Lauren is a student who has always been driven to succeed. Both her parents are highly successful in the business world, and she has an older brother who started law school last fall. When she arrived her freshman year, she brought with her an uncompromising attitude about her academics.

Lauren was a student in one of my classes, and she wanted me to know that she was serious…about her grades. I gathered this one day before class when she asked me if I would let her revise an assignment. She has earned a C, which I thought was pretty good for a first-time student who had not encountered the rigors of college expectations just yet. When I told her that she could not revise the assignment, that she would have plenty of opportunities to improve her grade, earn an A for the class even, she wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. Instead, she repeated her request.

“I don’t think you understand,” she said. “I never make below an A on assignments, maybe a B every now and then, but certainly not a C on something this easy.”  I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by “easy,” but she continued. “Besides, I didn’t have time to revise it before I submitted it because I had a required outing with my sorority. We had to spend all weekend volunteering. I could have done better if I had had more time.”

I would agree with Lauren that she could have certainly done better had she spent more time, but I still wasn’t sure why holding to my course policies was upsetting her and my assurances her overall grade was going to be fine was not helping the situation.

Moreover, I was concerned that Lauren was missing the bigger picture of learning. Where was her curiosity about what the assignment was guiding her to do? Where was her reflection on the feedback I gave her to make improvements for next time?

While I don’t have a classroom full of Laurens, I do encounter enough of them that I feel it necessary to share some tips from my vantage point as an educator. I am willing to bet that Lauren’s parents are the ones driving her expectations, at least not totally, but I am sure if they knew what their student was experiencing, they would agree with the strategies below:

  • Talk about expectations–both yours and theirs. Ideally, you will want to talk about your expectations and theirs before the semester begins. For example, when my high school senior gets ready to pick out his classes this summer, we will be talking about what he may encounter and what we expect of his performance. Does he have to make all As? No, but he does need to mindful of the GPA requirement for his scholarship, and he needs to let us know when he does poorly on an assignment so that we can suggest what his next steps should be. Does he need to communicate when he is struggling? Yes, please.
  • Focus on what your student is learning. Your student fails a quiz in chemistry? Ask them what they learned about what they should be doing to prepare better next time. Sometimes the answer is that they are learning not just chemistry but also how to manage their time.
  • Keep emotions out of setbacks. This tip is more for you than your student, for it doesn’t go well to tell someone who is emotional to stop being emotional. Even if you are angry or upset by your student’s misstep, give yourself some space to calm down and approach a conversation as if you are talking about something mundane.
  • Emphasize finding support for true challenges. If you believe your student really needs some help getting through this challenge, then remind them of their resources. Professors are always the frontline for any classroom issue, but there are also advisors, counselors, and coaches would could be helpful.
  • Ask about the positive. You may have to wait until any emotional response is completely over, but revisiting the disappointment or failure to talk about (and dare I say, laugh about) what was learned is critical. Doing so will help your student put into perspective any future stumbles. Here is an example I used with my own college kid recently: “Remember that time you were convinced you were going to fail your botany class because you forgot to turn in the first assignment? Now that you passed the class, what did you learn about yourself?”

Just like your student has to learn how to manage the expectations of college–and may stumble along the way–they won’t execute this plan perfectly. They may hide or downplay a low grade at first or try unsuccessfully to dig themselves out an academic hole. How you communicate, acknowledge contributions to the situation, and make a plan to move forward will help them better weather the experience of a setback or failure.

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