Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A New Question and "Old" Updates: Revisiting the Skittish Speaker and the Problematic Professor

(This will be my last post until 2012 since I have some rare time to spend with my school-age child. I want to express immeasurable appreciation to every single person who has followed and/or shared this blog, and particularly to all who have offered encouragement and feedback. I remain honored and humbled by the response to and support for my message. I wish you the utmost abundance for your holiday season. I can't wait to share more student-professor communication conversation in 2012! Now, on to the updates...).
I had great comments from my last post regarding what to do when you fail a class--questions that can definitely help other students who are struggling. I'm going to continue the discussion a little longer. I welcome more questions ( if you have them!

I also wanted to bring you up to speed on the outcome of two other student questions:

First, remember the student from this post who was worried about speaking in front of a large group, but did great when speaking one-on-one or up to five people?

The follow up:
The student delivered the next presentation in class and survived. The student stated, "It didn't go as well as in my practice sessions. I forgot some of my lines and got flustered." (The student was not allowed to use notes for this particular presentation). The good news was that the student felt like the Q&A section went extremely well: "I handled it better by focusing on each person asking the question, much like having a conversation with that individual."

We will celebrate this student tackling the speaking experience head-on and reframing the public speech as one big conversation. Hopefully, the confident places will propel the student into the next successful speaking opportunity. 

And the next update: 

A couple of weeks ago, I answered a student question in this post regarding a professor displaying some unprofessional behavior in the classroom. The student questioned whether to see a department chair and if the complaint would be taken seriously.  

The follow up: 
The student did go see the department chair, the meeting went well, and the student feels much better! The student states, "The department is now looking closely at the professor's behavior. I feel that the issues will not continue again next semester." The student added: "I know that in the future if I need to speak with the department chair about a serious issue that I will be able to without feeling terribly nervous." 

That situation was tough, so I'm extremely impressed that the student self-advocated. These difficult conversations provide valuable experience for future conflict management. I know the student will draw on the courage that it took to get through this situation and feel more confident about navigating future challenging communication issues. Hopefully, the professor will get some support and future students won't have the same experience.

Now, to one of the follow-on questions from the "You Failed Your Class" piece: 

I'm going to paraphrase the crux of the question: 

"Do you have any suggestions for bringing your GPA up to par when you can't seem to find your feet at the college level?"

What a brilliant question, and one that I'm certain many students are facing right now. Just the asking means that this student is very motivated to figure out the struggle and get to the bottom of it. I say bravo! Asking the right questions is huge!

I have a lot of suggestions, and some of them involve more asking yourself more questions. Here's a list:

1.  My first suggestion is both reactive and proactive. First, reactive:  Talk to any professor from whom you didn't get a grade that you were hoping. Say, "I didn't do as well as I'd hoped in this class. Can we discuss some of the assignments that brought my grade down and see where I needed to improve?" (I'll get to the proactive in #3).

2.  If possible, try to pinpoint the specific component of classes that you're struggling with. So often, students say, "I don't get it!" or "This is just too hard!" The language we use fuels our anxieties and stress. So, define "it" and "this." Is "it" test-taking? Writing research papers? Trying to find proper sources? Math equations? You probably have numerous tutoring centers on campus that can assist you, such as writing centers, math resource centers, etc. Of course, the library can help you with information literacy. Pinpointing the parts of assignments that are reducing your grades will help you trigger the right support systems.

3.  Now, your proactive approach:  Meet with the professors for your upcoming term nice and early, or send an e-mail. Say, "I've been struggling with my GPA while in college so far. My test-taking skills seem to be fine, but my grades on my papers haven't been strong (or whatever the problem is... try to define it, if you can). I would like to do well in this class (also define what "well" means... is it an 'A'? A 'B-'?). Will you review my papers early? What strategies can we put into place?"

4. Look for unconventional types of help in addition to on-campus resources: I struggled in a college Algebra class and hired a high school math genius to come to my house twice a week and help me with homework. Sure, I was a non-traditional student and had some funds to pay him, but even a few hours of tutoring at $10/hour can do wonders, if you can swing it. You may even ask your parents or grandparents if they know any retired college profs or high school teachers.

