It is the rare student who walks into his first college class feeling fully confident that they'll finish college. The rules are different—you are on your own to a much greater degree. Being concerned with making a good first impression on both your instructor and your peers, you may, in response, sit quietly as though you understand it all or impatiently wave your hand to answer every question. The latter can be irritating to your classmates and professor, who wants to hear many voices.
Someone, however, has to ask the questions that are bubbling through your brain, because there is information you don’t have. Remember, you’re in college to learn, not to know it all. Being silent is not a good thing. It can lead to one of the first forms of academic crisis and may become the reason you might not finish college.
You’ve been going along for several weeks, not really getting what’s going on in class, and you’re also having trouble understanding the readings. Since the knowledge in many fields—bio, economics, languages, and math—builds directly on what has gone before, the longer you wait to acknowledge your problems, the deeper in trouble you are. And you know it.
But you assume that everyone else is just fine, and so you keep quiet in class. You don’t want to show up at the tutoring center because it feels stigmatizing. You study for hours, reading the material over and over, though you don’t understand it. Then you take the midterm—and fail it. Can you finish college now? Yes.
Hiding is not a strategy. As soon as you feel overwhelmed by your work, find help. A variety of solutions are effective, and they depend on the resources you have at hand.
Here is a list of some strategies and resources to help you finish college:
- Talk to your professors immediately. They prefer it if you tell them you’re having difficulty, rather than puzzling later when you don’t do well; they are more inclined to be disappointed then. They all have office hours—use them. Speak to him or her after class to make an appointment; send an email or call.
- Form study groups. Pulling together diverse mindsets can assure that collectively you can crack the code of whatever issues are in front of you. Each of you offers different strengths. You are all motivated to finish college.
- Make use of the small group settings that may be offered along with large lecture classes, which do not lend themselves to discussion or questioning. The recitation or discussion sections (sometimes called seminars, as described previously) are usually registered for at the same time as the class. They may be led by the instructor or by a graduate student (teaching assistant, or TA). This is where you’re expected to raise questions. The goal is to assure that everyone is on track; there is no stigma attached to inquiry—your questions may be the ones everyone else has, too.
- Take collective action if the problem is collective. It may come to light that many classmates are also in the dark about what is going on. Sometimes this is the fault of the professor, who could be lecturing over your heads or who may have issues organizing material. You can then agree as a group to raise the issues disturbing you, and designate a spokesperson. In dire cases, go as a group to the department chair to share your concerns—when you, as an entire class, feel that the instructor is not presenting the material in comprehensible ways, or is frequently absent, or behaves in inappropriate ways.
- Go to the tutoring center, writing center, or learning center, often staffed by graduate students or upperclassmen, guided by professionals, who are good at the skill or subject at hand. These resources tend to be used most by better students trying to go from a B to an A grade. They are not embarrassed to be seen there, and you should not be either. They will finish college for sure!
- Use workshops. Most campuses also have workshops on study and time management skills, which are usually sadly underattended or not attended at all by the students who really need the help offered and who struggle to finish college.
- Take a placement test to be sure you’re in the correct class level. You may have scored high enough on your SAT or ACT, but the class you’re placed in is being taught at a level above your skills. You can ask to be tested to see if your skills match the school’s standards for its courses. If they don’t, you may be allowed to take a more appropriate-level class to allow you to build your skills and confidence.
- Check on your learning skills. If you’re tested for and found to have a learning disability, then you may be eligible for special compensations for test taking or submitting papers, or whatever is the right accommodation for you. Some students get all the way to college only to discover that they had an issue all along that was not caught in a less rigorous environment. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that accommodations be offered for your needs.
- Take the class pass/fail if that is an option at your school for your situation. Pass/fail (sometimes called credit/no credit) means that if your work in the course is above a passing level (whatever that is for your school), you receive a grade of “pass,” rather than the actual C or D you might have earned. Thus it will not affect your GPA negatively. On the other hand, if you fail, it will be noted as such, and you are not given credit for the class. In some cases, you cannot do pass/fail for your general education, required or core course requirements or your major. Consult your school catalog to see if this is an option and how it is used.
- Take the class again. Even if you struggle through the first time, your low grade can be superseded by a better one, even if the earlier one also shows on your transcript
- Drop the class (and try again later if necessary). You must take this action early in the term, within what some schools designate an add-drop period, when you can test out classes. Look at your college’s academic calendar to find out the last day to drop without the class showing up on your transcript. After this date the class will show up on the transcript but with a W designation indicating a withdrawal. If you miss the early drop date, the last day to withdraw is usually shortly after midterms. Once that date is passed you are out of luck.
To repeat, if you’re having difficulty, the main thing is to seek help. The resources, paid for by your tuition, are there. This is what smart people do to finish college.
Dr. Cantarella is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide (www.icanfinishcollege.com) and a consultant on higher education, access and success. (firstname.lastname@example.org) This is taken from Chapter 9 where you can find far more detail.