Ask Ainsley, Student Life

Ask Ainsley: I’m worried I might fail a class, what should I do?

Dear Ainsley,

I have not been doing well in one of my classes and now that finals are approaching, I am extremely worried about failing this class. Is there anything I can do between now and the final to avoid failing, or should I just withdraw now?

Freaking About Failing (FAF)

Dear FAF,

Try not to be too hard on yourself; I can assure you that most students have been in your position before. Most of us have dealt with at least one class with material that we cannot seem to grasp. Worry not, there are definitely ways to bypass failing, even this late in the semester.

If the grade you need to pass the class is impossible to obtain, like a 105 per cent on the final, consider withdrawing from the class. Withdrawing will give you a “W” on your transcript in lieu of a final mark, so the class does not get removed from your record and you still pay tuition costs for it. But withdrawing is nothing to be ashamed of. If employers or graduate school admission workers ask, you can always explain your reasons for dropping the class. Most likely, these people have been there once or twice in their lives, so they will understand and perhaps applaud you for taking the “W” instead of the fail.

However, if you don’t need such an unrealistic grade on the final to pass the class, start reviewing now—the sooner the better! Studies have shown that we feel a greater urge to procrastinate on tasks that make us feel anxious, like preparing for a difficult exam. Start by making a to-do list of tasks and breaking them down into small digestible, actionable items. Put them into a study schedule—alongside time for relaxation, exercise, and meals—and give yourself rewards for accomplishing each scheduled item. Work in environments that feel comfortable to you, like a library or café you enjoy, and get to making study guides that synthesize all the material into themes. Before you know it, you will be more equipped for this exam than you ever thought possible.

Reviewing for your exams earlier will leave you in a position to gather questions on the material. Make a list of those questions and head over to your professor’s or TA’s office hours. Although this amenity is extremely helpful, it is notoriously underutilized. Your profs and TAs are there to help you learn and they want you to excel with this material—especially if it interests you. While you’re there, it doesn’t hurt to try to explain to your professor that you are worried about failing the class, and explain the circumstances causing it. I’m not saying this tactic always works, but there’s a chance that they will be slightly more lenient when grading you (unfortunately, this will probably not work for multiple choice exams).

Group study sessions are another great learning tactic. If you can’t think of any reliable friends in the class to review with, post in the class Facebook group and see if anyone wants to form a study group. Working with other students who can explain material you’re struggling with in a digestible manner can help you learn, and you’ll likely feel more comfortable asking questions to a peer than your prof. Plus, if you end up teaching information to another student and explaining out the concepts, equations, or definitions so that they understand it, that’s a sign that you have mastered them and are ready for your exam! Be conscious of who you ask to join your group, however, as studying with other students who have mastered the course may give you more anxiety and self-doubt prior to the test.

Finally, if you have used all of the study tools that you can think of to make it through this class, but you are still not feeling prepared, just do your best. If you end up failing, know that many students fail classes and it is not the end of the world by any means. It may be a sign that your program or major isn’t quite right for you, and you may consider switching tracks in the future–which is only ever a good, progressive step! If you have studied your hardest, take pride in that, and whatever happens will happen.

Good luck, you can do this!

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