Low Grades? Here’s What You Should You Do

In my almost 30 years of teaching I am sorry to say that almost every class (especially the large classes I have taught) has had at least one student who failed the course or did really poorly. This is a real drag because it is almost always the case that this student could have avoided failing if he or she had taken some important early action.

Before getting to what action you should take if you are doing poorly, let me first say that as a faculty member there is only so much I can do to move a student forward in my classes. Thus, how you do in a class is mostly up to you. For example, if you decide (for whatever reason) not to study you are likely not going to do well. Or if you think that you can blow off class, the chances of catching up and getting on top of class material is slim. I will add that you can always take a chance and see what happens if you do not study or stop going to class, but I find it hard to believe that you really want to play these odds.

bubblesheet-986935_1280With the above in mind, what should you do if you find that you are really struggling in a class? Here are several pieces of advice:

1) Be realistic about your situation. It is critical that you understand that there is a problem, and that it needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. The option of waiting is typically not going to work for you. Too often I have had students who are doing poorly, and think that things will just turn around on the next exam. In most cases, things do not turn around and these students continue to fall further behind.

2) Determine the cause of your poor performance. There are a number of factors that may be leading to your difficulty in a class. I feel it is best to initially sit down on your own and assess what might be the problem. For example, are you doing poorly because you simply do not study enough? Remember, the unwritten rule of most faculty members is that you are expected to put in 3 hours of work for every 1 credit hour you are taking. Yes, that means 9 hours outside of class for a 3 credit-hour class! Other factors impacting your performance might include your (a) not going to class; (b) not understanding the material; (c) having too many obligations (number of courses, employment, relationships, family, activities); and (d) having mental health issues (e.g., depression, anxiety).

3) Determine if there are changes you can make on your own to improve your class situation. It would be nice and simple if you determine that you are not studying enough for a class, because then you might just have to study more. This is easier said than done, but at least you can work on a study schedule that can get you back on track (for tips on setting up a study schedule go to: https://beginnersguidetocollegesuccess.com/2016/01/20/dont-delay-set-up-a-study-schedule/). Likewise, if you are not going to class, go to class!

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4) For some issues you will need help from others (aside from the instructor). This help can come in many forms. For example, if you are having trouble understanding the material, you could meet with other students to go over class notes. You might also want to get a tutor. At some schools tutors may be free and centrally located, but you might have to do a little searching to find a tutor who can help you out. In my experience, tutors are great and can often be a game changer as far as your performance in class. Another person who may be able to help you out is a graduate teaching assistant, if your class has one of these. You might also talk to your academic advisor to see if they can offer you some guidance, especially with regard to directing you toward certain resources (academic and otherwise) on campus. Finally, if you are having mental health concerns you will need to seek out a mental health clinic on campus to get professional help.

5) No matter what, you should talk to your Instructor. In my opinion, it is extremely important to touch base with your Instructor about your situation. Regardless of what you are thinking it is likely the case that your Instructor will be in your corner, and they ill do whatever they can to help you do better in the course. This might include going over material or giving you advice on how to study. The key is that if you say nothing, your Instructor (who will ultimately give you a grade) will be in the dark about your situation. Keep in mind, however, that you should avoid thinking that your Instructor is going to offer you extra credit or discard certain low grades—this is probably unlikely.

6) Consider dropping the course. Even if you do all of the above, you might still need to drop the course. You may be in a situation where the benefits of dropping the course (e.g., more time to devote to other classes) far exceed the cost of staying in the course (e.g., a failing grade). Check out my blog post about dropping a course (https://beginnersguidetocollegesuccess.com/?s=drop+course).

I hope this information helps you think about your situation when things are not going so well. Good luck!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

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Dropping a Course: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

One of the toughest decisions you might have to face in college is whether to drop a course or not. The fact that you have this choice makes clear that college is a time when you have a lot more say over your education than in the past (e.g.., you can’t just drop courses in high school). However, it also shows that as you go through colleges there seem to be more and more decisions you need to make.

