Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Another Student Question: I Have a High GPA, but I May Fail a Class... What Do I Say So I Don't Sound Desperate?

(Happy start to school! I realize this is the first week back for many of you. Other students have another week. Regardless, I'm excited for you starting off your term! 

This particular student question came in at the tail end of last term. I thought about saving it for later, but then realized that many strong students struggle... and are fearful about offending a professor if they question too much. I'd love to hear what you think. And, it's a new year--let's keep those questions coming!!!)

Dear Ellen,

Your recent blog post on failing was very helpful to read. I don't know if I have failed a class or not but I had failed the midterm. While I feel I did much better on the final exam, I am paranoid about the fact that I might not have enough points to pass (mathematically speaking). I had met with my professor privately after the midterm to say that I was still committed to working really hard to do well on the final.

I emailed my prof both after I finished the final and after the test average was released, since I've been freaking out about whether I had passed or not. For the record, this was an undergraduate math class and my current GPA is a 3.85 in my junior year. Seeing your piece, I think I didn't make any serious mistakes in how I approached it, but maybe you can tell me. 

I tried to stick to the fact that I was most interested in showing that I knew enough of the material to pass the class and that I demonstrated improvement. I did ask if final exam corrections, an oral exam/interview, or something else were still possible in case I had not done enough, so that I could better exhibit my mastery of the concepts [Did I go wrong here? I didn't want to sound whiny in asking for extra credit; I just wanted to let them know that I knew enough of my stuff, and if given even the smallest opportunity to show it, I would make use of it]. 

I tried to avoid discussing how the grade might appear on grad school applications, although I did mention academic probation as one cost. My desperation was probably evident in the two emails but I also wanted to be clear that I wished to earn my passing grade; I never once complained about anything my professor did. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated; I'm a nervous wreck right now. 


And now for my response... and an update!

Dear Student, 

I'm so glad that you wrote to me and I would love to help. First of all, most students, even ones with incredible GPAs like yours, have their challenging classes. I was a superstar in English/Writing, but I struggled terribly in math and biology. And, if you read my previous post on getting a "C" in Environmental Science, I can relate to what you're going through.

Here is my take:

-With a 3.85 GPA, I realize the low grade is going to feel like a huge hit, but it probably isn't. You are in your junior year and you have more classes to go. You can average that grade up, of course, or you could retake the class, but I doubt that would be necessary.

-Did you find out how the rest of your class did on the mid-term? Was the overall class average very low? If it was, this is a difficult, but important question for your professor. It's something he/she would need to look at to determine if there was an issue with the test instrument or the instruction of the material. Bottom line, if an entire class fails, the professor needs to figure out what happened.

-Let's talk about your communication with the professor. It sounds like you were very proactive, so bravo to you! You were well within your rights to ask everything you did. Also, know that it is completely and totally acceptable to say, "I have a 3.85 GPA and I am very worried about how this grade is going to affect my GPA and how it is going to look on my transcript. Based on what I've been able to accomplish until now, my junior year, I'm sure you can understand why this would be very, very concerning to me."

Professors were all students for a long time! We have all been there with our own grades and concern over our own transcripts. I was worried about my "C" on my transcript from my A.A. degree, but ultimately, my overall GPA was fine and I made it into graduate school without a problem. Remember, a high GPA is important, but there are other factors that the school will consider (if it is any consolation to you, I did not do well on my GRE's, but I graduated summa cum laude in my Bachelor's program and also in my Master's program. So, even a major flub on an exam doesn't necessarily mean all is lost for grad school. Of course, this depends on the program).

-You mentioned that you may have sounded desperate in your messaging to the professor. Let me tell you, you have every right to sound desperate/frantic/freaked out/climbing the walls stressed with your high GPA. You have worked hard and you genuinely care about your grade!

Professors become frustrated with students who fail to take their grades seriously, and only do so when it is too late. Most of us are very compassionate with students who are strong achievers, but happened to hit a roadblock.

-You noted that you were concerned about passing based on the failing mid-term grade. Were the percentages of the mid-term and final enough to take your grade down? Were there other ways to measure your learning in this class? If not, this might be something to discuss with your professor and it sounds like you have done that already on some level (i.e., asking for other ways to show what you know).

