Dear 100 Hour Board,
Have any of you failed a class? What do you wish your teacher had done to help you?
See, some crazy person has made me a teacher and, in trying to be a better one, I want to understand how best to reach out to the one or two students a semester who fail my class. (I teach a required GE at BYU that most freshmen take during their first year.) Since I'm a grad student, my classes are small enough that I'm in a position to help individual students if I can, and if they'll let me. What's the best way to do that?
These students are always plenty bright, but they usually stop doing their work or attending class (or both) about a third of the way into the semester. I don't take personal umbrage at it or anything - I just don't know how to relate to them. Academics have always been my strong point, so it's hard for me to fathom why they resign themselves to failing a class they're paying tuition to take.
Specifically, here are things I'm wondering if you can tell me about your own experience:
- Why did you fail your class? (This is a totally non-judgy question. This is me sincerely wondering what kinds of obstacles my students may face.)
- Did your teacher try to talk about it with you? Did that work, or did it just drive you away?
- Is there anything your teacher could have done differently to help you pass the class?
- Even if you don't think your teacher could have done anything differently to help you pass, could they have done anything differently to help you cope with whatever you were going through?
Once a student starts to look like they're going to fail, I try to talk to them and work out a solution that will keep them afloat if they start doing the work. But so far, no student I've had that conversation with has actually passed the class. I'm wondering if there's a better solution.
I hope this question doesn't come off as judgmental. Really, I just want to increase my empathy for the kids who struggle with this and get some pointers on how to be most useful to them. Readers, if you've failed a class, I'd also welcome your input - I'll keep an eye on the Board Comment Board.
Dear Heidi Book,
I love this question. Also you.
Failing a class, or withdrawing from multiple classes, was never part of my plan, and I don't think it's something anyone shoots for. As such, I didn't know how to handle it when it happened. I did really well in high school (despite constantly procrastinating things) and assumed that would continue in college. And it did... until it didn't. The writers below address your questions more specifically, so I'm just gonna share some thoughts.
I think a key for the student and teacher is setting a good stage and intervening early. I really like when professors include information about CAPS, the UAC, and Academic Advisement in their syllabus and also humanize them during syllabus day, and I wish more teachers talked about them. These are preventative measures that can stop local issues from becoming global upsets in a student's life. (Of course, people might be like me and not use them until they absolutely have to, but I don't recommend that path.)
It's also been really helpful to me when my professors made it clear that they, too, were human and dealt with things out of their control. I have two examples of this:
1) I can't remember if I've told you this story already, but I'll write it here anyway just in case: I took a methodology class at 8 AM from a nearly-retired professor in the first semester that things got really hard. It was rough to begin with, and then I started taking medication that made me drowsy in the morning and I fell asleep every single class period. I tried all the tricks: bringing food, sitting close to the front, doing leg lifts—anything to keep me awake. But I couldn't fight it. After a bit of this I went to talk with the professor.
Looking back, I don't know what I wanted to convey or what I wanted from him to say or do. Maybe I just wanted to prove that I was trying? Maybe I wanted him to meet me halfway? I can't remember. But I went and explained that I felt really bad for falling asleep everyday but I was figuring out medication and I still really respected him and his lectures. Again, not a lot for him to go on, but it didn't help when he looked back at me and said, "...And?"
I can't remember how I ended the conversation, but it effectively ended hope in doing well in that class. I was already depressed, already anxious, and coming to talk with the professor was way harder than I wanted it to be. The response just locked in a bunch of irrational fears I had had of things being impossible, including being able to voice my concerns and to be heard. The interaction made the professor, and therefore the class, feel inaccessible from where I was at the time.
2) My freshman writing professor taught my class about the power of words by telling us her own stories, which were all about her imperfections. Honestly, she was so awesome in so many ways, but it was only amplified by the fact that she was willing to share about what she had to overcome. And later in the semester when I turned in a huge assignment four days late, I knew that she would be fair but still understand where I was coming from. I also think she might have emailed me at some point to ask how I was doing, which was helpful, though I don't think it would have meant as much had she not already established a good relationship with me in class.
I've had other professors who, in little ways, would just remind me that there was more to life than school. Sometimes it was hard for me to see that, and I appreciated their gentle wisdom.
With that in mind, I think there may be times when there won't be much you can do to help a student. They're coming all different phases of life with all sorts of stuff to figure out, and you can only do so much. But if you can show them that there are worse things than failing a class, that they're worth isn't dependent on that, then a battle will have been won.
Dear Heidi Book,
Wow, that is really cool! But dealing with failing students is tough. It's hard to know what's the best way to reach out or how to help them. College students deal with difficult things, especially freshmen who are making the transition to adulthood. As for college courses, I haven't failed yet (knock on wood) but did get a D- in Pre Algebra in eighth grade and had to retake it the following year.
