My College:

First-Year Students and the One Tough Class

Vicki Nelson

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We received a question from a new college parent that we know many readers will relate to, especially at this midway point in the semester.

The question:

I am a first-time college parent with a student attending a private college. My student completed the first major week of tests and was greatly surprised by one of the classes where the professor tested on things that were not in the syllabus, not discussed in class, not in the book or on the study guide. The teacher is a visiting professor filling in for a professor on sabbatical. The class has all freshmen and the teacher struggles to teach the material so the students understand. This is a fundamental class for my student. What is the parent’s role in this situation? So far I’ve just listened and offered advice.

To answer, we reached out to CollegiateParent contributor Vicki Nelson, a longtime higher education and student success expert who teaches at a college in Massachusetts.

Vicki’s response:

Although it's difficult, I’d suggest that the parent not get involved. College officials and faculty are not very sympathetic when they get calls from parents — especially about classroom issues. It sounds as though this parent is serving in exactly the correct role of listening and offering advice.

In such a situation, start by asking your student what they’ve already tried. Then here are some suggestions to share (and this will involve genuine commitment and self-advocacy on your student’s part):

1. Talk to the professor.

Take the syllabus, textbook, lecture notes, test. Be specific about what material on the test doesn’t seem to be included in any of the other sources.

The student’s attitude is important, so rather than complaining about the material on the test, the approach might be to say, “I want to do better and I seem to have missed where I should have gotten this information. What can I do next time to make sure I find and study the material that I need for the test?” Since the professor is filling in, they may not realize that students are missing some basic knowledge.

2. The comment mentions that “the instructor struggles to teach the material so the students understand.”

This might require another visit with the professor — perhaps a couple of students going together. Again, being as specific as possible without being accusative is important. Why aren’t the students able to understand? How does the teacher “struggle?” Does the teacher go too fast, cover too much material, include technical material, lecture too much or not enough? If the students take the attitude that “we want to learn but we’re struggling in class” rather than “you’re not teaching us well,” the instructor may be open to feedback.

3. Form a study group.

Are other students in the class struggling as well? Is the student studying with others or forming a study group? A few students working together might bring different perspectives and different understanding of the material that will help them all.

4. If neither of these approaches seems to help, I’d suggest that the student (or several students) go to the chair of the department to talk.

As with other approaches, rather than going to “complain” about a professor, going with the open attitude that “we want to learn but we’re struggling” will help. The chair may be able to speak to the professor to help the professor understand what the students need or what some issues might be. This is especially important with a visiting instructor who may be used to a different type of student at another institution.

5. Finally, it’s simply a fact that many first semester freshmen struggle in classes.

They haven’t learned enough yet about how to “do college.” Their first tests aren’t good. They aren’t sure how to take notes in class beyond what may be on a Power Point slide. Things that may seem like casual conversation or an aside about the subject may actually be information that they are expected to get. They may not be used to reading college level texts.

So it’s frustrating not to be doing well in a foundational class, and your student should certainly address the situation, but should also understand that the frustration is not uncommon. They can use this experience as a learning situation to build good study skills — and the ability to work with different kinds of professors — for the future.

In all of this, it’s on the student, not the parent.

As uncomfortable as it may be to sit on the sidelines, that’s the appropriate place for a parent. But offering advice can help your student see that they have options for action and aren’t just stuck.

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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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