Panic at the End of the Semester

Around this time of year with exams and papers looming and only a few weeks left in the term many students face panic at the end of the semester. It is academic crisis time.

An academic crisis may look like this scenario: A student has been going along for several weeks, not really understanding the course lectures nor the assigned readings. Since the knowledge in many fields including languages, math and biology builds directly on what has gone before, the longer students wait to acknowledge a problem, the deeper in trouble they are. And they know it. But they assume that everyone else is doing just fine, and so keep quiet in class. They don't want to show up at the tutoring center because it feels stigmatizing. They study for hours, reading the material over and over, still failing to understand it. Then the student fails the midterm. Other distractions occur and things become more complicated. Sound familiar?

However there are solutions. Some you may need to act on quickly. All require that you get over the fear of asking for help. Everyone needs help sometimes along the way. College is where questions are expected. It is good to get to know professors even when it is not under the best circumstances.

I remember one student who really messed up his midterm. He had a C which he had never ever done before. The final paper would make or break his grade. He came to ask what to do. We worked out a plan of action for the final paper and he worked so hard that he got an A- on it bringing his final grade (with class participation added) up to a reasonable B+. A year later when he needed a reference for a scholarship I was happy to do it. He had proven his desire to learn and to do the work. He got the scholarship. It is always better to ask for help. You never know how things may turn out.

There are a number of things you can do if you feel you are in academic trouble. Here are a few items that students can do to deal with an academic crisis, including a formal appeals procedure. Here are some steps you can take when you think you may be close to failing a class.

Steps to Manage an Academic Crisis

Talk to your teachers or professors immediately. They are happy to help. They prefer it if they know there is a problem, rather than puzzling later when the student does not do well. All faculty have office hours, and students should use them, or you can see them after class. You should explain honestly what you do not understand. That conversation may itself turn the situation around. In college you may be able to drop the course or take an incomplete or take the class pass/fail.

Form study groups. Forming or joining a group of students with different ideas, subject knowledge and diverse ways of thinking and approaching problems can help all of you work together to crack the code of whatever issues are in front of you. Each offers different strengths.

Make use of small group settings (sometimes called seminar or recitation sections) that may be offered or even required along with large lecture classes. Unlike large lectures, they lend themselves to discussion and asking questions. The goal of these smaller groups is to make sure that everyone understands and can engage in the information presented.

Speak up. A key part of your grade may be class participation and if you have been silent all term this is the time to find your voice and use it. Clearly you have to be on top of the readings or homework but it makes no sense to lose 10 to 25 percent of a grade because you never spoke up. Check the syllabus to see how the grades are determined so you can strategize.

Go to the tutoring center, writing center or learning center, often staffed by graduate students or upperclassmen, guided by professionals, who are good at the skill or subject at hand. You will find the smart students there.

Use workshops. Most campuses also have workshops on how to study and time management. If you are really shy you can find out who's running the workshop and plan to meet with them individually. Sometimes there is free food too.

You can take a placement test to be sure you are in the correct class level. You may have scored high enough on the SAT or ACT, but the class in which you have been placed may be taught at a level above your skills. You can ask to be tested to see if your skills match the school's standards for its courses. If not, you may be allowed to take a more appropriate level class to build your skills and confidence.

Check the calendar (now) to see when the last day to drop a class is. Talk to your adviser to be sure you can do it without jeopardizing your status or your financial aid. If you drop below a certain number of credits you may fall below what is needed for full time and for financial aid. The deadline will be around Thanksgiving -- before exams.

See what the rules are about taking classes pass/fail (sometimes called credit/no credit. There will be a deadline. Your school catalog will give the rules and deadlines. But what it means is that you can take a class and essentially get no grade unless you fail. Then you get an F. If you pass you get credit but no grade. So if you were likely to get a C or a B- which would lower your GPA you may want to consider that. A GPA below 3.0 can threaten some scholarships. You may not be able to do this for classes in your major or for required classes. So check the rules.

You might take an Incomplete. You would have to work this out with your professor and usually it is given for some kind of crisis. You may have been ill and missed classes or had to take care of a sick family member. It would be something outside your control. You may be asked for evidence like a doctor's note. But you would then enter into an agreement with your professor, based on the rules of your school, that would allow you to turn in your final paper or exam late into the next term. If you miss the deadline though you could get an F.

You could need a leave of absence again if there is something beyond your control. The job that you need to stay in school changes your schedule or requires frequent travel, you have to go home to take care of your sick father, you get ill yourself. Schools are willing to work with you to essentially put you on hold for a term. This way you are not dropping out. You work out a plan with your adviser or dean to stay on track and pick up when you get back the following year.

The main thing is to not panic and run. That is the worst thing you can do. You could ultimately totally jeopardize you academic career by being silent. Colleges want to help you fix it and make it better. Talk don't panic.

There is more on this topic in Chapter 9 "When it Feels Like a Crisis" of I Can Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide by Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD. Available at and most websites and bookstores.