Honest Conversations

After a good conversation with some friends, I’m realizing how hard it is for folks to face reality, particularly when reality doesn’t represent our goals. Whether it’s being perpetually in debt, on yet another crash-diet, or with a partner that’s no good, sometimes the rational thing is not what we want to see and accept. So, we lie to ourselves. We avoid. We do everything we can to not face reality. This, we think, will somehow change things.

It doesn’t.

As an academic advisor, mid-semester is one of the hardest times in my job. Yes, grades are issued at the end of the semester, but at that point, reality is staring you right in the face as an unarguable known. At midsemester, when grades are still in the making, there can often be false hope or avoidance mentalities that are hard to break for students.

If I can get them into my office, the conversation revolves around the idea of ‘salvaging’ the semester and one’s GPA (and maybe too, one’s pride). Sometimes it is wisest to drop a course, switch it to pass-fail, or reassess the work you’re putting into courses and redirect your efforts. It’s fruitful to calculate out where you actually stand and admit, “Hey, it’s mathematically impossible for me to make X grade”, or “Ok, in order to get a 90%, I have to get a 98% on the rest of my assignments, and I’m averaging a 72 now…”. This sobering experience is difficult, but freeing. If the student can use this as a learning opportunity, then it’s a win for them ultimately, and hopefully they have a smidgeon more grit moving forward.

However, one thing that doesn’t get enough attention is coaching students through having conversations with their loved ones. For many students, particularly first-years, their families and friends back home have only known them as good students. To an extent, it’s how students have formed their identities (This is flawed, but I’ll deal with this in another post). So, to need to drop a course, or to refuse to drop and be on track to fail, is seemingly absurd. Others need help. I don’t. Others fail. I don’t. No way I could be in trouble…

For students not facing reality, ignorance is (momentary) bliss, and at the end of the semester, reality hits with a hard smack. The schedules they signed up for need changing, their scholarships are potentially in danger, and their egos tend to be pretty bruised. Families and friends tend to find out around this time, and for those celebrating holidays or otherwise enjoying a break, there are clouds overhead. This is learning the hard way.

Learning the (easier) way is to come to reality at midsemester, and make a plan. This plan can include dropping a course, in addition to different study strategies, etc. BUT it also should include looping your family into what’s going on. It’s the students’ choice, of course, but if they talk to their parents regularly, lying for the remainder of the semester until the truth comes out erodes trust, and frankly, doesn’t show maturity. This is is partly why I advocate students– from the beginning of college– make these decisions on their own; this means they don’t have to feel as if ‘getting permission’ is necessary to make the educational choices that are best for them as a young adult. They fully own their successes and failures, and they can choose what to share.

However, the reality of the day is ever-more involved parents and with the cost of college, students’ semesters often represent a large financial investment for their parents. FERPA aside, students are looping in their parents to all kind of details, and this relationship should be leveraged. If not, parents can unknowingly cause distress in students by perpetuating the idea that only ‘dumb’ students drop, need tutoring, or get less than an A. These things are, of course, untrue. However, for a student sensitive to these ideas due to ongoing academic issues and hidden failures, false ideas linking academic performance to value/intelligence can drive further panic.

So, students, here’s what can you do:

  1. Break the association between good/loving/helpful/<insert positive quality here> person = good grades. A person’s value is far more than their grades. 
  2. Make a policy to honestly state your performance, or that you won’t answer questions about it. Either be truthful and forthcoming or choose not to discuss it. Partial truths don’t really serve you and can lead you to making ‘dumb’ decisions in the long-run to save face in the short-run.
  3. Do the best you can by using the campus and course resources available to you. Try them out a few times and see what works for you, even if you are doing relatively well. You can always cut back as you need more time or your goals change, and on occasion, as an added bonus, you can become a paid tutor through these resources (Network!).
  4. Calculate your grades yourself. Don’t rely on the course management system or grades to be uploaded. Ignoring that these systems make mistakes, the act of calculating your grade yourself can help you to see where you are goofing up.
  5. Visit your professors and advisors with the facts in hand, and play the big-picture with them. Individual course points are such small things, but setting yourself up to stay scholarship-eligible or get a coveted internship are bigger. Play ‘chess’, and don’t be afraid to lose pawns if it means checkmating.

And families and friends, here’s what you can do:

  1. Break the association between good/loving/helpful/<insert positive quality here> person = good grades. A person’s value is far more than their grades. 
  2. Focus on what your student is learning. The grades are secondary, and the grades won’t necessarily help the student figure out what they want to do with their life. Pay attention to the courses that are interesting and exciting to the student, and encourage growth here.
  3. If you must ask about grades, don’t pretend you know how things will be calculated. Unless you have read the syllabus, crunched the numbers, etc., you’re not helping by saying things that act as if “curves are guaranteed”, or “the average can’t have been failing”, etc. Admit the limits of your knowledge, and hear what the student is saying. If you think they are making a real mistake in assessing their performance, have them go talk to someone who *does* know, like the course professor. Comforting them by perpetuating bad info can delay their personal growth. Don’t be that person.
  4. Encourage your student to be proactive about issues. Humans tend to avoid/procrastinate on difficult things, and time is ticking in a semester. It’s a lot easier to fix things early in the semester when many more options exist than when doors begin to shut.
  5. If failure happens, focus on the positive. Seriously. Do not rub it in someone’s face, or say things like, “Well, now that you can’t ever get a 4.0…”. Think before you speak, and think about the other courses the student might have done well in. Or, if they’re a first year, celebrate the idea that the student officially finished a semester of college (a huge privilege!) or figured out living on their own. There is growth even when we don’t achieve in all of our goals.

What else would you add/amend? Please let me know!



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