Another option? Find another student with strengths that you need and barter:  They help you drill for a few tests, you wash their car, pick up a pizza, or offer to clean their apartment. Last, but not least, don't forget about your local library, which may also be able to help with some basic assistance.

5. Be strategic in your class planning. This is where your adviser and even some trusted professors can help you a great deal, but you have to work through this tip early. Schedule classes so you are not taking three extremely hard classes at once.

"Hard" is a subjective term, of course. For some, English/writing classes are considered difficult and math is considered easy. For others, the reverse is true. If you can, organize your classes so you have maximum time to focus on the elements that are difficult. Remember, you can always "interview" a prof in advance about his/her class. Say, "I am considering taking this class next term. Do you have a syllabus I could look at? An older one is fine." (I've said before that there probably won't be radical differences from term to term and you can get a feel for the class even with a document that is a term or two old). You can also be honest with the professor and say, "I really struggle with writing research papers. I want to try not to take all writing-heavy classes at once so I can do my best."

6.  Determine what GPA you really need. Does every student want to receive straight A's? Possibly. But not every student needs straight A's to reach goals. I don't want to say that grades don't count. They do in many situations, such as if you want to get into a particular program, go for an advanced degree, or if your employer will ask for a transcript because it's your first job (but they may confirm degree only, not necessarily look at individual grades).

7.  If necessary, you can re-take classes to raise your GPA (it's true that financial aid likely won't cover that), or, if an entire term is shot, you can consider academic renewal. An incomplete may also be possible, depending on the reason.

However, if you can still reach your goals with a 3.0 GPA, this gives you leeway to have a few blooper grades that can average out with some stronger grades. The organization YouTern has an amazing blog that discusses other attributes required of you in internships/the workforce: Personal branding through extracurricular activities, having a strong elevator pitch, etc. You'll find that there is more to your marketability than grades--and this may lighten some of your angst.

Remember, wonderful students, the beauty of college is that every single term is a true "academic renewal":  You can re-evaluate what's going well, re-tool what's not going well, and strive for better grades. Just because you have one (or two or three) "off" terms does not mean that your entire GPA will be shot.

Stay connected with your professors because your communication with them is so key to your success (no-brainer that I'd say that, right?). I realize many of you are on winter break or heading into winter break. It's not too early to send some e-mails scheduling appointments and start your next term off with a new support system.

I look forward to hearing awesome news about grade increases!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

You Failed Your Class... Now What?

Yes, a friend of mine just died.

Yes, the construction next door continues... starting at 7 a.m. this morning, in fact.

So, I'm thinking that you may be thinking, "The Chatty Professor is bringing me down! Just look at the title of this week's post!"

And, indeed, while I've written about some challenges of late, I still have my practicality about me.

During a run a few days ago, I mentally replayed all of the "get ready for finals" tips I'd seen via blogs, articles, etc. over the past week or so.

Let's just say more than I can effectively count.

And many of those tips are very useful.

But what few people talk about is what happens after the grades come in.

That's right:  When students say to profs:

-"Is that really my final grade?"

-"But I can't fail! I really needed a 3.5 in this class to transfer."

-"I can't have a 0.0 and still get financial aid!"

...when finals are already finished, and grades have been calculated.

Then you just might have to pick up the pieces of "I didn't get the grade I wanted/needed. Oh, crap!"

What do you do then?

Let's talk about it...

First thing's first:  You have to meet with your professor, even if your inclination is to take the knife with which you carved your Thanksgiving turkey and scratch it alongside his/her car.

Ideally, your meeting with the prof should take place before official grades are posted. I don't want to give you any false hope that the failing grade will change, but in case your discussion with the prof reveals some new opportunity, it is far easier for the prof to alter the grade before an official grade change form is required.