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Why would consider dropping a course? Believe it or not there are many possible reasons for dropping a course and they really range quite a bit in the circumstances surrounding the course you are in:

          You don’t like the Instructor 
          You feel the course is not meeting your expectations (e.g., too hard)
          You are not doing well in the course
          You are spending too much time on this course
          You are feeling stressed and anxious because of the course
          You have had significant life changes and can’t spend time on the course

Regardless of the reason, I feel it is very important that ultimately it is you who takes the responsibility for making the decision about dropping or not. Sure you should talk to others about your situation—an advisor, friends, family members, and/or the Instructor–but in the end you must be the person who decides to stay or go. Also, do not think that if you drop the course that it indicates some weakness on your part. To the contrary, this decision is a sign of strength, that you realized something was wrong and you took steps to deal with the situation and move forward with your college career.

As you consider your decision, here are a number of critical questions to think about:

1) If you drop the course, can you take it later? When you take a course you typically need it to fulfill some requirement. But, dropping a course does not mean you cannot take it another semester. If you need the course, check with your advisor and see when it will be offered again. It is likely that the course will be offered soon and you can retake the course with a better outcome.

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2) Should you just hang in there and hope that things will get better? In some cases this might be a worthwhile strategy. Perhaps you had a something relatively minor come up that set you back and you can overcome this “hiccup in the road” with renewed effort. However, this can be a risky strategy and all the work in the world may not overcome certain factors that indicate you should drop. For example, if you feel that you do not mesh with the Instructor’s teaching style it is probably best to drop and move on. It is unlikely the Instructor is going to change their style to suit you any time soon.

3) What are the financial implications of dropping the course? Now this gets a little more complicated because there are two issues to keep in mind: tuition costs and financial aid

a) Tuition costs. Most colleges have you pay tuition for a range of full-time credit hours. For example, you pay the same amount for taking 12-15 credit hours. Therefore, if you are taking 15 credit hours and you drop a 3 credit hour course, your tuition payment will not be affected. In this case, dropping a course is not going to set you or your parents back any money.

 b) Financial aid. For certain types of financial aid you must be taking a certain number of credit hours. Thus, if you drop a course you might fall below the threshold and potentially lose your financial aid—not good! For other types of financial aid, dropping a course is tied to financial aid dates. These dates indicate what percentage of financial aid you will lose—dropping early in the semester penalizes you less than dropping later in the semester.

4) Will your transcript reflect dropping a course? Maybe—it all depends on dates again. Whether you know it or not, there is an academic calendar at every college that indicates the deadlines for when certain things must get done, including dropping courses. For example, colleges allow you a short grace period at the start of each semester (typically a few days or a week) where you are allowed to drop a course and that course will not even appear on your transcript. However, as the semester moves on the “penalty” for dropping gets a bit tougher. This may include a grade of “W” (for withdraw) appearing on your transcript. Ultimately, there is a date where you basically cannot drop a course (and must accept the grade you are going to get) unless you have extenuating circumstances (e.g., an extended illness). The bottom line is to know your drop dates!

5) Does having a “W” on my transcript hurt my chances to be accepted to graduate or professional school or to get a job offer? Again, it depends. A student may worry that a “W” grade on a transcript will indicate to others that they were lazy or not able to deal with difficult material. However, it is typically the case that a “W” on a transcript does not give any indication for why a student dropped a particular course. Thus, a faculty member could infer something negative about a student who has a “W”, but it would be an inference with no actual evidence. Let me add this to hopefully make you feel better–in my 28 years as a professor, sitting on admissions committees every year, I never heard a colleague suggest not accepting a student because they had a “W” grade.

As you can see, dropping a course is not a very simple process. It requires a lot of thinking and ultimately a difficult decision on your part. However, with the help of others (especially your advisor) I am confident you will make the right choice.