Expert Advice on When to Ask for Help, Drop or Withdraw
Good grades are important for many reasons. Not only do they set a student up for better long-term opportunities in applying to graduate or professional school, they also allow entrance into specific fields of study and lead to scholarships and other opportunities. But some courses are tough, and it's common for students to struggle academically in at least one class. If you're failing a class, you have options. Find out what you can do to improve your grade and when it might be time to drop or withdraw from a class.
What to Do if You're in Danger of Failing a Class
Before considering dropping or withdrawing from a course, a student should work to put him or herself in the best position to succeed by using the tools available on and off campus. Here are steps students should take as soon as they know their grade is at risk.
- Talk to the professor The first stop is asking for help from the professor. “If a student knows they are failing, they should immediately contact the professor and ask for time to meet during office hours,” says Joseph Croskey, Director of the University Advising Services Center at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. “If it is early in the semester, the professor may help the student chart a course to earn a passing grade by the end.” Once the student-professor relationship is established and a plan is in place, students should seek out the additional resources that are available to them. Professors will likely make specific recommendations, plus most campuses have many academic resources in place to help struggling students.
- Know what you need to do to pass Ask your professor to help you understand the grading system for the class. Get a detailed picture of how to do well on upcoming assignments or what grades you need to pass. For example, maybe you need to get a B on each of the upcoming tests to bring up your average.
- Utilize student services on campus “There are often success centers that provide services,” says Kathleen Ellwood, a consultant, coach and mentor to Clarion University's Leadership & Innovation Connections Group. “Students may have a documented learning disability and can seek out the office of disability services to assist with testing issues. If other issues are stressing them out and preventing them from studying, they can seek appropriate counseling resources.”
- Talk to your academic adviser or an academic coach Advisers can help you act on your own behalf and advocate for yourself. They are there to help students plan out a long-term path to achieve their academic goals and they can address speed bumps along the way. “Some schools also offer academic coaches who can help students with study strategies, time management and other skills,” Ellwood says.
- Find a tutor Students can find tutors on campus through student resource centers. Students can also often find tutors online and through academic help centers. Whatever the subject matter is, there is someone that can help. Especially for repetition or process-related fields like math or science, it's important to have someone to monitor your study habits and understanding of the material.
- Connect with other students If you are finding the class difficult, other students likely are, too. Croskey suggests taking notes and discussing them with other students daily in an informal peer study group. “Test yourselves on the material daily. Study in a conducive environment without distractions,” says Croskey. Sometimes the key to understanding something is just to hear it explained in a different way. Talk to as many people about the subject as you can.
- Use online resources “Internet resources like Khan Academy, or even YouTube, can help with many subjects,” Croskey says. Watch videos, do additional research, get repetition with the correct solving systems. Everything helps.
- Keep a positive attitude Find genuine interest in the topic. Think about the class and the workload positively. If you can make it interesting, the information is more likely to stick, plus learning it will be a better experience, says Croskey. “Pay attention in class with curiosity about the subject and what the professor is presenting. Your ability to pay attention and focus can be enhanced by the proper attitude,” he says.
- Do extra credit, if possible It's possible your professor will assign work for you that you can do to boost your grade, or at least will give you supplemental study materials. Take advantage of these opportunities as it will demonstrate a desire to succeed and finish the class on a good note.
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When to Consider Other Options
It is always ideal to try one's best to complete a course with a passing grade before any other considerations. There are times, though, when that becomes impossible and it becomes appropriate to look at other options. Dropping a course, withdrawing from a course and taking an incomplete are some of these alternatives. We've listed them below with Croskey's expert advice as to when they may be necessary, and how they affect the picture of a student's overall academic path.
According to Croskey, a withdrawal should be seen as a last-resort option. “A student knows [it's time to withdraw] when they have met with their professor and determined that there is no possible way to earn enough points to pass the course,” Croskey says.
If students plan to withdraw from a course, they will likely need to get approval for their plans before they can officially withdraw. “Typically students have to have approval from the professor or adviser to withdraw from the course,” says Crosky. Some schools also require a student to have at least a passing grade for the course at the time of the withdrawal.
There are a few additional factors students should keep in mind before choosing to withdraw from a class. “Some courses are required by major and will have to be retaken,” says Crosky. A withdrawal might “put the student out of sequence to progress in their chosen major, resulting in them having to stay an additional semester.”
