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Dr. Marcia Y. Cantarella discusses ‘how to deal with academic troubles when it feels like a crisis‘ in her book I Can Finish College.

First know you are not alone or unique. It is the rare student who walks into his first college class feeling fully confident.  

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. 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. It looks like this:

 How To Deal With Academic TroublesYou’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.

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. 

  • Talk to your professors immediately.  They are happy to help you.  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.  All faculty have office hours—use them.  Speak to him or her after class to make an appointment; send an email or call.  Explain honestly what you do not understand.
  • 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.
  • 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.  You can also see the TA on your own.

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 (the professor who normally teaches graduate students and is assigned to teaching a group of freshmen) 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. Misunderstandings do occur sometimes.  If the matter is more personal than pedagogical, go to a dean or ombudsman (a neutral arbitrator) for resolution of the dispute.

  • 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.  They get paid for this work, and it often supports their education too (a way you can help support other students).  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.
  • 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.  If you’re really shy about it, find out who’s running the workshop and plan to meet with them individually.
  • Take a placement test to be sure you’re in the correct class level. This is especially true for Math and Foreign Languages. 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.  Anyone later reading the transcript sees that you overcame the subject matter.  Your school has rules about how this process is factored into your GPA and about how often it can be done.
  • 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.  Most schools use this W designation for dropped classes, and while it signifies that you’ve withdrawn, it does not affect your GPA.  You don’t want a slew of them on your transcript, however, as they may suggest to a potential employer or graduate program that you disappear in tough times.  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.
  • Discuss the possibility of taking an Incomplete for the class.  You must negotiate this with the instructor, who may let you submit the paper or other assignments in the next term.  Rules vary by school, but generally you have only a few months or a semester to complete the work, or the Inc grade becomes an F.
  • If you miss an exam or know that you won’t be able to take it when scheduled (a trip for work, wife delivering a baby that day), talk to your professor and see about taking a make-up exam.  Instructors don’t like this arrangement because they have to make up a special exam, which is extra work, to avoid the possibility of cheating.  Some schools set special dates for make-ups, so that all are taken at one time.  Typically you are required to produce some evidence of why you missed or will miss an exam.  Oversleeping doesn’t usually satisfy the powers-that-be.  A funeral, illness, or a boss who won’t give way are valid reasons and can be documented, although the request to do so may seem crass at the time.
  • Take the course during the summer or at another time or school.  Be sure to get approval beforehand.  Because schools have differing levels of rigor, they usually want to be sure you’re meeting the standards expected at your home campus.  Some courses may have the same title, but somewhat different content.  In that case, be prepared to show during the pre-approval process a sample of the syllabus or catalogue course description from the school where you intend to enroll.  This also holds true if you take time off and want to continue taking courses elsewhere, or make up for requirements or low grades you had from a bad experience.

The bottom line is that you can take actions that can resolve the situation and sometimes move it from crisis to success.

From Chapter 9 of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide by Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD p. 186-188 

Marcia Cantarella, Ph.D.

Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, has held positions at Hunter College, Princeton University, New York University, and Metropolitan College of New York. During her 22 year career as a dean and vice president of student affairs she has enhanced the academic experiences of and outcomes for generations of students.

Cantarella Consulting works with colleges and organizations on issues of higher education pipelines, access, diversity, and student success. Current consulting projects and clients include the Hunter College Black Male Initiative, Kingsborough Community College, The One Club, and Saint Augustine’s College. The firm has also done work for several UNCF colleges.

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