5 questions to ask when your student fails a courseAmy Baldwin, Ed.D.
No one sets out expecting to fail. But we all fail.
Sometimes it’s a minor failure — a mere bump in the road — and sometimes it’s a failure of epic proportions, shifting our perspectives and our plans. Many of the world’s most successful people point to their failures as important lessons, the stepping stones that helped them to get where they are. But it is hard to remember that when failure is staring you in the face.
Each semester, after grades are submitted, colleges review students’ progress. Many students fail a single class or even two. But the college is looking carefully for those students who may have struggled in multiple classes — failing or achieving very low grades. Most schools have a threshold for what they consider “good academic standing,” often a C average (2.0 on a 4 point scale). Students who fall below that threshold, or who have completed too few credits during a semester because they have dropped or withdrawn from several classes, may be placed on Academic Probation or Academic Warning.
Academic Probation is a serious step on the part of the college and is intended to serve as a wake-up call. Students on probation may lose scholarship funds and are often ineligible for varsity athletics while on this status. Federal guidelines regarding Satisfactory Academic Progress have tightened the requirements around federal financial aid while on probationary status.
Students placed on probation are expected to take some steps to improve their situation or they may be subject to dismissal. Some schools require students to meet regularly with an advisor or to attend academic skills classes or study halls. Students usually have a set timeframe, generally one semester, to remove themselves from probationary status or risk being dismissed.
Some schools review students each semester, and others review students only once a year in the spring. Schools may place students on Academic Warning, giving them a semester to raise their GPA before placing them on Academic Probation. Academic Warning may not carry sanctions or requirements.
Academic Probation is an uncomfortable situation, but it can be turned around. It requires your student’s motivation, plan of action, and commitment to change.
Most of us like to think that our students can talk to us about anything that may be bothering them — and many students do just that. But many students also worry about how to tell their parents and supporters about a failure. Your student may worry about how you will react, and this worry adds to an already difficult time. This concern about sharing bad news may be especially acute in close families. Our students don’t want to disappoint us.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, is a federal law protecting the privacy of educational records. When students turn 18 or start college, rights that previously belonged to parents/guardians transfer to the student. Unless your student has signed a waiver, FERPA rules apply to all information regarding grades and academic standing. Information about your student’s grades and standing will be communicated directly with your student, not with you. In a nutshell, it is up to your student to share this information with you.
When sharing the news, your student will be observing your tone and attitude as well as hearing your words. They will take cues from you as they determine how much to share. Take a deep breath before responding. If you feel you need more time, ask for it. “I need time to process what you’ve just told me; can we talk again in a little while?”
Be honest in sharing your feelings and concerns, but remember that this is not the time for a lecture. There is probably not much you can say right now that your student hasn't already thought about. This is the moment to listen more than you talk. There will be time for discussion later.
Help your student think about what they can and cannot change to produce a different outcome as they move forward. Remind them that your support right now doesn't necessarily mean endorsement of the decisions or actions that led to the situation. Articulate clear expectations and clear limits if you have them. A failure marks a moment — now it is time to think about what can or can’t be changed, what options are available, and to find ways to make a new start and move on.
Remembering that this is your student’s wake-up call and that this is your student’s situation to address, not yours, here are some questions you might ask to provide some guidance.
Once you have helped your student consider some of these questions, remember that the work of coming off of probation is up to them. Your understanding can help provide the support they need to succeed, but it is not your task to monitor progress. As difficult as it may be, it is time to step back rather than to lean in.