A parent recently spoke to me about concerns for her child, who is a student in my class.
This student is struggling with the course content, despite completing all assignments, studying countless hours and seeking out lots of one-on-one help from me.
Sounds like an ideal student, right? But the mom is deeply worried that her child is developing anxiety about the class (and school in general) — especially since the child is fixated on earning an A. I’m worried, too.
This situation brought to mind many other students who have struggled with courses — some because the content was very challenging to them, others because they procrastinated, then had trouble getting back on track.
When is it the right answer to throw in the towel? To give up and withdraw, drop the class?
And when is the struggle worthwhile? When can a low grade, even an F, be an important lesson?
My school, like many, is on a quest to eliminate failure — but at the same time, we are trying to teach kids resilience. Can you do both? I don’t know. I think when we try to remove the possibility of failure, we also diminish the opportunity for challenge.
One of my best friends — I’ll call her Laura — struggled mightily to learn Calculus in high school. We both took Calc I junior year, and Laura wanted to be an engineer, so Calculus wasn’t something she could avoid.
Laura found Calculus all but impossible. She listened in class, read the textbook, did homework problems, studied with me, got help from the teacher. She did everything she could think of, and still she barely passed. It was grueling — in her shoes, I probably would have given up. But she took it again senior year and managed to pull Cs.
Then she took it one more time in college, and finally she got the hang of it. And yes, she’s an accomplished engineer today.
For Laura, the struggle and even the low grades were worth it. She didn’t get into her first-choice college, but she achieved her goals. She learned how to learn, and she learned resilience.
Does that mean everyone should work like she did — and risk their GPAs for the sake of growth?
Probably not. Although I think perseverance was Laura’s best option, I also think sometimes students are just in over their heads. I remember taking “COBOL” class in high school and realizing about four weeks in that I had no clue what was going on — plus no time to spend on it and no real desire to learn it. I dropped it without regrets. (Well, maybe I could be a rich software programmer today?)
The answer is different for every individual situation, but there are some questions that can help a student and parent decide when it’s best to persevere and when it’s best to call it a day.
Here are a few of them:
- Why are you taking the class?
If the class is something you need in order to reach your goals, or it’s a subject that’s really fascinating to you, that’s a reason to stick with it. Never let concern about grades — or hard work — keep you from doing something important to you.
- Would you benefit from a few more years of age and experience?
Sometimes students accelerate, accelerate, accelerate, and it’s time to put on the brakes. Not everyone is ready for abstract thinking early in high school. If you can wait and try again later, that might be a reason to pull back now.
- Are you able to focus on learning, rather than the grade?
This is critical. If Laura had focused primarily on her grades, she would have been devastated. But she had a growth mindset — she knew she had to learn Calculus, and was determined to do it. The grade was a reminder of how hard she would have to work, but it wasn’t the focus.
I don’t have an easy answer for my student or the parent. We do learn from struggle and even failure, but we don’t learn from every struggle or every failure. Somehow, we just have to to decide which ones are worth it.