Being able to accurately identify student problems is of critical importance in my work, and for anyone else trying to help a student. Parents may not know what has been happening because their student was away at college, and even the students themselves may have trouble identifying the problems or articulating them so they can be helped. There are so many variables as well in student situations. They may be at large colleges, small colleges, have varying majors or no declared major at all. Certain problems can even disproportionately affect young men vs. young women. But, in the end, it’s the fast identification of problems that will guide timely intervention efforts most effectively.
When it comes to students doing poorly or failing in college, there are usually multiple factors involved. Some common factors can include:
Some students who did well in high school reach college and then realize that they never truly acquired the skills to learn effectively. They may have relied only on their good memory to do well in their classes and never learned how to study, take notes, be organized, or otherwise perform well in their classes. Some may have been told that they were good writers in the past, but then lose points for being off topic in papers or essays, or are unable to complete assignments in certain formats. Reaction papers, position paper, and research reports are all common in college, but many students may have never written these before entering college.
Choice Of College
Too many students choose a college based on non-success factors, such as the school’s reputation, sports teams, or other reasons. Some colleges can be very big, and large universities tend to have the lowest success rates among all college types. Other schools may be well known, but they are also high on academic rigor, making the workloads very stressful for students. There is a belief that any student should be able to do well at any college, but this is impossible, since students are individuals, and not all students will succeed in environments that require a lot of self-advocacy or independent work. Choosing a college is essentially picking the academic playing field where the student must succeed, so making the right choice will be important to their success.
Choice Of Major
The same is true for college majors, and choosing one where the student can be successful can be important to them not doing poorly or even failing in their classes. Majors like engineering, pre-med, mathematics, or STEM majors in general can require a very high level of work. While a major may sound good to a student, especially when they are applying to college, if they enter as a declared major they will be given classes for these difficult majors from their first day on campus. Often the pre-requisite classes for these majors are two levels of calculus, physics, chemistry, and other tough courses and their program may offer little room for easier electives like arts and sciences.
Motivation can be one of the most difficult aspects for students in college, especially if they have large volumes of work to contend with. Too often, in the face of many competing demands on their time, students can get off track, procrastinate, and wind up in a rush to turn things in if they do at all. If they earn bad grades this can hurt their motivation even more, and they may lose sight of why they are working. For some students this can herald the onset of a downward spiral, in which they fall behind in their work, get bad grades, lose even more motivation, and end up failing classes. They can often lack the resilience needed to bounce back, so the trend continues.
Underestimating How Much Effort To Make
Many new students come in to college believing that if they simply approached classes in the same way they did during high school they will do well. Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case, since college Professors often require the student to do much more on their own. Exam questions can come right out of the assigned readings, and some students grew accustomed to not having to do any reading in their prior classes. Other students don’t realize that studying one or two hours for an exam won’t be enough, or that they’ll end up spending many hours writing a 12 page paper with references. This unfamiliarity with what they need to do can often be a key factor in their bad grades.
Many students wind up in college environments where they cannot function well socially or interpersonally. They may find themselves not willing to ask for help from Professors, TAs, or college staff. Or they may find that they aren’t making friends or otherwise integrating in to the campus community. This can lead to their having problems with understanding course material because they never ask for clarity, feeling isolated or alienated from their classmates and other students, and be a precursor for them becoming anxious, unhappy, or even depressed.
College failure or academic problems usually have multiple factors at play. There is typically no single cause, and understanding what issues the student may be having is the first step toward effective intervention.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national level Higher Education Consultant based in Pittsburgh, PA. He’s worked with students and parents across the U.S. about college issues since 2001, and is a member of CSRDE that focuses on best practices in helping students. He is also a member of NACADA, the national college advising association in the U.S. Please see the program page for services Jeff offers.