When Your College Student’s Class Isn’t Going Well

There are many reasons why your student may struggle in a class.  It may be something that your student is, or isn’t doing.  It may be the professor and/or teaching style.  It may be the subject matter. It may be the transition to college, or to sophomore year, or to upper level classes.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the reason is.  If your student is struggling, or doing poorly in a class, you worry.  You want to help.  Perhaps they should come home more often so you can check progress and their academic planner.  Perhaps you should call them every evening to make sure they are doing homework.  Perhaps you should speak to the professor.  Perhaps you should buy a duplicate set of textbooks so you can consult on the assignments to make sure they understand the material. (True story, it has happened!)  Perhaps you should just pull them out of school.

Wait! It’s time to take a breath.

None of these options is the answer.  You’ll still worry.  There’s really no way to get around that, but your student needs to find their own solutions.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t consult and help your student think through the options.  That’s part of your coaching role.  So here are some options to discuss with your student.

  • Have you analyzed the problem? The first step toward fixing a problem is to have a clear idea of exactly what the problem is. Ask your student to honestly evaluate what the difficulty seems to be.  Is the material difficult to understand?  Is the professor clear in her instruction? Is your student doing everything asked — reading, assignments, outside activities?  Is your student making and checking notes from the reading and in class? Is your student spending enough time working with the material? (This can be one of the biggest issues for new college students to understand.) Once your student has a realistic sense of the cause of their difficulties, they’ll be in a better position to seek a solution.
  • Have you talked to your professor about the problem? Students are often reluctant to go to the professor to discuss their struggles.  They may be afraid that the professor will judge them, or decide they aren’t capable.  They may be nervous about talking to the professor because they are uncomfortable with face-to-face conversations.  Encourage your student to start by talking to the professor about their difficulties.  They should be specific about their problems and ask for help.  Most professors want their students to do well and will offer suggestions.
  • Have you tried shaking up the way you approach the course and the material? Sometimes all it takes is a new approach. It may mean more reading, more time spent.  It may mean finding a new time or place to study.  It may mean taking more notes, spending more time in the lab, trying more practice problems, finding supplementary material from outside sources.  Whatever your student has been doing, they should consider trying a new approach.  It may not work, but it just might help.
  • Have you worked with a tutor? Most colleges have a tutoring center with either professional or peer tutors. These tutors are trained to recognize learning barriers and to help the student understand the material.  Starting early with a tutor and staying consistent can be the difference between failure and success.
  • Have you tried working with other students? If your student is struggling, there’s a good chance that other students in the class may be struggling as well. And then there may also be students who are doing well, but would like to do even better.  Study groups can be an excellent way to pool efforts.  A group of 2-4 students can get together on a regular basis to review material, review notes, teach each other concepts (The best way to learn is to teach something!), and to quiz each other.  Students meet on a regular basis — perhaps weekly — even if no test is coming up.  These sessions reinforce the material and share information.
  • Does the school have a Pass/Fail option, and is there still time to take advantage of it? Many schools offer students the option to take a limited number of courses on a Pass/Fail basis.  Although each school’s policy and deadlines may differ, essentially, students are allowed to take some courses with the option to receive either a Pass (P on the transcript) or Fail basis (unfortunately, and F is just an F).  This means that your student can protect their GPA (Grade Point Average) in a course that they believe they can pass, but with a lower than desired grade by not having the grade count in the GPA.
  • Is there still time to withdraw from the course? In some cases, after your student has tried all of the above solutions, they realize that they simply will not be able to pass the course no matter how hard they try. It happens.  Your student should investigate the deadline and policies for withdrawing from the course.  This usually means that the course will show up on the student’s transcript with a ”W”.  Many students worry about having a ”W” on their transcript, but it does not affect a GPA and is better than an ”F”.  This option should not be overused, but can be a solution when all else fails.

If your student is struggling in one or more classes, your first task may be to reassure them that they are probably not alone and that it may be possible to find a solution that will at least help.  The earlier they begin a careful plan to identify and address the difficulties, the more success they will find.  Your guidance in helping them find their own solutions will be an important step for them — and for you.

Related Articles:

Five Steps to Help Your College Student Turn Around a Poor Semester

Helping Your College Student Avoid “How Do I Tell My Parents?” Fears

Tutoring Can Help Your College Student Succeed: Twelve Reasons to Start Early

Helping Your College Student Be a Better Student: Twelve Questions to Ask


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