Where do most students go wrong in this "I failed" meeting? (Aside from the fact that barely any students actually take the time to have this meeting...): 

-They are angry and blame the professor for the failing grade:  "Your class was too hard! I could have done better if there was less work/more time/fewer tests."
-They are frustrated and express disbelief that the failing grade is happening:  "I don't deserve this and I wasn't expecting to fail this class!"
-They suddenly wake up and take notice of their grades after not giving them a second thought all term:  "I thought I was doing better. I only missed a couple of assignments."
-They beg (and possibly bribe) for a last-minute save to avoid the ominous fate of failure: "I have to do something... Extra credit. I'll redo work. I'll wash your car, mow your lawn... anything."

But what should you say?

Before you say anything, calculate your grade yourself and make sure that your totals match the professor's. If your calculations aren't revealing a failing grade, then your first question is, "Can you show me how you arrived at this number of points? I see that I have a D, but you show that I'm failing."

(Hey, a D may bust up your GPA, but you can still usually pull your credit out of the class. And GPA's can be averaged up later, or you can retake the class).

Now let's say you get confirmation that you did fail. You'll want to determine the reason why before you continue the discussion--hopefully before you even walk into your professor's door.

In my experience with hundreds and hundreds of students, failure takes some work, even if the "work" involves wrestling with the decision to do nothing. If you tried your absolute best and just didn't cut the mustard (who cuts mustard, anyway? I actually Googled the origination of this phrase--give it a try. I found that the originator may have meant "mustard seed", which is, indeed, hard to cut. But that just doesn't quite have the right ring, does it? Hmm...), then you did do something.

What you likely didn't do was see your professor enough for help or check your grades earlier to find out how your average was coming along. No judgment in that statement whatsoever, but being honest about the why is the quickest way to figure out how to change things for next time.

In this case, you would say to your prof, "I have failed this class. Based on my grades, it may appear that I didn't even try, but I did. Where I went wrong is not asking for help when I really needed it and checking in with you to see what I could have done differently." 

(If, in reality, you did very little work and the "F" is no surprise, the conversation is still worth having. Definitely own up and say, "My habits were not ideal this term. I made some mistakes and I'm going to pay for them now, but I'd like to do better next time.")

You can add, "I realize there is probably nothing I can do at this point, but I wanted to meet with you anyway just to confirm my grade and ask for your suggestions as to my next steps." 

What are those next steps?

Well, your prof could investigate how close you were to a passing grade and offer you some extra credit. But he/she may not do this, and is certainly not required to. You can ask, but really, it's likely too late for that.

More than likely, your prof will discuss your retaking the class. Then, you'll have to figure out if you can repeat the class (particularly if you used financial aid to pay for it, you will probably have to pay yourself on the second go-around), and if you want to stick with that prof when you do.

I have definitely had students either drop my course or fail it (the latter is a far, far fewer number) and then return a term or two later and they are actually ahead of the game. They know about the assignments, they know my expectations, they know what they have to do. Familiarity with a prof/class is one large benefit to retaking a class. Don't discount it! Even if you switch to another prof in the department, you'll still have a leg up on the subject matter.

Other things you can ask:

-"Would I be eligible for an Incomplete in this class?" At many colleges, an Incomplete is usually not available for an academic reason, but it's worth checking into.
-"Is it too late to drop this class so my transcript shows a 'W', rather than a failing grade?" Again, probably not possible, but can't hurt to ask.
-"Are you teaching this class again next term? What recommendations would you make so I have a better chance of passing?"

I know you will probably want to run off your campus and stay away for a while. But an "F" does not mean that you can't or won't reach your educational goals. Many great students have failed a class (myself, included... remember this post?) and went on to overcome it and excel. With the idea that you will return and thrive, I want to encourage you to have three other campus conversations before your next term starts:

Financial Aid Department: "I failed my class. How will this affect my financial aid?" Of course, you'll need to see what financial ramification the "F" has and how that will affect your future aid. This also applies to any scholarships you've received. 

Counseling Services: (Typically free on campuses and especially important if a life or other crisis situation got in the way of you doing your best) "I failed my class because I was going through X. I would like some support to make sure that I do better next term." Why not get as much help in place as possible? Then follow up with your appointments!  

