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A Two-Step Process for Handling Your Child’s Academic Crisis

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The scenario is familiar to most parents of college students. A child calls home. Distraught. A bad grade on a test has convinced him that he doesn’t have what it takes to make it as an undergrad. You reassure him that grades aren’t that important, but he responds by angrily declaring that without a good G.P.A. “he will never, not in a million years, find a job!” You hint that maybe he could just study more, but he protests once again. He reviewed for hours, and unless he were to give up on sleep all together, it would be “impossible to be working any harder!”

What’s a parent to do? In my capacity as an author I have studied hundreds of undergraduates, trying to figure out why some succeed and some don’t. In doing so, I’ve developed a finely-honed sense of what’s going on in the mind of a student when confronted with an academic challenge. What follows is a simple two-step process -- inspired from my insider student perspective -- designed to help parents successfully navigate this tricky situation.

  1. Step #1: Ask “how,” not “how long.”

    A parent’s first instinct is to question whether the student studied enough hours. Regardless of intent, this question will be received as accusatory. You will get an earful about how many hours your child studied, and how he was up all night, and how there is literally no free time left in his day to work more. At this point, the conversation has lost it’s ability to continue in a productive manner.

    Instead of asking “how long” your child studied, focus instead on “how.” Ask what particular study strategy he used. When did he work? Where did he work? How long at each sitting before taking a break? How did he organize the material? What technique did he use to internalize it? The implicit point of this line of questioning is that strategy trumps effort. It gets your child thinking about his bad grade more as a failure of a particular study habit than a personal failure such as being stupid or lazy. Furthermore, study habits are easily changed, so the one bad grade does not necessarily imply a future full of academic crises.

  2. Step #2: Don’t Hang-up before Establishing a Plan B

    Now that you have contextualized the academic difficulty as a failure of study habits, work with your child to develop a revised plan for the next exam. Most likely, his responses to your previous queries about how he studied revealed some lackluster planning – likely, his approach consisted of gathering up all of his books and notes in the library the night before and then reading over them, again and again, until exhaustion hit. This is great news; it leaves plenty of room for improvement.

    Ask your child what worked and what didn’t during his previous study experience. Ask what he thinks he should change the next time around. Then get him to spell out the specific strategy he will now use. Don’t give him all the answers; let the plan come from his own initiative. A few useful prods, however, can’t hurt. Here are a few suggestions, which you can slip into the conversation, of study habit tweaks that have worked exceptionally well for many undergraduates:

    • Work in small bursts during the day, not long marathon sessions at night.
    • Replace passive review of material with something more active; like explaining the material out loud, as if lecturing an audience.
    • Take careful notes in class and attend office hours regularly to help ensure that you learn and understand the material before you begin your review.
    • Don’t work in public places; instead, find isolated carrels in less-trafficked libraries.

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