Most schools also limit the number of withdrawals a student can take. “A student is only allowed a certain number of withdrawals on their transcript,” says Crosky, noting the number for Clarion University is five. Some schools also have a “double repeat policy”. UC Santa Cruz, for instance, only allows students to repeat a course twice, and a withdraw counts as an attempt. While a “W” on a transcript is better than a failing grade, it might negatively impact future opportunities for graduate school.
Students who rely on financial aid to pay for school will also need to keep in mind that withdrawing from a class may drop the number of enrolled credits below the minimum needed for financial aid. Students should carefully review their financial aid requirements with their adviser before withdrawing.
Taking an Incomplete
Failing & Then Re-Taking a Class
Questions to Ask Yourself
There isn't a blueprint for knowing when to drop, withdraw or take an incomplete for a class. Students should seriously self-reflect and consider each aspect of their academic, professional and personal lives before they make a decision. They especially shouldn't consider these options as an ‘easy way out;' rather, they should be honest about other time commitments and priorities, as well as their big-picture academic plans. Most importantly, students must have a clear idea of the options before them, as well as associated deadlines.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before deciding on your course of action:
- Am I looking for an easy-way out or am I considering my options carefully?
- Am I willing to put in the work required to pass this class?
- Have I spoken with the professor to solidify a plan for passing this class?
- Do I have a good working relationship with my teacher? Do I feel comfortable that they will help me turn things around?
- Have I met with my academic adviser?
- Are there other obstacles in my life this semester that are preventing me from doing my best in this class? Might I be able to dedicate more to it at a later date?
- Do I have a genuine interest in this subject?
- Have I passed the drop-by date?
- Does my financial aid package hinge on taking a certain number credits? If so, will I have enough credits without this course?
- Have I met with my financial aid adviser?
- Are there events in my life happening that may allow for an Incomplete?
- How many withdraws do I already have on my transcript?
- Is this class required for my major? If so, how often is it offered?
- What are my long-term academic goals? What kind of GPA is necessary to exceed them?
What's the difference between dropping and withdrawing from a class?
Is it better to withdraw from a class or fail the class in college?
How much does a withdrawal affect your GPA?
Can dropping or withdrawing from a class affect your financial aid?
Do dropped or withdrawn classes show up on your transcript?
How many classes can you drop in college?
What should I do if I need to drop a class that's required for my major or for graduation?
How to Keep Your Grades Up Next Semester
Students should understand that while dropping, withdrawing, taking an incomplete or failing a class is far from ideal, it's also not the end of their college career. There are many actions that students can take to put themselves in a good position for greater success over their remaining semesters. Read below for some tips to gaining control over one's academic achievements.
Be an active time manager
Time management is critical to finding success in all aspects of life. Whether addressing your personal, professional or academic life, one must know how to effectively organize and prioritize their time. Here are time management tips for students from the Harris School of Business.
Learn to identify stress…and how to manage it
Stress is a real challenge for college-age students. They're living in the real world, often for the first time, and have to learn to manage their money, housing, roommates, time, social lives and homework. Learning about stress and how to mitigate it is a great tool for every student's toolbox. Learn more about how students can manage stress in college.
Become a great communicator
Even for those of us who are shy, communicating with other students, professors, and faculty is critical to forming relationships and finding success in college. “Proactive communication is key to student success,” Croskey says. “A student should meet with the professor several times at the beginning of a course. If something comes up, and the student must miss class, the professor is more likely to understand and it may not negatively impact their grade.”
Take care of yourself
That means eat, exercise and sleep well. While that often seems to be advice for people who are older, it's important to get a jump on good habits in your college years. Plus, the benefits to these habits should not be underestimated. College students, especially those who work as well, need to be in their best frames of mind and body to do their best. Good sleep alone can account for better memory, and improved grades, not to mention better physical health.
It may not seem that confidence and grades are linked, but here's proof. Think about it: confident people are more comfortable communicating, asking for help, and reaching out to others. College is a time of self-discovery, so figure out what's awesome about you and focus it!
Find your passion
Classes are easier when students are interested in the subject matter. If you're finding your coursework consistently boring or difficult, perhaps it's time to explore another field.