It is completely possible for a student to turn their initial college problems or even class failures in to a successful college career. I’ve seen it happen many times: The student does poorly or is even academically dismissed, but then things change and they resume their their pathway, this time with positive results that see them thorough to graduation. I’ve had students not only go from failing to passing, but to well above a 3.0 GPA, on to study abroad programs, and even to graduate school. But in order to do this, there are some key steps that must be taken. This brief article may make it sound easy, but I assure you that typically it is not, and it can take some time and effort to turn things around.
In general, there are some phases or steps that students and parents must go through. Again, it sounds simple, but it can become complicated or even bring the sting of seeing one’s own missteps along the way:
Uncover What Happened
One of the quotes that I often use with my students is that “battles are won and lost in the planning phases.” This is from a classic writing first penned 3,000 years ago, yet it holds true still today. This great general said that he could tell who would win or lose even before the conflict started by their level of preparedness, insights, and by the skill of their leaders. In his view, the game was won or lost even before it began, and I see this every day in my work. The analogy means that, in almost all instances when a student does poorly in college, I can trace back the origins of the problems to high school. High school is the “planning phase” for college, and this era is often laden with the wrong perceptions and poor beliefs about “college.” Most often the student’s choice of college is the leading factor, and many say they chose a college based on its “brand name” and not whether it had the characteristics of a place where they would succeed. In other cases there was no careful planning for college, or something was missed or overlooked. These issues can later manifests as specific problems, or the “what happened” part when a student begins to fail their college classes. It could be that they chose the wrong environment for their studies, but usually that is not the only reason. Rather, the environment can bring overlooked problems to the surface, and what might not have been a problem during high school becomes a glaring issue in college. I’ve seen students who were shy, unfocused, overly social, never studying, or a combination of these things do well in high school but in the different environment of college these traits simply prevented them from performing up to expectations. Uncovering exactly what happened that led to bad grades is the first step, but very often they are the later manifestations of something that began much earlier.
Define The Current Problems
Once a problem is uncovered, it has to be precisely defined. For example, if a student says they are “unmotivated” or “unfocused,” this is a vague description since these can be due to a variety of reasons. Many parents and students search for the causative factors behind the apparent problems, such as what is de-motivating the student or what is causing them to be off track. Unfortunately, these are often just surface issues, and the answers to these problems can range from the simple to the complex. Sometimes a student may feel temporarily unmotivated because of the discouragement of a bad grade, but at other times motivation can be severely affected by depression, whose age of onset can often be precisely during the college years. “Unfocused” can be due to the distractions of friends and social life, or it could be that the student had attentional issues since high school that only showed up in the lower structure environment of college. In some cases a student has had a progressive downward trend in their academic progress, medical issues aside, which can be very powerful and affect them in many ways. I’ve seen all of these scenarios in my work, and it can take an informed understanding of the various ways that the “problems” manifests in order to know what to do about it. Typically there isn’t a single problem, it’s usually a multi-factorial scenario. Once the problems are better defined, solutions can be developed that can show the student the way back to their path.
Identify A Path Forward
After defining the problems, planning out effective actions that will bring the student back to good performance in their academics is next. This is where the whole process can get tricky or even complicated. There are many individuals and institutions that purport to know what to do, but the reality is that parents and students have told me repeatedly that these standard “interventions” can be woefully ineffective. Some solution “paths” keep the student at their current college, but that may not be the best place for them to do well. Students are often recommended by advisors to meet with them more frequently or to seek help at the school’s counseling center, but almost unanimously all the students I’ve worked with they said they had a negative experience with these options. A path forward must be a sustainable one, one that brings the student success, and very often a lack of early progress can be discouraging for them. A sustainable path will have multiple factors to be considered, not the least being the student themselves. It’s not common that advisors, counselors, tutors, “coaches” or most others in the academic world will have the broad-based knowledge and experience to plan out both the right pathway for the student and all of the actions that must happen along the way. Planning a good pathway is one thing, but building in effective actions that lead directly to student progress is required to bring them to their goal.
Enact The Plan
After a plan has been developed that represents a sustainable path forward for the student, it’s time to implement both the plan and the effective actions to get them to their goal. The success of this “action” phase is completely dependent on the prior ones since vague problems can’t be addressed and poor plans will only lead the student astray. Effective actions to enact the plan must address what happened that lead the student to poor college performance in the first place, and also must be based on the known issues of college failure to ensure that the student makes progress in a forward direction. It’s very possible, and unfortunately very common, to have a bad plan. All of us at one point or another have received bad advice, or in the case of college problems, ineffective recommendations. “Study more,” “get serious,” and other vague recommendations all fall under this category, as do common parent reactions like threatening to send the student to the military or wanting to pull them out of college completely. The plan and it’s related efforts at improving the situation must all revolve around one single goal: The student graduates from college. All actions, decisions, and overall efforts must be aligned with this ultimate goal.
Keep Things On Track
For any kind of turn-around process for college students there are typically two phases: The planning phase and the action phase. Within the action phase there is the initial start, which can be exciting for students and parents, but that’s the easy part. It’s the changes that take place daily during the active semester that brings success for students. College academics are a play-by-play endeavor, and the term is typically a long series of smaller events like exams, presentations, projects, and papers. Keeping things on track requires persistence, perseverance, and the ability to look ahead to see things that are coming. After the initial efforts are made there is a “maintenance” phase where things must be kept going, and staying on track under the pressures of the semester is what keeps the student moving forward and brings success. What can sometimes happen, though, is amid initial progress there can be setbacks, or even a full-blown relapse in to the student’s old ways. It is at this time that the student will need help the most, so they do not give up, and it is a test of the skill of an interventionist to help them to keep going forward when they feel the strong draw of returning to their “business as usual” ways.
Reach The Finish Line
When it comes to students turning their college academic failures in to successes, there are multiple ways to think of a “finish line.” At first, the finish line might be to make it through midterms, finals, or a semester. Once they resume a good path the smaller finish line becomes earning credits for classes in specific areas. A college degree is essentially credits earned in identified content areas, such as humanities or sciences for general education requirements, then lower- and upper-level credits for their major. A “college degree” simply represents a body of knowledge learned, so if the student fills in the right amount of credits for each area, the school will give them a diploma. That’s really the gist of college. Making it through each of these smaller goals will lead them to the ultimate finish line of reaching graduation. Yet reaching this end-state need not be done at only one college. Using the “credits earned” thinking I just mentioned, students can earn credits at different colleges then transfer them to a school at which they wish to graduate. Every school has something commonly referred to as a “residency requirement” (not to be confused with where you live for tuition purposes or campus housing policies). This residency requirement means that a student must earn a certain amount of credits at a specific college to graduate from there, to get their degree, and typically these requirements are in the range of 36-46 credits of a total of roughly 128 credits for a degree. Checking such requirements at a specific college, as well as the requirements for classes within a major and core requirements, will show a student the finish line they might want despite their attending different schools.
It is possible for students to turn around their poor grades or outright failure, but it can take sacrifices and much work. Uncovering what happened, defining problems, devising and acting upon a plan, but especially keeping the student on track until they reach the finish line are all part of the process. I’ve worked with students who were very successful with this process, and the critical factor for them was their willingness to make the right choices and take the right actions, to follow-through and make their college experience a success.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national-level higher education consultant based in Pittsburgh. He has worked with students, families, colleges, and other professionals for more than 10 years. He specializes in understanding why students can end up doing poorly in college, as well as what can be done to address the issues.