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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Insist that your student meet with the professor.
Evaluate the consequences.
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