Handling Exam Woes

Dear MentorDoctor,

A student walked into my office extremely upset regarding a poor performance on an exam. The student is an average student, but I see enormous potential. In addition, I am fully aware that she is working full-time to help pay for college. The student is considering dropping the class and pursuing a nonscience course instead. How would you respond?

-- Professor Nichelle Thomas

Dear Professor Thomas,

In my experience, poor academic performance is often a product of poor time management and inadequate study skills. I would begin my mentoring in this case by addressing these issues. This particular student works full-time, which makes time management and efficiency in studying all the more important. You could provide mentorship in these areas by sharing experiences and practices that you have found very effective in managing your time and that have served you well in your academic achievements. Additionally, several Web-based resources provide instruction in this area. One such resource that I have found to be very well organized and informative is the Online Study Skills Workshop on the Virginia Tech Web site.

If you conclude that the student is very responsible, has adequate study skills, and manages time well, yet academic performance is still lacking, then you should explore a greater scope of issues that might have caused this student not to perform as well as she would have liked. These issues may very well involve the full-time job that is deemed necessary to help pay for college, as well as other personal issues. Essentially, this exercise is designed to help the student decide what is important and what can be sacrificed.

For example, I counseled a student in a similar situation who felt that owning a car was necessary for his commute to school. It was then also necessary for him to have a job in order to pay for insurance, fuel, parking, and other incidentals associated with owning a vehicle. Additionally, owning the car placed him in the position to serve friends and family members as a driver for errands. We agreed that although somewhat less convenient, using public transportation would facilitate his commute and decrease his financial burden significantly, at the same time freeing up several hours per week that could be spent on his academic obligations--including assignments that otherwise "fell through the cracks."

In situations such as this, it is very important for mentors to convey the concept of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Sometimes students have to separate needs from wants and recognize that some wants will have to be sacrificed in order to achieve goals that will serve them a lifetime.

If the student, conscientious about time management and studying, explains that the job pays for needs such as the financial support of her family and there are not too many wants to sacrifice, then you will need to discuss either potential income sources that would negate the need to work full-time or a decreased course load so that the student will have enough time to do what is necessary to do well in her courses.

Unfortunately, if this student is truly "average," she may be precluded from many scholarships. There are, however, some opportunities for which she might be deemed eligible. Many of these are listed (often by companies and foundations) in the folder in the corner of the financial aid office where most students are either unaware of its existence or feel that the pursuit is not worthwhile, as many of these awards are for less than $1000. With strong letters that iterate your confidence in her potential and the tremendous challenges she faces in achieving her academic goals, she might receive targeted funds that could reduce the pressure for her to maintain than a full-time job.

Another option is for her to decrease her course load to one that is more manageable in light of the limitations on the time she has to study. This option must be pursued very carefully, as a course load below 12 credits per semester might put some of her financial aid in jeopardy.

If the student is still considering dropping the course and pursuing a nonscience course or major, you have to recognize that the realities we face sometimes dictate the path we pursue. The student has to decide that she wants to pursue science. You as a mentor should not want it more for the student than she wants it for herself. If in the end the student feels that it is logistically more feasible or even more desirable to pursue another academic route, sometimes that is the best for that particular student at that time, and as a mentor, you have no choice but to support the student in that decision.

--The MentorDoctor

Editor's Note: To submit a question to the MentorDoctor, please e-mail the editor at msneditor@aaas.org.

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