I truly dread handing back papers and exams. Even though I usually end up with that “perfect curve” grade distribution (in which the majority of students perform well but some outliers either excelled or failed), there are always some students who have difficulty calmly and rationally accepting their grade. Depending on their grade, there are students who loudly proclaim their happiness (I’ve even seen some students literally take a bow), or cry, get angry and leave the room in a noisy show of protest, or simply deflate: they slump in their chairs and sink into themselves, unable to participate during the rest of the class. The overly emotive and unrestrained behavior of some students in the modern classroom sometimes makes me just want to open the door, fling the assignments into the room and run for my life.
In spite of the drama provided by those who act out, there is one group of students that I worry about the most: the deflaters, the ones who lose all hope and may or may not come back to class after receiving a low grade on an assignment. That’s why I read with great interest Allie Grasgreen’s July 6 InsideHigherEd article “Here’s Hoping,” which explored more than a decade of research that all points to the same conclusion: hopeful students tend to do better academically in college. Citing studies of students at all levels of education from researchers in Kansas, Great Britain, and Indiana, Grasgreen wrote,
“A growing (but still small) body of research is finding that students with high levels of hope get better grades and graduate at higher rates than those with lower levels, and that the presence of hope in a student is a better predictor of grades and class ranking than standardized test scores.”
The good news is that hope can be an acquired trait. Students who react with depression or get despondent over a poor grade can use hope to fight back against those feelings and keep their heads above water throughout the semester. Grasgreen points out that these studies show that hope
“is innate, to an extent, correlating with high optimism, self-esteem and perceived control and problem-solving abilities. But it can also be learned: train a student to visualize their goals, to see how they’ll achieve them, even when obstacles arise, and hope will follow, some experts say.”
I think that many instructors already know this on an instinctual level. We know that grades are important and that many students have difficulty separating their academic grades from their self-worth. When we hand back assignments, we often make comments such as, “Remember that this paper is only worth 15% of your final grade” or “it’s still early in the semester and you have time to improve your scores.” I have had a policy for over 20 years that any student who earns below a 70 on an exam must meet with me to discuss their grade, so that I can try to determine the causes of their low performance or find out if there is a problem preventing them from doing well. At these meetings I can reassure them, if necessary, by providing an explanation of how the score on that particular exam affects their final grade, examining their notes to see if they are actually helpful, or directing them toward extra resources they can use.
But there are steps students themselves can also take to avert any feelings of academic despondency or the fear and anxiety that can come with a bad grade or other negative evaluation of their academic work. The following steps may just help keep students in the positive and hopeful frame of mind that will help them persevere in their studies.
If you are struggling in school and worried about it, try these simple steps:
- Practice positive self-talk: Remember the Saturday Night Live character “Debbie Downer,” who managed to turn even the happiest events in the lives of the people around her into moments of doom and gloom? Did you get the feeling that nothing good was ever going to happen to her? That’s probably because with an attitude like hers, she wouldn’t recognize a good thing when it happened. The Mayo Clinic indicates that such negative thought patterns increase your stress level, which won’t help you do better on future assignments. Instead, practice positive self-talk, which lowers stress, improves your physical health, and “better coping skills during hardships and times of stress.” Think about what you learned from the assignment, for example. Use that to develop hope about how you will do on your next assignment.
- Talk with your professor: No one knows more about how you do your academic work, and what it means to your final grade, than your professor. Rather than get caught up in a negative pattern in which you assume that one or two poor assignments will doom your grade, meet with your professor to find out exactly what you did incorrectly and how you can improve it in the future. Some professors can be intimidating, but most are there genuinely because they enjoy teaching and will try to assist you. A good talk with a professor about where you stand and how to improve will increase your hopefulness.
- Celebrate small achievements: This means that no matter how difficult a situation, you should try to find at least one positive aspect of it. If you do poorly on an exam, look at the questions you answered well. That’s proof right there of your abilities to learn and process information- an ability that you can use in the future. Research shows that people who view their lives through this kind of optimistic lens experience more success than others. According to Forbes.com, optimists are more successful in securing and holding onto employment, for example. College is a good time to learn how to be an optimist in the face of difficulties.
- Set manageable goals: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you are struggling in your classes. It’s also true that you may have to work independently outside of class to bring your skill levels up to where they need to be for you to improve your work. Rather than let all the work get you down, establish a plan to complete each task individually, rather than tackle everything at once. Don’t think about all the upcoming papers and exams. Focus just on the next one and what you can do to improve that assignment. When you complete that assignment, use the feeling of accomplishment to raise your hopes about the next one.
- Focus on the future: Remember that each quiz, exam, presentation, or paper represents just one moment in your life. Avoid catastrophic thinking by using the results of one course assignment as a barometer that measures all of your future potential. Instead, think about how different the future will be once you take control of the situation, complete extra work, learn new skills, and meet with your professor. Armed with greater knowledge and abilities, you will be able to tackle future work with much better results. That’s a great reason to be hopeful about the future!
Of course, if you find yourself feeling truly despondent, have trouble sleeping, eating or are showing other signs of depression, it is important to take care of your health by seeing a physician or school counselor. You would be surprised at how quickly disappointment can turn into a debilitating depression, so it’s always best to consult a professional for help.
Do you have any suggestions for staying hopeful during college? Share them here!