What To Do When You’re Failing a Class

Midterm exams have come and gone, and you’re breathing a sigh of relief. That is, you were relieved until you got your exam back and saw your score. Finding out that you’re failing a class is disheartening, but it doesn’t mean that it’s Game Over. Take HC’s advice on how to improve your grade and pull your GPA up by its bootstraps.

Determine Why You’re Failing

Identifying why you’re failing a course is a crucial first step in turning that D into a better grade.

The course material or the instructor could be difficult or hard to understand. If you’re feeling stressed or dealing with other issues in your life (as many of us are), the demands of a class can also increase your anxiety and fall second to the other events going on in your life. “Bad grades are usually indicators of larger problems such as displeasure with your major, insecurity, poor time management and even anxiety and depression,” says AnnaLee, HC Campus Correspondent for the University of Notre Dame.

Take time to write down what you think could be your reasons for failing a course. This list will help you determine what to do next.

Develop a Plan of Action

Your plan of action will vary according to your reasons for struggling in a class; however, you can still consider other options that are available to you. Be flexible as you approach this problem.

If you’re dealing with anxiety and depression, for example, your first step would be to speak to a mental health counselor on campus. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment, you’re not alone: Approximately 20 percent of students surveyed experienced sadness, depression and loneliness within a 12-month period. While speaking to a counselor will not directly influence your grade, it can help you relieve any stress and anxiety contributing to poor performance in your courses. Most college campuses provide free counseling services in their health centers.

We’ve compiled a list of possible options to help you through this mid-semester crisis.

Draw From a List of Options

1. Ask for extra credit.

“I am an extra-credit kinda gal,” says Ivelisse from James Madison University. “Even if the professor doesn’t mention any extra credit opportunities, I will still ask.” She suggests asking them in private and during office hours. You’re letting them know that you care about your grade and the course, and most professors want you to do well.

Talking to your professors is often your first line of defense in saving your GPA from certain doom. “Communication and collaboration with your instructors is probably the number one characteristic of successful students,” says Nancy Sauline, the assistant director of student academic services at Hiram College.

Professors will often be required to present the extra credit option to the entire class in an effort to be fair; however, Ivelisse says that you might be able to get a head start by approaching the professor first.

While taking on extra credit assignments won’t guarantee you an A, it will bump your grade up and show the professor that you are dedicated to the course and want to do well. There are several things to keep in mind when approaching your professor:

  • Respect office hours and your professor’s time. Talk to your professor after class and schedule a one-on-one meeting. If the professor has time to talk right away, thank the professor for his or her time.
  • Be professional. If you decide to email your professor, start with a greeting, use proper spelling and grammar and close with your name. Remember to email via your school’s email and have a clear subject line so that your professor knows what to expect in the message. Always thank your professor for his or her time.
  • Come prepared. This is part of being professional. When you meet with your professor, know what you want to say. “Let the professor know that you’re aware of what’s on the syllabus and what’s expected of you,” Sauline says. “You’re doing the work but you’re having a grade goal that you’re not meeting. Be specific. If you have a D, say that you want a C or a B, and the professor can help you figure out what you need to do to get there.”
  • Recognize that your professor can’t automatically grant you an A. While it would be nice, professors can only help you to understand the material better and offer options to help you if you’re struggling. The rest is up to you. If you’re given the option of an extra credit assignment, it’s your responsibility to complete and turn in the extra assignment as required.

2. Ask for grade book weight adjustments.

Another option you can suggest to your professor is to adjust the weight of an assignment or exam. If the midterm is worth 50 percent of your grade, suggest that the exam count for less with homework assignments counting for more of your grade. If the final exam counts for only 25 percent, ask the professor if it could be adjusted to count for more (because you fully intend to be more prepared to ace that final!).

Again, the professor will have to accommodate the entire class with any adjustments; however, it’s likely that the adjustments will also help the rest of those in your class. If the exam was particularly difficult, the professor might have already graded the exam on a curve.

3. Ask the Teaching Assistant for help.

A teaching assistant (TA) is usually a graduate student who helps the professor with lectures or lab work. “The TAs in the chemistry department run the labs,” says Dr. Alexander Seed, an associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Kent State University (KSU). “Our TAs hold five office hours a week and are available to answer any questions about the labs or about the theories covered in class.”

