose of good grades is not to please you, but to accomplish the learning necessary to do well in college. Although there is often a vast difference between grades and actual learning, overall, grades are seen as an indicator of classroom success. Your student needs to accomplish their goals educationally, not worry about pleasing you.
- Help your student look for patterns. Are they receiving good grades only in their major? Are poor grades all in early morning classes, evening classes, once a week classes? Does your student do better in classes with many papers or many tests? Finding these patterns may help your student address issues next semester.
- Help your student evaluate the meaning of each grade. Students know that in some classes an “A” is easily earned, and in other classes a “C” may be an indication of an outstanding student. It will help your student to think about what they did, or didn’t, do to earn a particular grade.
- If your student’s grades have taken them by surprise, help them think about how they can get a better indication earlier next semester. Have they met with professors during the term? Did they get midterm grades? Have they kept all papers or tests? Although students often have a large portion of their grade riding on a final exam or paper, they should have some indication earlier in the term about how things are going.
- Help your student consider next semester in light of the information grades give them about this semester. Should they consider changes to their schedule? Should they repeat a class? Did they do poorly in a prerequisite class that indicates that they are not ready for the next level? A conversation with their academic advisor may help your student put these questions in perspective.
- Help your student consider their grades in the context of the entire college experience. If your student has wonderful grades but does nothing but study, they may be missing out on some advantages of the college experience. If grades are poor because your student parties several nights a week, they haven’t found balance. If grades are moderate, but your student is involved in important activities or taking on leadership roles, they may be gaining many advantages outside of the classroom and gathering important resume experiences. The entire picture is important.
- Help your student use their grades to think about a plan of action and strategy moving forward. How are they still feeling about a choice of major? Are they motivated to do well? Are grades an indication that they need some time off? Does your student need help with study skills, time management, note taking? Are they putting in the time necessary to do well? Grades are only one indication of success, but they can provide important clues about areas for improvement.
- Help your student investigate support services that may be available on campus to help next semester. Sometimes, just resolving to do better is not enough. Help your student turn a resolution or goal into an action plan.
A discussion with your student about grades may be exciting for both of you, or may be a difficult conversation, but it is an important exchange to have. As a parent, you will need to find the delicate balance between supporting your student and cheering them on, and making expectations clear and asking for accountability.
It is important for both you and your student to remember that you are on the same team. You both want your student to succeed, but the ownership of the process belongs to your student. You can help your student use grades as indicators of success or areas for improvement, you can help your student understand the importance of grades, you can encourage your student to take advantage of all support available, and then you will need to allow your student to move forward on their own. That balance of support, congratulations, expectations, and insistence is not easy, but will help your student grow.