HEALTH 101: What to do if your grades are slipping

Amy Baldwin
College in North Little Rock, Arkansas

You may have already had the final exam nightmare. You know the one? It’s the last week of the semester, and you realize that you signed up for a course that you never attended, and now you are about take a final exam. Before you can feel the embarrassment of failing a course because you forgot to go to class and keep up with the work, you wake up in a cold sweat.

While it is just a dream for many students and a pretty typical one that you may experience even after you graduate, it can be closer to reality for those students who let their grades slip and do little to help their situation.

In fact, 69% of students in a recent Student Health 101 survey reported that they had been through a period when their grades had slipped. Over 75% of those who did experience-slipping grades cited poor time management as the reason. When these same students got help, over half of students sought advice from a professor or from study groups to help them get back on track.

Watch Out for Falling Grades

Cheryl Melton, a former licensed practical nurse and new student at the Pulaski Technical College in Arkansas, knows too well how students can stumble during the semester. She struggled in her pre-algebra class early in the semester. “I got my first poor grade in part because of problems comprehending, and in part because of the distractions in the class by other students who were not paying attention and talking,” Melton says.

As a student returning to school to pursue a career as a veterinary technician, Melton first relied on herself to get back on track. “I reviewed the material on my own and basically taught myself the concepts,” she says. But she also realized that she needed the expertise of her instructor to make sure she had learned the material on her own. “I used the computer program that goes with our textbook to practice and review, and then I got my instructor to check my work. She then gave me special homework to do, and she would check it for me,” Melton says.

Sometimes the reasons for slipping grades can come from outside the classroom. John Stewart, a returning adult student at Mississippi State University, has competing priorities when it comes to his college assignments. “Sometimes there is a lack of focus [but not intentional] because an older student has adult things to worry about,” Stewart says. Finances and family situations can keep students from doing their best on every assignment and test they may have.

James Dunlap, an English major with an emphasis in creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, offers another reason that students’ grades may drop during the semester: “Students’ grades can slip during the semester because of papers; sometimes professors are not always clear as to what is expected on papers, such as style, citing sources, and paper length.” A misunderstanding or lack of understanding of what is expected can seriously affect students’ grades if they are not proactive in getting help before the assignment is due.

According to the same Student Health 101 survey, only 36% have dropped a class because of slipping grades, but 68% believe they have waited too long to get the help they needed. Kathleen Laakso, associate dean of students at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, confirms that students in academic trouble often “cut themselves off from people who can help. They don’t talk to faculty. Some students are not accustomed to talking to teachers,” she says.

Other students may be generally uncomfortable with asking for help for fear of looking “dumb” or because of the desire to succeed without the help of others. These strategies can be equally disastrous if other avenues of getting on track are not explored. Regardless of how students get to a place where their grades are slipping, the goal is to find out what they are missing and learn to look for the major concepts that their professors are looking for in their papers and tests, advises Laakso.

Getting Back on Track

The advice from students, faculty, and administrators for getting back on track in a class where your grades have started slipping sounds much like the advice for starting out on the right foot at the beginning of the semester.

“Set a goal to keep a student planner and keep a reading log,” says Leslie Mahoney, a liberal arts major at Arkansas State University–Beebe. “Know what day you’re going to have your materials read and [assignments] turned in to your instructor.” In other words, get organized and keep up with your work.

“I learned to ask for help ahead of time in British literature,” says Dulap. “When the professor offers to read drafts, you don’t turn it down. I got a C on my first paper. After a 15-minute meeting with the professor, I was able to earn an A on the next paper. Professors are usually much happier to guide your paper than to read a paper that isn’t up to the standard they have set.”

More Tips for Getting on Course

Even if you do experience a low grade in a course, many professors and advisors, such as Dean Laakso, want students to “understand that they have the ability to do the work. It’s not a lack of innate intelligence but rather the lack of strategies” that can cause them to falter.

Some strategies for getting back on track after experiencing a stumble include:

  • Understand that there are multiple ways of learning. Memorization is the ground level—not the end of learning. You have to apply the facts to a new situation and work with synthesis and analysis.
  • Compare graded tests to class notes. See what you missed.
  • Review notes within 24 hours of taking them. That will help you keep up with the material.
  • Participate in a “Power Hour.” This is a 60-minute chunk of time to work on a class by reading and annotating assignments.

You can change that nightmare of failing a class into the reality of succeeding. But often you need help to get there. All you have to do is ask.

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