Your Academic Adviser: "I failed my class. I was on track to graduate in (month/year). How does this affect my plan? Do you recommend changes to my upcoming class schedule?"

And, if you failed every class this term, ask your adviser: "What is the college's policy on academic renewal?"

Academic renewal is a one-shot opportunity that many colleges offer to erase a term from your transcript. Different colleges have different rules about academic renewal:  Some colleges require you to wait for a period of time before making the request. Often, you wipe out the whole term; you can't pick and choose a couple classes that you didn't fail and ask to keep that credit.

Your Parents:  As a parent, myself, not intentionally putting this one last, but you probably will have to come clean to your parents. Will they flip out? Quite possibly, but if you own up to your mistakes quickly and have a ready plan for improvement, the blow might be lessened:  

"I failed my class this term. I want to be honest with you. I know you'll be disappointed and I'm disappointed in myself. The only way I can do better is by changing the way I did things this term. So, here's my plan: I saw my professor and he suggested ___________. I went to see my academic adviser and she suggested _________ (mention any other pre-emptive measures you've taken). I feel more confident about going into next term and am confident that with this support in place, I'll be able to turn this around. 

Of course, don't miss this opportunity to ask for any specific help that your parents could give you!

Wonderful student (and, yes, you're still wonderful, even if failed a class!), I'm going to step out of the practical advice for a moment and get a little psychological/emotional on you:

Your "F" grade does not have to define you.

Failure is part of your journey right now, but you are not a failure.

Yes, it's time to get really honest with yourself about why you failed the class. Too many students blame all sorts of external forces. By owning up to what went wrong and specifically what you did or didn't do that contributed to the outcome, you can take steps to make positive changes for next time. If you truly believe that the failure was something done to you, then one of the conversations above will help you find a remedy.

For now, strategizing your next move and communicating with those on and off campus who have signed up to support you is your absolute best measure.

Be truthful, be humble, be open.

People are more inclined to help you when they see that you genuinely want to create change.

I'd love to say that this is the last time in your life that something won't go the way you hoped. One of my favorite books is When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner. Full disclosure: It is somewhat more religious than I am (Kushner is a Rabbi whose own faith was challenged when he lost his son to a rare, terminal illness), but the core message resonates with me:

"Why did this happen to me?" is the wrong question to ask.

The right question is, "What will I do now that this has happened to me?" 

Digging deep to answer that question, dear student, is, in my opinion, the opposite of failure.

Students, have you failed a class? How did you overcome it? Colleagues from all parts of education and business, what is your advice for getting past a failing grade?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Student Question: What Do I Do When a Professor Behaves Badly?

(An unexpected rocking of my world delayed this post... and I'm not referring to the construction next door as I wrote about here. I did mention in that post that two people in my life were battling cancer. One of them, a fellow preschool parent, died--very prematurely--of breast cancer last week. Cheryl Colehour was not only my friend and the mother of one of my son's closest buddies, but the master editor who helped me wordsmith and tighten my book proposal. Cheryl not only championed my message, but she picked up the tone and voice of my project in an uncanny, quick-fire way. My proposal would have never been what it became without Cheryl's heart and head. I only knew Cheryl for a short time--my son is just 3--but that was enough for me to agree with her husband's words: "There is a gaping hole in humanity." 

Although she had been years out of college, herself, Cheryl supportively followed my blog and she was definitive in her agreement that students need communication skills to empower themselves. In Cheryl's honor, today's post seems extremely fitting because it is, indeed, about empowerment. I'm responding to a student question again (Keep them coming!). This was a complex and sensitive issue and I asked the author if I could retool the question to help other students. I was given permission, so here goes...)

Dear Professor Bremen:

My classmates and I have had issues with a professor all semester. This professor behaves in an unprofessional manner, speaks about inappropriate activities outside of class, issues with other professors and students (anonymously, but enough where we can figure it out). The professor became very angry when the class didn't complete a recent assignment. My classmates and I feel as though this behavior is unprofessional and unacceptable.

