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.
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.
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.
How To Deal With Academic Troubles When It Feels Like a Crisis
1) 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; otherwise, they will feel disappointed when you perform worse than expected.
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.
2) 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.
3) Make Use of Small Group Settings
Make use of the small group settings offered along with large lecture classes, which do not lend themselves to discussion or questioning.
You can register for the recitation or discussion sections (sometimes called seminars, as described previously) at the same time as the class.
The instructor or by a graduate student (teaching assistant, or TA) usually leads these.
This is where you 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 teaches typically graduate students and has to teach a group of freshmen now) 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, you need to address the matter.
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.
4) Go to the Tutoring Center, Writing Center, or Learning Center
Graduate students or upperclassmen, guided by professionals, who are good at the skill or subject at hand, often run these centers.
They receive payment for this work, and it often supports their education too (a way you can help support other students).
These resources are usually used most by better students trying to go from a B to an A grade.
They don’t feel embarrassed to be there, and neither should you.
5) 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.
6) 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 in could be at a level above your skills.
You can ask for a test to see if your skills match the school’s standards for its courses.
If they don’t, you might have the opportunity to take a more appropriate-level class to allow you to build your skills and confidence.
7) 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 went unnoticed in a less rigorous environment.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that accommodations are available for your needs.
8) 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, that is how it will show up on your records, and you won’t receive 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 works.
9) Take the Class Again
Even if you struggle through the first time, you can supersede your low grade 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 factors into your GPA and about how often they will allow it.
10) 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 you pass that date, you are out of luck.
11) 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.
12) Find Out About Make-Up Exams
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 take place at one time.
Typically, you have 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 verifiable through documentation, although the request to do so may seem crass at the time.
13) 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, prepare yourself to show during the pre-approval process a sample of the syllabus or catalog 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.
With these 13 tips, we hope you now know how to deal with academic troubles when it feels like a crisis.
Did you find this list helpful?
Are there any tips you are going to try out yourself?
Do let us know!
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.