It’s a few weeks before the end of the semester, and desperate supplicants have already started to make the pilgrimage to my office or email me, pleading for extra credit and grade reconsiderations so that they can pass my courses. They outline intricate arguments to justify special treatment; these claims usually involve vague and unverifiable illnesses, the death of mysterious and distant family members, natural disasters, conspiracies, etc. From the way some students explain their predicaments, it appears that they have become victim of all the Ten Plagues of Egypt, with the Zombie Apocalypse thrown in for good measure.
Once a student even told me that the reason he did not hand in a single required paper all term was that he was “not good at jumping through hoops.” I patiently explained that a great deal of pedagogical analysis had gone into the design of course assignments to both facilitate and assess student learning and therefore not just “hoops” that professors make students go through. His response? “Whatever.” Needless to say, that student was not successful in his grade appeal.
But the students I described above are the bad actors, the ones who make it difficult for students with legitimate issues to get the benefit of the doubt from their instructors. Some of my students have struggled the past few semesters with genuinely horrible things, including homelessness, grave medical conditions, and even in a few cases the murder of a close friend or family member. Such students, who are still trying to stick it out through the end of the semester, deserve every consideration. These students are the exception, though, rather than the rule. Most of the students who come to me looking for favors at the end of the semester are doing so because they did not take their studies seriously and have realized the ramifications of that choice.
So let’s say you’re failing a course. Is there anything you can do to salvage the situation before that F ends up on your transcript? CollegeCandy offers some bad advice and suggests you cry in order to emotionally manipulate the professor. Why is that bad advice? Well, for one thing, it’s dishonest. It can also backfire—students who come to me crying seldom get a break, because I am aware of how often that is used as emotional blackmail. Plus, it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is faking.
The following are some suggestions on how to handle the situation, dealing fairly and professionally with your professor and the school, and make appropriate plans for next semester:
- Read the student handbook: The first thing you need to do is familiarize yourself with your school’s policy on failing grades, incomplete grades, course withdrawals, extra credit assignments, etc. While your instructor will probably know the policies, it’s a good idea to enter into any discussion with your professor about your grade with knowledge of all your options. It’s an even better idea to be able to make a case for one or two of these options. This shows the professor that you have taken your predicament seriously and have approached the problem thoroughly.
- Speak with your instructor: Your instructor assigns course grades and is the only person who can change them. Your instructor is also the best resource you have on all the assignments—especially those coming up. He or she can help you improve your work so that you can do better on remaining assignments and hopefully pull your grades up enough to pass the course. Be polite, open to suggestions, and truthful.
- Ask if extra credit is available: In my courses, extra credit is never available. As I explain to my students, why would I assign even more work when they are already struggling to handle the work outlined on the syllabus? That would be cruel! But some professors have a different philosophy, and are often amenable to re-writes or extra credit assignments, especially if there were extenuating circumstances (example: you broke your leg and while you don’t need that to write, the initial pain medications prevented you from concentrating). It’s worth asking. Just be courteous and accept the answer the professor gives without arguing about it. There are often good reasons why professors don’t offer extra credit.
- Focus on the remaining course work: If no extra credit is available, it’s time to make the most of the rest of the course assignments. One way to do this is to learn from your mistakes: study not just the course material, but the mistakes you made in earlier assignments. Read over your exams, papers, etc., and ask to meet with the professor for help with preparing for the final exam or revising your final paper. Higher quality work will earn higher quality grades, and that may offset the damage done earlier in the semester.
- “Take an activity vacation”: This good advice comes from Study Hack: “When the (academic) going gets tough, your activities should get going. An activity vacation asks that you temporarily suspend your involvement in all extracurricular activities. The key word is ‘temporarily,’ so don’t sweat becoming a slacker. It’s a simple action that can free up massive amounts of time — the time needed to repair your academic woes.” I would add that this advice also extends to your social life: take a break from going out with your friends and see if it makes a difference.
- Get help! This can be a very stressful time. Look into any services offered by your school that can help you get through it. Tutoring, the writing center, and counseling can all be useful in helping you complete your work at a higher level of achievement and manage the panic, fear and stress that you may feel when facing a possible failing course grade. You should also consider forming a study group, or asking one of the top achievers in the class (you know who they are) for some assistance or tips on how to better understand the material.
- Contact your adviser and the registrar: If nothing else will work, look into the possibility of dropping the course before the final exam. This will prevent an F from showing up on your transcript, but you will have to retake the course if it’s a requirement. You may also need the instructor’s approval—that all depends on the policy of your school. Finally, this option it may have ramifications for your financial aid, especially if you dip below a required number of credits for the semester, so make sure you think all of this through.
Whenever students come to me to ask what they can do to salvage their failing course grade, these are my suggestions. But I also discuss with them a truth that Natalie Clive pointed out on articlecrunch.info:
“Getting a failing grade isn’t the end of the world. There are almost always second chances. And who knows? Maybe getting a failing grade will bring you to a realization about your degree choice or even your career ambitions. Sometimes you need to work through that failure and overcome it, but sometimes it means that your talents were busy being put to better use in other things that held more interest for you. Either way, there is hope for better grades ahead!”
In other words, no matter how dreadful the experience, a poor grade in a course can be a valuable learning experience that a smart student will use to do better in the future.