Mid-semester woes: That *first* bad grade

In my new role at Georgia Tech, I am responsible for advising about 1/4 of our biology majors, of which a large chunk are transfer or first-year students. We’re now about halfway through their first semester at Tech, and they’ve just received mid-semester evaluations. These evaluations are used as a ‘warning flag’ of sorts for students who need to improve their performance in a course. Basically, if you score ‘satisfactory’, you’re on the right track (passing with a decent grade); if you score ‘unsatisfactory’, well… your grade outlook isn’t favorable.

For many students, particularly those who are thinking about pre-health and graduate careers, to receive anything other than an A is a real shock. It is especially disturbing the first time this happens. Getting a less-than-stellar grade isn’t just an academic problem for many students; it strikes at the core of their identity. So what can we do to help coach students through this? How can we help them develop resilience and learn from missteps?

  1. Remind students: Your grades are important, but they don’t define you. Your transcript is not your identity. Remind students of past successes in different parts of their life, and help them to feel that they ‘belong’ on campus. Often, first-timers experiencing issues take a bad grade as a sign that they don’t belong in their major or in college, rather than limiting the bad grade as simply an evaluation of inadequate performance in a course.  Help them to see the scope of the issue.
  2. Additionally, make clear: past grades don’t necessarily predict future grades. If students are not doing well in a course, it is possible (sometimes admittedly to a greater or lesser degree) to improve skills, even if the grades don’t ultimately reflect what you’ve gained. Situations are in their control, and they have the power to make decisions that affect outcomes.
  3. Focus on the problem: Ok, so something didn’t work out. What are you going to do? There are lots of ways to solve this problem that each have their pros and cons. Help students weigh their options and practice making tough, but necessary, decisions
  4. Keep conversations realistic, but positive. Sugar-coating doesn’t help students clearly see and deal with the nature of the issue, but neither does berating past mistakes. Have students assess what they’ve been doing that has/hasn’t been working, and make a plan to move forward.
  5. Refer students who might need additional help. In your conversations with students, it may become clear that certain resources would help the student weather the crisis. Don’t be afraid to mention the academic, counseling, and/or disability services on campus that the student could consult (as appropriate).
  6. Keep in mind: your students are unique, but they may struggle in similar ways. If you’ve developed a relationship with a student who has undergone (or is currently undergoing) a similar struggle (or overcome it), ask if students would like to be connected to one-another. Accountabil-a-buddies and peer mentors can do a lot to help a student’s self-esteem when slogging through the hard times.
  7. Support your students as they enact their plans by checking in. Ask how it’s going, and if necessary, offer further guidance to correct and/or amend trajectories.

What would you suggest? Any tips or tricks to share? Let me know and I’ll add them here.

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