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Is Your College Student Struggling Academically?

Suzanne Shaffer

As the parent of a new college student, you hope that the academic groundwork and study habits they developed in high school will serve them well in college. By the time winter break rolls around, they should be used to the rigors of college coursework, confident and thriving.


Unfortunately, if understandably, many first-year students struggle. College is a challenging, distraction-packed new environment without parent supervision to help with routines and time management. It’s tempting to use free time to socialize instead of study. Tempting to give up when receiving a poor grade. Easy to become frustrated and overwhelmed.

Upperclassmen can struggle, too, especially sophomores and especially at this point late in the fall term when the workload seems to increase exponentially while the days get shorter, colder and darker.

When students feel most vulnerable, they often turn to their parents and other family members. Home is a safe space where they can count on loving support and sympathy.

Perhaps you've sensed the struggle and have been waiting for this call. Naturally you want to help. Rachel Nelson, an academic adviser at the University of Florida, told the Washington Post that she recommends parents be supportive but also stay open-minded. “Too often, students feel familial pressure and guilt to pursue certain majors, earn certain grades. Recognize that their journey to success and happiness may be very different from your own. And that’s okay.”

Start by listening. Ask questions before offering advice. Once you understand the problem, help your student by sharing some practical tips.

Talk to the professor.

Professors and instructors are available to help. They want to help! Your student should reach out by visiting the professor during office hours and discussing their questions or problems. Professors are happy to review material with students, give guidance about how to tackle a project or prepare for an exam, and should be able to provide information about tutoring.

Making the effort to develop a relationship with their professor will also communicate a willingness to take ownership of a problem and do what's needed to improve, and this may influence a professor’s opinion of your student in a positive way that could contribute to leniency when grades are submitted.

My daughter experienced this while in college. She was struggling with a non-major course and more than halfway through the semester it looked like she might fail the class. After meeting with her professor, he arranged to get her tutoring help before the final exam and was generous with her final grade. She passed the course and gained a mentor. Being proactive saved her from having to retake the class the following semester.

Talk to an academic advisor.

Academic advisors are an essential resource. They can help your student come up with a plan to better manage their course load or provide tips on doing well in a certain professor’s class. Your student's advisor might also be able to provide your student with names or contacts to form a study group.

If it reaches the point where dropping a class is wiser than failing a course, the advisor can help.

Seek help at the tutoring center.

Colleges know students will require academic support. The campus tutoring center (it may also be called the "writing center" and there may be a math/quantitative center, too) is part of what you pay for in your tuition and fees, and your student should take advantage of all the services offered.

Your student can make an appointment with a peer or professional tutor to receive help with a specific course or subject area. There may also be workshops to help with time management and study skills.

Form a study group.

The tutoring center should also be able to help line your student up with a study group. Or your student can take initiative and form one with students in their class or with some of their dormmates who are taking the same course. Study groups will help your student stay accountable and provide encouragement if they are struggling. Sometimes a classmate can explain something in a way that makes more sense than the lecture notes, and the moral support found in a team effort is also worth a lot.

Manage their time more wisely.

The choices your student makes every day in college impacts their academic performance. If they're not doing well in one or more classes, chances are poor time management is a contributing factor.

They can still turn things around. And this isn't rocket science! They just need to follow these simple time management suggestions:

  • Write everything down. Your student won’t miss important deadlines or exam dates if they are written down either in Google calendar, in a time management app, or in an actual planner.
  • Prioritize. Make a to-do list at the start of every day and put the most pressing items at the top.
  • Differentiate between academic and personal time. Study time should be study time; social time should be social time. Neither should interfere with the other.
  • Balance schoolwork and employment. If your student works part-time, it’s crucial that they schedule work and study time, keeping a balance.
  • Value sleep. Your student won’t do well academically if they aren’t getting enough sleep daily.
  • Don’t overcommit. Extracurriculars are an important part of the college experience but overcommitting can have a negative effect on academics.

Remember that, more than anything, your student needs your love and support. The transition from high school academics to college courses can be difficult, but with a little advice and a lot of encouragement, they are sure to settle in and excel.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been highlighted on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College and TeenLife online and she has written for Smart College Visit, College Focus, Noodle Education and Road2College. Her articles have also been featured in print in TeenLife, UniversityParent and CollegiateParent publications.

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