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5 questions to ask when your student fails a course

By Amy Baldwin, Ed.D.


Here is a hard truth for parents: Students can and will fail classes when they are in college.

Failing a class sometimes indicates a problem; sometimes it indicates a string of bad luck. Students fail because they make poor choices or because they are not prepared for the amount or level of work needed to succeed. As painful as it may be for your student — and you — failing a course isn't a disaster, especially if your student learns how to deal with challenges more effectively.

What should you do if your student finds themselves with an F on their transcript? Ask the following five questions to find out what happened and what your student can do to prevent another failing grade.

1. What happened?

A key first step is to dig in deep to discover what contributed to the failure. A student who has “no idea how that happened” is a student who lacks the self-awareness necessary to make significant changes. If they truly do not know how it was possible they earned an F, then they need to speak to the professor as soon as possible to discover the reason.

2. What is the consequence?

Many areas of your student’s college experience can take a hit when they fail a course; for example, in addition to academic consequences there may also be financial and psychological impacts. Encourage your student to talk to the financial aid office, their academic advisor, and/or a mental health counselor to talk through the effect a failing course can have on financial aid, a degree plan, and their wellbeing.

3. What changes need to be made?

This is an important question because your student will need to alter habits and behaviors to prevent failing a future course. Do they need to get organized? Do they need to go to tutoring? Do they need to learn how to ask for help even before they think they need it? Guide your student in creating a plan for making these changes.

4. Can your student make these changes on their own?

Take a realistic look. If you and your student think the fix can be quick, then identifying the change that needs to be made and making it will be a snap. However, if you conclude that it will take more time and effort to, for instance, develop solid time management skills, then your student should consider working with an advisor or success coach.

5. What’s next?

Most students will vow never to fail another class, but there may be steps they need to take beyond just making changes to their study routine and in the classroom. Do they need to find out how to keep a scholarship or how to get back on track to complete their degree? Encourage them to use their campus resources to ensure that there are no other unintended consequences.

What to do when your student is in denial

Sometimes a student will insist that there is nothing wrong or act as if they had no idea that they were failing. Here are a few tips if you’re concerned your student isn’t owning the failure:

  • Encourage them to talk with an advisor, counselor, or academic coach. These professionals can get at the heart of the issue with your student and help them develop a plan for making changes.
  • Ask your student to share the course syllabus and graded work with you. Seeing what they see may help you both identify gaps in their understanding of how they are progressing.
  • Coach them in how to predict their final grades. Often simple math will allow your student to see what they need to earn on future assignments to make a certain grade.
  • Determine if there is a deeper issue. In rare cases, there is something deeper that needs to be addressed such as severe anxiety or an undiagnosed learning disability. Talk with a professional or encourage your student to reach out to the appropriate campus resources to find out if they need more intentional, therapeutic help.

Failing a course is not the end of the world and shouldn’t be treated as such. It can indicate a need to change a habit, behavior, or mindset. Helping your student navigate the stress and disappointment will set them up to weather future challenges with more self-awareness and self-reliance.

An F in a course can be a real drag on your student’s GPA.

There are remedies for improving their GPA (Grade Point Average):

    • Retake a course for a grade replacement. Some institutions allow students to retake the same course if they earn a D or F and will replace the original grade with the grade for the second attempt. These policies are called “grade forgiveness” or “course repeat.” They often have restrictions, however, and your student must decide if retaking the course to earn a higher grade is possible or even desirable. When the student earns a higher grade, the institution will keep the original grade on the transcript but will use the new (and higher!) grade in the GPA calculation.
    • Earn more hours. Another way to improve their GPA is to take more credit hours and earn high grades. This isn't the best option because it costs time and money to take more hours than needed to complete a degree, but good grades in the extra classes will boost the GPA.

 

Amy Baldwin is the Director of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas. She is co-author of A High School Parent’s Guide to College Success: 12 Essentials, The College Experience, The Community College Experience, and The College Experience Compact. Amy and her husband are parents of a college sophomore and a high school junior.

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