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I have noticed a common pattern followed by many students in crisis:

  • They experience a crisis or setback (injury, illness, tragedy, etc)
  • This causes them to miss a lot of class.
  • They may stay away from class longer than they "need to" because of shame: they feel that since they have been absent, coming back to class will cause their teacher to be critical of them.
  • Once they do come back, they are overwhelmed. They might need to do twice the amount of work in all of their courses just to catch up. In classes where early material becomes a needed prerequisite for later material, it can become impossible to follow the course content being presented when they do return.
  • This experience of failure can create long term patterns of giving up under pressure.

I have known many very capable students who fall into this trap and end up flunking out of University. I could have fallen into this trap myself. As a high school student and college student I got close on several occasions. I have a lot of empathy for this kind of situation.

Question: What kinds of policies and practices can institutions and individual faculty members adopt which help students out of this trap?

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    $\begingroup$ How old students (university?) and how big group sizes (twenty, two hundred, ...)? $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Aug 10, 2022 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Tommi I am asking about university students. I have seen this play out across different group sizes, but my own classes are generally in the 15 - 40 range. $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2022 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks. I added the undergraduate tag and maybe you could specify the group size of interst in the question, as certainly there are different methods for tens than for hundreds of students. $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Aug 11, 2022 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ I think it’s very important to set realistic goals as to whether or not the student can catch up in time for the student to go into the next year. If this is not realistic, then they should acknowledge this and retake the year rather than stressing themselves to death to catch up. Universities do a bad job because they are incentivised to push students through to the next year even if they are far behind. I experienced this myself in my 2nd year. But ultimately if the person feels shame for retaking a year then that is normal because that’s a year of their life they will not get back- however, $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2022 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ Tragedies happen and that’s a part of life, so the loss of a year for having to retake a year should be mourned for a small time also, but not ruminated over, as this is unhealthy and unhelpful. $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2022 at 16:13

4 Answers 4

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Set realistic intermediate goals for students while they're trying to catch up. By default their goal might be along the lines of completely catching up within a week. That's unrealistic, and if they fail at it, they'll be demotivated and can easily get stuck in a failure/demotivation feedback spiral.

Setting expectations you know the student can be successful in can get students on a success/motivation feedback spiral instead.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, this is a very good idea. Often I do this informally, but laying out a written agreement which they can really hold themselves accountable to is a great idea. $\endgroup$ Aug 31, 2022 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ I'd be cautious of having a long-term plan for catching up in case it winds up being overly optimistic or students hit unforeseen blocks. The priority here should be keeping students engaged in a cycle of success and motivation; actually catching up is secondary. $\endgroup$
    – TomKern
    Aug 31, 2022 at 22:09
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I've personally known two students who went through such a crisis, and didn't flunk. What set them apart from what you describe is that in both cases, they advised the university of their personal issue when it happened, and were able to come up with an acceptable plan together with the university.

This completely removed the "shame" part that you describe. In one case, the student still had to retake the year because they ended up missing too much, but there was no shame in that, just an extra year at university. In the other case, the student managed to validate the year and go on to the next year even though they missed several months of class. But in neither case did they flunk or really experience "failure".

A few lessons to draw from that:

  • Contact the student as soon as the tragic event happens;
  • Devise a plan together with the student;
  • Communication is key; defuse any unwarranted feelings of "shame" the student might have for missing class;
  • Do not wait until it's too late! Start communicating as soon as you can.
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    $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate on how "retake the year" and "didn't flunk" are compatible? At my institution, flunking/withdrawing (in various flavors) is the only thing that would trigger retaking courses. $\endgroup$ Aug 13, 2022 at 3:20
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    $\begingroup$ This is the right answer. If anyone cares about the student, he/she must contact the student immediately (as soon as possible) to take care of (at the very least) the students' academic needs. Many such students are already very stressed outside of their academic life, and have too little mental energy to think about their studies, and it is important to provide help in that aspect. $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Aug 14, 2022 at 6:22
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielR.Collins "Flunking" means "failing" and is explicitly associated with feelings of "shame" by the OP. Here the university and the student reached a simple agreement: since you were absent half the year due to understandable circumstances, you can retake the year. This is not the same as flunking university altogether. Also note that depending on the university, being allowed to retake the year is not always guaranteed if you miss class or exams without reasons, or might reflect badly on the transcript. Here it doesn't reflect on the transcript, since it's an agreement and not "failure". $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Aug 16, 2022 at 11:24
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Policies differ a lot. My dad died December 1 of my second year at USNA. I got 3 days off and zero allowances for turning in final papers or doing final exams. My sister got sent home from a civilian school, total forgiveness on finals and assignments, and credit to move on. Both semester system. Neither one seemed to affect us much academically and next semester it was onward. My littlest sister was in high school and got ongoing attention from teachers throughout the year. And it seemed to derail her.

I guess to boil it down, I think best to cut any allowances short at the end of the term. After that life goes on. Death of parents is something that all of us will encounter unless we die young. I don't have a good suggestion for dealing with death in the family earlier in the term.

This is not to say you can't be someone to talk to. But even here, I would use your judgment and let the student come to you. At the end, he or she is just going to have to deal with it. You may or more likely are not be someone for them to connect with. Use your spidey sense.

I read Stef's answer and violently agree. None of us, students or schools can prevent death if a parent or have a time machine. The important thing is to make a plan and go forward. You can't take away the suck factor of losing a parent. Just be pragmatic about what you do control, school.

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One obvious solution to the problem is obligatory student presence at contact teaching (maybe 80 %). This will make students concerned about being present and can stop the process where shame at not having been there causes more absence.

In particular, an attendance policy usually carries with it an assumption of communication: that students tell of absences and their reasons, and the faculty also keeps track and takes contact if the absences start approaching the limit. This assumption of communication undercuts the spiral of shame.

Of course, this has its own issues in terms of keeping track of attendance and taking away agency from the students. Hence, it is not an obviously correct solution, but maybe still worth considering.

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    $\begingroup$ When someone experiences an illness or true crises (such as experiencing an assault, becoming homeless, etc) an attendance policy is the least of their concerns. This question is about what to do to help minimize the impact of such big life events on their academic standing. $\endgroup$ Sep 2, 2022 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ I disagree with this answer. In my experience attendance policies have the opposite impact: once the maximum number of points have been deducted due to attendance a student will feel there is no reason to show up any more. At the extreme, an "automatic failure" policy for attendance makes certain they will stop attempting the course if they have surpasses the threshold. I think that making it clear to students that you care about their attendance without punishing them when they miss is a far better approach. I take attendance and I check up on students when they do not attend. $\endgroup$ Sep 7, 2022 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ It is okay to disagree. I am not exactly a fan of this, either. We have no point deductions, only an absolute limit, which is not quite that absolute in case of certain unavoidable stuff. $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Sep 8, 2022 at 4:40

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