Responding to Failing Students Who Ask If They Can Still Pass the Class

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A Very Difficult Question

It’s odd, but the question “Am I going to pass your class?” is often asked by the students who have no chance whatsoever at passing, and, yet, it is precisely those students who need an answer that is carefully constructed so as to inform and motivate. It is also important to maintain the morale of the student and help the student avoid seeing the failure as a fatal blow to their educational goals. The question that presents itself is, “Is it possible to tell a student that has 27% with two weeks left in the course that he will not pass and simultaneously stave off the virtually inescapable frustration and sorrow that happens?” I say yes.

Formulating the Response

When formulating a response to the student. it is important to exercise care while also providing all of the necessary details. One technique that works well is to focus on the scores and point totals to help paint the reality of the situation. Included in the response is a gentle description of what has to happen for the student to pass while being careful to avoid the use of phrases like “it will take a miracle” or “divine intervention.” In this stark pronouncement, it is always important to add a touch of warmth and to provide encouragement.

Providing Motivation

Stressing what the student has learned and the value of that knowledge can provide some much needed motivation. It is often the case that a score does not adequately represent the student’s ability but merely reflects the performance in the class that is subject to a number of factors. Students can also be motivated when instructors explain that the grade is not the end of their academic career but is instead a natural part of the education process and that the student can and must go forward.

Stressing that the student can learn from this experience and reorder his life to prevent this from happening again is useful because it helps the student start thinking about what needs to change. Stress the student’s aptitude, character, and tenacity, and invoke the inspiration that comes from falling and standing up again in spite of the circumstances. When instructors empathize with their students, it can help to keep the students focused on their goals and not on the failing grade.

And Fairness for All

Many instructors see the student’s request as a reflection of the instructor’s own performance and hurriedly seek to come up with make-up work, extra credit, and bonus points. In the end, however, these efforts don’t teach the student the crucial lessons and, instead, have a larger and more detrimental effect to the entire grading system by diluting it. Instructors should avoid this temptation and remember that fairness means being fair to everyone and not more fair to some than to others.

A Final Word

When instructors take the time to examine the way they respond to this difficult question, they can identify ways to improve their efforts. The small amount of work that goes into formulating a proper response can have lasting effects on the student. Careful wording to motivate the students will encourage them to continue on and will help the students retain their dignity. In addition, when the grades that have been earned are issued, the integrity of the grading system is maintained, and fairness to all of the students has been assured.