Academic Disappointment or “Failure,”…now what?

Anyone who attended college and is honest with themselves can recall a time, or perhaps quite a few times, when they experienced academic disappointment or even worse (cue the theme song to Jaws)…”FAILURE”! Perhaps you remember a time when you bombed an exam, did not pass a class, or fell short in making the Dean’s list.

As we enter the mid-point of yet another semester, you may hear from your student that they are disappointed with a recent academic result, had a misstep, or are struggling in a course. Consider re-visiting my When a C is Not and Fblog post from the fall where I discuss the importance of considering performance in a broader context and provide suggestions for how you can be supportive. You will also read that I encourage the student to “create an action plan,” but do not offer specific tips for doing so.  In today’s post, I provide some reflection questions that may be helpful for students who recently experienced a disappointing result or who are struggling in a course. 

One of the most valuable skills a student can learn early in their college career is how to use disappointment or “failure” as a learning opportunity. While the inclination may be to “forget about it” or avoid it by dropping or withdrawing from a course when they encounter difficulty, students should think carefully about how to proceed. It is important to remember that they can not drop every course that poses a challenge or in which they get off to a slow start. Processing the experience with a trusted advisor or mentor is important. Unless they have passed the point of no return in the course or there will likely be diminishing overall returns if they keep the course, I encourage students to use academic setbacks as opportunities to develop new skills that will assist them in not only improving their performance in that particular course but likely in other courses in the future, as well. Additionally, improving their performance can provide an opportunity for a student to develop confidence in their ability to “bounce back” and have an experience that they can draw upon for other challenging courses in the future. Such an experience provides a great opportunity for students to develop academic resilience and persistence. 

As a reminder, before suggesting to your student that they “figure out what went wrong and how to fix it,” I encourage you to create space to allow your student to express their feelings, validate those feelings, and provide reassurance of your unwavering, unconditional support. Then, as a means of  helping them move forward productively, encourage your student to reflect on the following questions for themselves. Have them write down their responses. Finally, suggest that they talk with an advisor or mentor who can help them process their disappointing experience, explain their options and available support resources, and work with them to develop a plan.

  • What has been your approach to the course up until this point (what did you do prior to, during and after each class)?
  • Rate how “on top of” the course were you prior to studying for exam (1-low to 10-high)
  • How well prepared did you feel prior to the exam?
  • Did you take advantage of extra practice problems and/or old exams? Did you attend review sessions?
  • What was your approach to the exam (did you read whole thing over before answering any questions, did you answer questions in order, how did you handle a questions that you didn’t know the answer to, did you mark up the exam/circle words, make notes of things that came to mind as you read questions)?
  • How did you feel while you were taking the exam and how did you feel immediately after the exam?
  • Did you finish the exam? If not, why not?
  • How did the grade you receive compare to what you expected based on your understanding of material (both before and after taking the exam)?
  • Have you reviewed your exam (by yourself, with classmates, with TA/instructor)?
    • Did a lot of small mistakes add up or did you not understand a few key concepts?
      • If a few small mistakes, would you get them correctly now (without pressure), were they reading, calculation or conceptual errors?
      • If you didn’t understand a few key concepts, what was the disconnect?
    • Have you discussed how you were learning course material, your approach to doing hw and studying for exams and have you asked for suggestions?
  • Have you been engaged in relatively passive learning (looking at notes and thinking you “understand”) or more active learning (taking your own notes, annotating readings and teaching/explaining to others)?

If you are interested in additional tips to support your student, whether through an academic challenge or in general, be in touch and check out my other previous blog posts. You may also be interested in The Secrets of College Success,” a recent article from Inside Higher Ed that emphasizes that the key to college success is nothing new, but not always obvious. Additionally, The Secret Syllabus,” which was written by two award-winning faculty and published in 2022, includes practical strategies to support college student success. The book draws on the authors’ experiences with thousands of undergraduate and graduate students. They provide practical, actionable advice while using storytelling to illuminate both productive and counterproductive approaches to thriving, developing resilience, and more.

What suggestions do you have for helping students learn from academic setbacks or “failure”? What advice do you have for a student who wants to drop a course after a poor performance?


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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