From rocky start to rock star!

Help your struggling student get up to speed

By Jo Calhoun

It can be a shock for a parent to discover that all is not well at college for a formerly high-achieving student. It’s common, though, for first-year students to struggle — a little or a lot — as they adjust to college life and work.

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High School Parent | College Parent

It’s so important to stay in touch with your students, to sense what they are saying and what they are not saying. Has their communication with you changed?

Students who are not doing well often “go AWOL.” Not wanting to disappoint you, they present things in the best light, avoid bad news, or simply stop calling. Sometimes a student’s failure to thrive only comes to light after a term of failing grades is recorded in permanent ink on the transcript.

If you sense something isn’t right, act on your instinct. Create opportunities for your student to open up to you, and to accept your help. Ask open-ended questions — leave space in conversations for them to share their struggles. You don’t need to rush in and rescue but you can help your student strategize and identify resources. Give her confidence that she can navigate her struggles successfully. She can!

Here is a quick look at some of the reasons students struggle, ways parents can help, and my thoughts on dropping a course.

Academic issues

Poor secondary preparation. Even the strongest entering freshmen can falter if they are from under-resourced school districts. Students do catch up. They just need time — and help from professors.

  • Encourage your student to go see the professor outside class (students doing poorly in a class usually are not sufficiently engaged with the professor).

Goals vs. strengths mismatch. Has your student wanted to be a doctor since kindergarten? That’s great, if he excels in biology, chemistry, and math. But sometimes early career aspirations are a holdover of unexamined childhood dreams. The aspiring doctor may discover a passion and aptitude for poetry or anthropology in college. There’s a time to let the sciences go, and a time to set aside family expectations.

  • Encourage your student to pursue career counseling and find out where personal strengths and passions intersect. 

Familiarity vs. mastery. Being familiar with course content is often enough at the high school level. College professors, on the other hand, expect mastery of the material. That requires both more hours and different study strategies.

  • Encourage your student to join tutoring sessions and study groups (students who study alone have no help in correcting their mistakes).

No E for effort. In high school, students are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt grade-wise if they show effort. This doesn’t continue in college. Students are evaluated on the finished product, not the amount of effort spent.

Personal issues

Poor time management. First time away from home? Too many temptations? It takes students a while to realize how much study time is required. Two to three hours per hour of class time is a good rule of thumb.

  • Encourage your student to seek academic advising on study skills, time management and course selection.

Skipping class. Students are much more closely monitored in high school. Once they’re in college, if they want to sleep in, who’s to stop them? It is rare for a student who attends every class session to fail a class.

Substance use and abuse. Students often don’t recognize the effects of alcohol and drugs on their coursework in terms of decreased motivation, fatigue, and lack of mental clarity.

  • Encourage your student to explore substance abuse support groups on campus.

Depression or anxiety. Both are common among college students; both can impair a student’s ability to stay on a schedule, focus, and complete academic work.

  • Encourage your student to make an appointment to talk to a professional or peer counselor at the college mental health center.

When is dropping a course a good move?

Dropping a course can be a strategy rather than a tragedy. Schools offer multiple ways for students to catch up and stay on track for graduation, so parents shouldn’t panic at this prospect. However, there is a lot to consider and research before your student drops a class — here are key parental talking points.

Check policies.

  • Tuition reimbursement rates — they drop quickly as the term progresses.
  • Deadline for dropping a class without a transcript entry.
  • Deadline for dropping a class with/without instructor’s permission.
  • Deadline after which a class cannot be dropped, period.

Insist that your student meet with the professor.

  • High-achieving students can be devastated by a poor grade on a single assignment. Many don’t have a realistic picture of where they stand grade-wise.
  • Professors want to see students succeed. They can often arrange for additional tutoring support; they may accept late work or extra credit.
  • If the professor indicates that your student cannot pass the course, believe it. Your student cannot pass the course.

Evaluate the consequences.

  • If students drop below a certain number of credits, they become “part-time”; this may affect financial aid, work-study, and progress to graduation requirements.
  • While graduate schools report that a “W” (withdrawal) on a transcript does not adversely affect admission decisions, a pattern of multiple “W”s does warrant additional scrutiny.
  • A decision not to drop a difficult class may result in all of a student’s grades suffering.

The bottom line? Trust your student and support an informed decision.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s weekly eNewsletter and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for additional tips, insight, and to help your college student succeed. You may also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow college parents by joining our Community Forum and College Parents’ Facebook group.

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