You sound like an excellent student and you did everything right in this particular situation. Are you able to pinpoint where the problem occurred in this class? Was it the math, itself? Or the nature of the mid-term? If you have more math to take, it would be good to determine where the problem was so you can secure some additional help for future terms. A classmate who is sailing through may be willing to help you, there may be a math tutoring center, or, even hiring a tutor for even just a couple of hours may prove well worth the money.

Thank you, once again, for writing. Let me know how things work out. This topic will help other students tremendously. There are many academically solid students out there who turn upside down when a class doesn't go well. Maybe some answers will help with that stress.

My best to you!

Here's the update, although brief: 
The student did pass the class and was continuing dialogue with the professor to determine what could improve for next time. Hopefully, we'll hear a little more as this term progresses. I will update again!

Another after-thought to this post: When I was in my post-secondary ed program, I was taught that high-stakes exams should not be enough to tank a grade--that a student should have more ways to "show what they know." I was thinking that not all subjects lend themselves to this, though--that maybe in some subjects, exams are weighted higher for a reason.

So, I inquired with a few math colleagues and my friend Isa Adney (Community College Success) also wrote about math in one of her previous blog posts. I learned that math class grading is typically cumulative, homework builds to the exam (this is probably true for most classes, but makes a lot of sense for math), and major exams can be upwards of 30% (maybe higher) of the final grade. So, for students who struggle with homework, then are challenged by an exam covering that same material, it makes sense that a low overall grade follows (which, again, would be true for many classes).

What does this mean for you? Get help the second you know you are struggling! You can't wait until the midterm to see where your grade stands. Use your homework as your guide.

Tell your prof, "I'm really struggling with the concepts and I'm concerned about how I'll do on the next test." 

Of course, be very specific about what is confusing you, rather than throwing up your hands and saying, "I just don't get it!"

You'll want to use your prof's office hours, any extra assistance time he/she offers (I know some amazing math profs who offer lots of out-of-class mini-sessions), and, by all means, seek out external tutoring, either on campus or off. If your prof works with you incrementally, or knows what you are doing to help yourself along the way, you can keep an eye on your grade--and progress--together, rather than having a "clean-up on aisle GPA" at the end. The student who wrote in definitely kept tabs with the prof, which was a good thing.

Any classes you're concerned about this term? What conversations should you be having with your profs this week? Colleagues, any other advice for a student struggling this way?


  1. Good advice, Ellen. The more I read about school these days, the happier I am that I got through it as easily and painlessly as I did. I do believe it was much easier and simpler in the early 70's when I attended college. People were more interested in the Vietnam War and how to avoid getting drafted. Colleges were more concerned about protests.

  2. Bruce, you couldn't be more correct... did you see this latest story? Oy vey... http://www.metro.us/newyork/local/article/1065313

  3. I love how you encourage students to get help as soon as they recognize that something is wrong. Students, please rest assured that you are not dumb because you ask for help, and it does make you any less independent. We all have asked for help at some point in time, you are not alone. For a bit of encouragement, please read this letter I wrote to my students today.


    Thanks for posting this Ellen, it is information that will benefit all students.


  4. Eric,

    I love that letter. Every single educator should write one. It is so candid. I think if more students saw that we are vulnerable, too, they would feel more empowered and able to ask for that help more easily.

    Love it... sharing it.

  5. I am not a professor, and I am not a student any longer, but I always tell my students (I teach high school) that if they bother to get to know their professors, even if they are not struggling, then if they do struggle, the professors are usually much more willing to help them, because they know they're sincere. I even had a professor help me with another class in college because I couldn't get help from the professor who was teaching it. You never go wrong when you get to know the person in charge of your education.

  6. Rachel,

    Thank you so much for writing! What great advice you've shared and how true! I also had a prof help me with a class that wasn't his own, and I have helped students in the distant past with English classes (within the parameters of my ability, of course--math would be out of the question).

    I agree that partnering with the person who is teaching has innumerable benefits!