- Why did you fail your class? Eighth grade was emotionally hard on me, and for anxiety and depression-related reasons, I ended up dropping from school for a month. During that month, my parents helped me find a counselor so I could gain coping skills and return to school. Most of the courses I passed, but in math, it's hard to catch up once you miss important concepts. Also, I am bad at math.
- Did your teacher try to talk about it with you? Did that work, or did it just drive you away? Yeah: I went to a charter school, so the teacher was a friend of my mom's. My mom told the teacher what had happened in great detail, and she was very empathetic. She gave me opportunities to raise my grade and, had I been more emotionally present, I probably could have passed Pre-Algebra with her support. But I wasn't, so she had to fail me.
- Is there anything your teacher could have done differently to help you pass the class? Mostly, I understand why she failed me but I do wish she might have given me an extension. When my sister left school for medical reasons this past quarter, her teachers allowed her to do work from home and finish through summer break. In some ways, I feel like if given that option, I wouldn't have been quite as behind in math. But she was fair and made a good decision. I know that in extenuating circumstances BYU allows extensions past the deadline, so maybe that would be useful for some students? But whether or not they would actually do the work or if that's the best thing, I don't know.
- Even if you don't think your teacher could have done anything differently to help you pass, could they have done anything differently to help you cope with whatever you were going through? Hm. I don't think so because she was so understanding and kind. So if you're wondering how to best help your failing students, that's the advice I'd give you: reach out to them, listen, and direct them to other resources if needed. That can really help someone going through a hard time.
You're cool and this is a cool question.
So, I've never failed a class, but I came scarily close to it last semester. In the end I actually got a pretty decent grade, but that was largely thanks to what the professor did, so I can talk about that.
Why did I almost fail?
I just had too much going on in my life and didn't do any of the major assignments on time. I loved the subject matter, I loved the professor, and I loved the class, which made me feel even worse about not doing any of the homework ever, but there were just a lot of underlying things going on in my life. I had a lot of very time-consuming classes, I was working, I got super distracted by getting engaged and then even more distracted by planning a wedding, and then the clincher was depression. I started taking birth control, and for the first two months it made me very depressed. After that my hormones evened out and now I'm fine, but that was a rough time, and it coincided perfectly with the semester. I was sad all the time and had absolutely no motivation for anything. I knew I was going to get bad grades if I didn't do anything, but I just couldn't bring myself to do my assignments.
Did my teacher talk to me about it?
Yes! He knew I'm usually a good student, because I would participate in class a lot, and I had actually taken and aced a class from him before. So I seemed like a good student, but when he saw I wasn't turning in any of the big papers, he realized something was up. He emailed me after grading the first big assignment to ask if I had turned it in, because he hadn't seen mine. I told him that no, I hadn't done it, and by this point I thought it was too late to even be worth it (his late work policy was that you lost a half letter grade per late day). He told me that he capped the dropping grade at 50%, so I could still get half credit as long as I turned it in. I was really grateful that he reached out to me, because I was too ashamed of how bad of a student I was to talk to him about it. If he hadn't reached out to me I probably would have continued to suffer in silence, but he gave me hope that it was still worth trying.
Is there anything else he could have done to help me pass?
I have to give him so much credit for being patient with me. After the first email he sent me I said something along the lines of, "I'm sorry, I'll get that turned in by next week!" and then didn't turn it in. But he didn't make me feel bad about it, and when I finally turned it in at the end of the semester he still accepted it and got it graded remarkably fast, despite all the other end of semester assignments he was grading for all his classes. There were four big assignments in that class, and I turned them all in in the last two weeks of the semester, but he was just so nice about it. I turned them all in via email instead of hard copies because I didn't want to have to face him in person and talk about what a bad student I had been that semester because I was just so ashamed of my bad studenting, but he was fine with accepting the papers via email, which was really helpful for me. He never treated me differently in class, and still gave weight to the comments I would make and made me feel like he valued what I had to say, despite the fact that I wasn't turning in the assignments. So I guess what I'm really trying to say is that he was patient and kind about all my shortcomings as a student, but always continued to believe (and made it apparent that he believed) that I was so much more than just my failures.
Is there anything else he could have done to help me cope?
I don't think so. Honestly, the way he handled things was great, and I can't see myself opening up and telling him about how my birth control was giving me depression because that's just not who I am. Just the fact that he believed in me and was willing to work with me meant a lot, though.
Like I said, I ended up passing the class, and I really do have to give a lot of the credit for that to my professor's patience and dedication to helping me pass. Ultimately you can't force someone to do something they've given up on or that they just don't want to do, but for people like me who may be teetering on the brink, having someone get involved can be so helpful. Now that I think about it, I really owe that professor a thank-you note or something.