In other departments, TAs help to develop the lesson plans, give lectures and do much of the grading. If the material or the professor is confusing, the TA can clarify or re-teach the material. Even better? TAs are often recent undergraduates and likely to remember what you’re going through. They’re also students themselves, sitting in graduate-level courses and studying new material on a regular basis.

Approach the TA with the same respect you would show a professor. While a TA might have limited powers, he or she has a direct line with the professor and might be able to convince the professor to adjust the importance of certain assignments or to add new assignments that would improve the overall grade outcome of the class.

4. Get a tutor.

If you find that you need a tutor to prepare for your assignments or to do better on the final exam and boost your semester grade, there’s no need to blush or hang your head in shame. “Sometimes students are embarrassed that they need help,” says Heather, a senior education major at KSU. “But they don’t need to be. Even the best students need help if the course itself is difficult.” 

To schedule an appointment with a tutor, contact your academic adviser or look for student or academic services on your school’s website. Some colleges provide online scheduling or even virtual tutoring. Tutoring is free and can be done individually or in groups.

Tutoring won’t change your grades on previous assignments, but it will improve your understanding of the course work and improve your grades as the semester ends. Even if you started with a D, adding several As and Bs to the grade line next to your name means that you could end the semester with a high C or a solid B.

5. Attend Supplemental Instruction (SI) sessions.

According to the International Center for Supplemental Instruction, the SI program provides academic assistance in a peer-assisted environment. The U.S. has nearly 300 colleges in 43 states and D.C. that provide SI for the students. “The program focuses on classes that are known to be difficult,” says Keri Hamberg, the assistant director and SI coordinator at KSU.

SI leaders are students who have taken the course and passed with a high grade. The leaders are trained to facilitate learning sessions for large groups of students. “We help the students to organize and study,” says Heather, who is an SI leader for Dr. Brian Grafton’s Biological Diversity course. “The students go over the material, learn to develop test questions and eventually teach it back to me.”

The program provides a strategic game plan with detailed study strategies to prepare for exams and to understand the material in a more interactive way. “We make charts and graphs for just about everything,” Heather says. “And the great thing about what we do in these sessions is that the techniques can be done by anyone, at any time. The sessions help to bounce back ideas and answer questions, but students can take these study skills with them and make up their own test questions in their dorm rooms.”

While attending the sessions before you struggle in a course is ideal, the sessions are available throughout the semester at no cost. The SI sessions are listed by course and professor on your school’s website. From there, you can see when a session is taking place. “You don’t even have to make an appointment,” says Hamberg. “Just show up.”

According to the KSU statistics for 2012, the course withdrawal rate and failing grade average drops significantly for students who regularly attend sessions. The program works. To find out if your school has an SI program, contact your student services or academic adviser. You can also search on your school’s website or follow the links from the International Center for Supplemental Instruction.

6. Withdraw from the course.

Jessica, an environmental studies major at Hiram College, decided to withdraw from a general education course once she realized that she wouldn’t be able to bring her grade up. “I attempted to bring my grade up [after failing the midterm exam], but it got worse and worse,” she says. “I’ve never done that badly in a class before.”

Withdrawing from a course, which shows up as a W on your transcript, tends to be considered the last resort option. “The W doesn’t hold any value [on your transcript],” says Steven Antalvari, the assistant director of the Exploratory Advising Center at KSU. “[However,] advisers do caution students about the amount of classes they withdraw from in a given year.”

“In our office, we require that students have a conversation with an adviser prior to withdrawing from a class. Our hope is that we can intervene and offer a solution first and save the W for extreme situations,” Antalvari says.

According to both Antalvari and Sauline, withdrawing from a course can affect your financial aid status if you drop below a required amount of credit hours. It may also be too late to transfer into another class, which would require that you catch up on all assignments and exams.

“Here at Kent State, we do offer half semester and third semester classes that students can register to keep them at full-time status,” says Antalvari. Ask your adviser if your school offers mid-semester classes and register for one or two as soon as you decide to drop a class. The added courses could boost your GPA for the semester and keep you where you need to be for financial aid.

Even so, in some cases, Sauline says that withdrawing from a course can be a “viable option”- only after everything else is taken into account.

Finally, if you’ve done all you can and still receive a failing grade, Annalee says, “One bad grade isn’t the end of the world.” You’ll have a chance to improve your cumulative GPA by earning high grades in your other classes, and you can prepare for next semester by attending tutoring sessions for a difficult course early in the semester and conversing with your professors