When a C is Not an F

A sun setting in the woods at the midpoint of the sky

As we enter the midpoint of fall semester, parents of college students (particularly first-year students) may hear… or more likely read via text message “I just failed my exam!” While your student may not be performing up to the standard they are used to in high school, more likely than not they are NOT literally failing. The “I am failing!” panic is common for many students getting acclimated to college, either just after walking out from an exam where they feel they didn’t do well or after receiving their first disappointing grade on an exam. It is so common in fact it was the impetus for the development of a mid-fall workshop for first-year students cleverly titled by a colleague of mine, “When a C is not an F!” 

The Context of the Grade Matters

One fall I recall working with a group of first year students who were taking two common courses (a math and a science course) as part of a typical first semester STEM schedule. After the first exam in each course after the fifth week I found my schedule full of students requesting to meet about “failing classes.” For several days I met with student after student who had earned scores ranging from mid 30’s to mid 50’s (out of 100).  Most were devastated that they had miserably “failed” their first two college exams and needed to drop one of the classes to try and recover in the other while managing to continue to do “ok” their remaining courses. In fact some expressed they were reconsidering their major altogether! What I knew from experience and was able to explain to students during our meetings was that both of these courses were graded on a curve. (I will save my opinions about grading on a curve for another day!) Therefore, I explained, in order for them to understand their letter grade for each exam they needed to put their raw score in context of the class average and the standard deviation. For most of these students the idea of being graded on a curve was completely new. Understandably they presumed that because the score they earned was out of 100 their grades translated like so…less than 70 meant a D, less than 60 an F, and below 50… goodness knows, but it was BAD!  During meetings, I had each student look at the online class portal for the class average. In each of these cases, the professor set the average score for the exam to be a letter grade of B-. To students’ surprise (and understandably dismay) in both classes the class average was 43 and 41 respectively (yes, out of 100) and the standard deviations were 12 and 10 respectively.  Thus, students with grades as low as 30 were still passing with a low C and students with grades in the mid/upper 50’s were in the B range. Some students, although dumbfounded at how getting less than a 50% on an exam could actually be passing or even better, were relieved to learn that they were not in fact failing the class. These students were quite open to engaging in a discussion about how best to move forward with both classes, different approaches to learning the material and ideas about accessing resources and support for both classes. However, given most of these students were accustomed to earning primarily A’s in high school, some continued to express concern over their grades…after all, they still didn’t get an A and anything less than an A felt like “failing.” For these students, jolted by the experience of earning their “first ever” grade of less than an A, it was important to explore and validate their feelings, discuss the differences between high school and college, and encourage them to redefine “success” and manage expectations before moving into a conversation about action steps.

I found that students, particularly those at highly ranked institutions, who earn grades less than an A (or maybe a high B) are grappling with something they may never have before contemplated let alone experienced. Furthermore, regardless of where a student is enrolled, earning a grade less than what they are accustomed to likely plays into one of humans most common fears…not being “successful.” Of course, as someone who wants only the best for them and for them to be happy at all times, figuring out how to respond to the distress of “failing” can be difficult for families. Striking the right balance between validating their feelings, helping them develop a healthy perspective, and supporting them to develop a plan is critical.

Focus on Behaviors that Support Learning

For families of new college students, it is important for everyone to remember how significantly different the college environment is overall, and how academic expectations are much higher at most colleges.  At most institutions, students are expected to take ownership over their learning, will earn grades for mastery rather than effort, and be called upon to demonstrate application versus memorization. Understandably, it can take some adjustment and it is not uncommon for grades to dip during this transition. Naturally, this can be upsetting and disappointing to your student. Additionally, stress, lack of sleep, social adjustments and personal issues may negatively impact a student and interfere with their ability to study, learn, or perform at the same level as they did in high school. Additionally, for high performing high school students, they may no longer be at the top of the class at college in some or all of their classes. Getting calibrated, setting realistic goals (including goals besides grades), and developing confidence is important. I strongly encourage both students and families to reconsider what defines “success” in college, and to include more than grades in your definition of success. Focus on behaviors rather than outcomes and work toward creating an undergraduate experience that is fulfilling and supports the student’s well-being and development.

So, what is my advice to you for the next time you hear from your student that they are “failing”?

  • Encourage them to make sure they understand their grade within the overall grade distribution for the exam and the overall course rubric (grading on a curve can be confusing and stressful and some exams carry different weights when calculating final grades for a course).
  • Create space to allow them to express their feelings.  Listen and validate.  Reassure them they have your unwavering, unconditional support and their grades to not define who they are, who they will become or their worth as a person.
  • Consider helping your student recall other times when they have overcome adversity and revisit what they did that was helpful. Help them identify similar steps they can take now.
  • Assist them in creating an action plan (it may be helpful for you to know some resources on their campus and encourage them to reach out to the professor, an advisor, and other supports like peers who are familiar with the course).
  • Ask what you can do that will be helpful and feel supportive.  

Supporting a student’s transition to college can bring about a range of emotions. Given the strong emphasis on grades in high school and in the college admissions process it is understandable that students are highly focused on grades in college. And, it is very common for students to go through an adjustment period where they learn what will be expected of them, how their study skills translate (or not), and how they learn most effectively. Grades will always be a point of focus, not only because it is ingrained in our culture but also because unlike other aspects of “success” they are easily quantifiable. However, it is important to help students broaden their definition of success in college and realize that developing a variety of skills through a diversity of experiences in and out of the classroom will likely lead to the most fulfilling undergraduate experience and increase their career readiness. So the next time you hear “I am failing,” remember that while your student may not have earned the grade they expected (or are used to earning), support them to fully understand the grade, determine steps they can take to improve their mastery of the material, and encourage them to develop a healthy perspective and strive for overall fulfillment for their college experience.

What have you found to be helpful in supporting students make the transition from high school grading to college grading or to help them keep things in perspective as they adjust? How do you encourage students to think about “success” beyond grades?


Beth A. Howland is a higher education consultant and college student success coach based in Ithaca, NY. She is the founder of College Navigators, LLC.

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