Should we speak to the department chair about our concern with this professor? Other students have had the same issues. Or should we just let it go? If you do suggest speaking to the department chair, what exactly should we say?
And, in a follow-up e-mail... 
We had professor evaluations today and I know a majority of my classmates addressed the issues in their anonymous evaluations, but I am not sure if our concerns will be taken seriously through the forms.


Before I get to my response, I will say... wow, this is a hard situation! Many students have experienced a professor who was downright unprofessional, and the experience is disheartening on so many levels: First of all, students feel powerless to do anything about the problem, or they don't feel like they have the right to speak up. Secondly, students can become stunted in their learning due to anger, frustration, fear, or just feeling uneasy in the class. Naturally, this can have an extreme impact on grades. I am glad the student reached out. Here is my response:

Thank you so much for writing and I'm going to give you the most thoughtful advice that I can. I am very sorry that you and your classmates are going through this.

In most cases with student-professor disputes, if you go to the department/division chair before seeing the professor personally, the department/division chair will typically say, "Have you gone to the professor about this?"

In this particular case, because of the prof's continued reference to questionable outside activities, I'm concerned about a one-on-one meeting to discuss the issues. Really, all three of the issues you mention are more "behavioral" than "procedural" i.e., the inappropriate disclosures, talking about other profs and students, and the extreme reaction over the incomplete work. Given that, this is above the "go see your prof and hash it out" type of conversation. A third party makes total sense.

The first thing I would do is make an appointment with the department/division chair. You can have your classmates do the same, but do it individually. Often, students will complain, "Everyone feels this way" and the argument is much stronger with a number of singular voices.

I would say, "I am extremely concerned about my experience in Professor Jones' class this semester. I am not typically a student who complains. I have not spoken with Professor Jones directly because of the nature of these concerns. I feel that if I am to go to Professor Jones, I could use some advice about how to discuss these issues and I'm hoping you can help me."

Based on what you've described, I'd actually want a third party there whenever you meet with the prof. If you feel this way, you can say, "If I am going to meet with Professor Jones and discuss these concerns, I'd prefer to have a third party present." Chances are, the situation is one that the chair will respond to without you being there. That would be my guess.

Then, be very specific about your concerns:

"I have three issues that have become a pattern this semester. First, the professor makes continued references to inappropriate outside activity, which is uncomfortable. Second, the professor is publicly disclosing issues with other students and professors. While this is meant to be anonymous, we can figure out who the professor is talking about. Finally, the professor was very angry when our class did not finish an assignment. I can see why this would be upsetting to the professor, but the way it was communicated seemed extreme."

I think it is critical for yourself and the other students to not let this problem go. The chair is not going to know that there is an issue, and the professor will not get the help that is obviously needed. Also, your semester is not finished yet. Negativity can spiral out of control with a poor classroom dynamic, and this can unnecessarily affect grades. We don't want that.

Speaking of which, two other notes:

-You are within your rights to request a follow-up meeting with the chair so the matter doesn't just "fade away." You won't be privy to their discussion with the professor, but you should get some assurances of what the next steps are for your class. I would ask, "What do you recommend in terms of my following up with you about this situation?"

-If the chair does not respond to your concerns in a way that is satisfactory or comfortable for you (I don't anticipate this will happen, but we shouldn't ignore the possibility), you do have other options:  You can contact your school's counseling services office and tell them what is going on. They would have responsibility to follow up with the chair or the dean. Or, you could contact the student affairs officer, student services officer, or the academic dean in charge of the department/division chair. Of course, in all of these cases, you will probably be asked if you already went through the proper channels i.e., the department/division chair. Let's hope your situation doesn't come to that.

This is an exercise in self-advocacy for you as a student, as well as your classmates, and I know it can feel uncomfortable and intimidating. However, as I've said many times in the blog, you are an adult and so is your professor. You have rights regarding a comfortable classroom climate and a professional classroom leader.

Please keep me posted on how things are going. I'm sending you lots of strength!

I always appreciate reader comments and I'd particularly be interested to hear feedback for this student... from students or colleagues!