12 Most Practical Ways to Talk to Your College Student About Poor Grades
The caps and tassels are flying. The graduates are high-fiving. The Moms and Dads are beaming. But not every student is celebrating. As a professor who sees college life behind the scenes, not all of our students are regaling. Some are downright suffering because their college classes “didn’t go so hot”—or they downright failed a term… or they are going on academic probation. Students are struggling, panicking, and terrified to let you know what’s going on, Mom and Dad.
If I’m lucky, they tell me. Either as the leader of their classroom, or through my Chatty Professor blog. That’s right. Students tell me that they’re afraid to tell you. And, putting on my other hat as a parent, even my 9-year-old is afraid for her Dad to know that something isn’t going well at school. It’s natural for our kids to worry about disappointing us, but the weight of the secret shouldn’t prevent the important open, tactical grade conversations that could change their academic picture for the better. Here are ways to tackle the difficult talk—with a little college policy mixed in:
1. Say, “Let’s start with the facts.”
Your kid will expect you to wig out, but you’ll surprise her by calmly first asking her to gather facts i.e., is she actually getting all F’s? Or D’s? (yes, there’s a difference). Is she on academic probation? What about the impact on financial aid? Let your student do the legwork so you can all make informed decisions about next steps.
2. “Say, “What do you think led to this outcome?”
You may be fuming, but at this stage, the blame game will only alienate your student. See if he can come up with his own answers about what happened to his academic performance. Try to keep your tone in check since your kid will read your judgmental nonverbals and shut down quickly.
3. “Also discourage your student from saying, “I’m such a failure.”
Just like you aren’t allowed to play the blame game, neither is your student. Tell her that tearing herself down isn’t going to change the result, and will only make her feel worse about herself. She will feel supported by you not letting her beat herself up.
4. Feel free to ask specific questions, such as, “Was the class load too overwhelming?”
Think about what is required for the “business” of college and stick to questions that focus on the process: “Did you struggle with lecture format in your classes?” (learning style issue?); “Did you take the right combination of classes?” (too many complex classes in one term). Any “less than favorable” behaviors or habits are going to spill out in the midst of that conversation anyway.
5. Ask, “What resources did you seek to help you?”
Your student may stare at you blankly on this one. Too many students admit that they go it alone in college when there are a host of support systems in place to help them. So, tell them to whip out their iPad or laptop and go to the college’s website. Have your student locate the tutoring centers, counseling centers, academic advising centers, etc.—and promise to go there. Tomorrow. (Alone).
6. Say, “Let’s take a look at your grades and see where you are.”
Once you have the grades, if your student received all F’s, then he will likely have to retake classes. Discuss if your student might like to do that with the same profs (hey, they’re ahead of the game in some cases) the next term. Or, the student may wish to select different classes. Discuss what your student learned about the financial aid ramification and make sure he is fully aware of the impact—especially if that impact is on your wallet or if it’s going to be on his.
7. Say, “You can average these up in another term.”
If the grades are not F’s, but not B’s or A’s either, then you may want to remember that in some programs, D’s—while not a celebration—do enable a student to pull her credit out of the class. They can be averaged up, of course, with high grades in other classes (and the class could be retaken later). Certainly, how many “poor” grades a transcript can bear depends on your student’s overall goals and the competitiveness of their intended degree program.
8. Say, “Have you checked with your professor to ensure that these grades are correct?”
I’ve been teaching for 14 years. Have I transposed a number or lost a student’s paper? I sure have! This is why a student must self-check grades… always! Sometimes, the prof is missing a student’s assignment that was turned in electronically, but the student doesn’t realize it. Students should always check questionable grades with profs before they walk away from the term. Even if the term is over, it is never too late, and errors can be changed with a form.
9. Say, “Have you checked into academic renewal?”
Academic renewal may not be available at all colleges and may go by other names. The process enables a student to clear out one academic term from his transcript. The caveat is that the whole term is wiped clean—no saving the one “good” grade from P.E. There are strict rules around academic renewal, so a student will want to investigate the policy closely.
10. Say, “Please go talk to your professors—the ones you just had and the ones you will have next term.”
If you empower your student to talk to anyone, your professor should be the #1 stop. Debriefing what went wrong with last term’s professors will help your student identify specific strategies that he can use to improve from someone who witnessed her performance. For next term, creating a perpetual feedback loop with a professor almost always creates better grades for students. I’m not saying all 4.0’s, but improved grades over what would have been otherwise.
11. Say, “In addition to the support that I know you’ll want to put into place at school, what specific ways can I support you?”
Since you didn’t fly off the handle (I know you’re going to punch a pillow later), your student will entrust that he might be able to let you in on his newly created “academic success team.” Find out how your student would like you to serve.
12. Say, “These grades don’t define you. What defines you are the next steps you take. And I believe in your next steps.”
This is just another way of saying, “I love you,” which your college kid knows. Remember that you can also connect with your student by talking about a time that you struggled with your grades, or if you know someone who faced the same issues and overcame them.
As a professor, talking to students about failing or “bad” grades is one of the absolute hardest parts of my job—even without the emotional investment of a familial relationship.
My own children are still in grade school and preschool, but my elementary age child is having academic struggles already. I will have to follow my own advice… and then some… if we are having these same challenges later on. For now, come on over to my side of the desk, and know that through practical and transparent conversations about grades, academic achievement can be enjoyed by your college student and these years can breed a stronger bond with you.
Featured image courtesy of UBC Library licensed via Creative Commons.