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I've received an email from a student [name changed for privacy] that goes like this:

My name is John Hershey and I am in your Biology 101 class. I am here at this college on a soccer scholarship. I am the oldest of 4 and I am from Southern California. I am not intelligent. I understand that high school is easier than college. But I was a straight As in high school and I want you to know that I'm a hard worker.
After I failed the first exam. I did all I could to improve my grade by getting a D on the second exam. I don't know what else more I can do.

Do you think he is just trying to emotionally manipulate me by mentioning he is the oldest and is attending college due to soccer?

Based on the email, do you think the student understands that college is not as easy as high school?

I have a tendency for being too direct and sometimes blunt. How can I explain to him that being a straight A in HS doesn't guarantee As in college and show some empathy at the same time?

EDIT: It turns out John was not trying to manipulate me. We met and I gave him many suggestions. He studied hard and got an A on the 3rd exam! He only missed 3 questions in a 30-question exam. I'm very proud of him.

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    Cleaned up the comments; some were worried about the name but it's now clear in the text that OP used a pseudonym. The rest were answers posted as comments.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 1, 2022 at 16:22
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    Does it seem like he is genuinely distressed and worried, or is he suggesting that maybe athletes have traditionally gotten a little bit of leeway in terms of grades? If he's having issues with Bio 101...he's in for a rough ride. If he's really asking for advice, doesn't the college have non credit classes for note taking, studying, general student success?
    – Issel
    Nov 1, 2022 at 22:44
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    In High School I had an English teacher, Mrs. Rose. She was a small woman. She told us she once taught college English. After the first class, a bunch of football players - big and intimidating - went to her and told her that they were assured they'd easily pass the class, but that it seemed she really wanted to make them earn their grades. She responded with "Give it the old college try!" and somehow they were surprised enough at the response that they didn't give her any more trouble. Not an answer, but this reminded me of that. Nov 2, 2022 at 1:45
  • That is very good to hear that he got an A after retaking the exam! Congrats to you and him
    – Neuchâtel
    Nov 18, 2022 at 21:40
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    He didn't retake the exam. He failed the 1st and 2nd and finally got his act together in the 3rd exam.
    – ziulfer
    Nov 18, 2022 at 21:42

12 Answers 12

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I don't read this as an attempt to manipulate. I also don't read this as if the student is not aware that having As in high school does not mean he should have As in college. Quite to the contrary: it sounds to me as if he's acknowledging that his As mean little now, and were maybe due to his work ethic primarily.

It sounds to me that he feels at the end of the rope. Having relied on hard work, he realizes it's not enough because that only allowed him to score a D. There might be additional fear because athletic scholarships can be linked to GPA. Being the oldest of four, and declaring yourself to be not intelligent, sounds to me as if it's a hint that their family is probably also not academically inclined, and so unable to advise.

Of course it might also be attempted manipulation, or a reference to being a jock who the school should support. Impossible to know. But given that there is at least a chance that this is a desperate student, I'd start by writing something empathetic, and maybe suggest hiring a tutor, working with friends, and seeking out whatever support your university offers.

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    I read it the same way you did fwiw. Nov 1, 2022 at 12:50
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    Yes, the part about not being intelligent seems odd (wording, perspective), particularly if the person got straight A's in high school. Reading the wording of the whole thing a few times, it may be that the person is not a native English speaker. In any case, consulting a counselor seems to be the appropriate path for them. Nov 1, 2022 at 13:37
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Cautiously assume the student is genuine for now, and point the student to academic resources that can help them. Their personal information is likely just a result of panic, I think. The student may not have fully internalized the differences between high-school and university yet, but there is good news for them: it sounds as if they're learning this critical lesson very early on in their education, and are thus well on their way to seeing the light on the other side of the metaphorical tunnel, before anything too bad catches up with them. If they can get some assistance through help centers, tutoring resources, etc, then they can recover.

The most gifted high-schoolers very often make the worst college students at first, having never been challenged and thus they never learn how to learn. The primary struggle of the gifted student is to humbly learn that AP classes are emphatically not university-equivalent, and any of their intellectual advantages will vanish overnight if they don't quickly learn the proper study skills that their peers learned through difficulties during high-school. Almost every struggling student I've ever advised was a formerly straight-A student who's used to everything being easy.

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    'point the student to academic resources that can help them' Yes. Do you know what are the particular skills deficits that most commonly lead to failure in your course? Do you know which of those skills deficits would most likely fail to be detected in high school grades? Do you know what resources your university provides focused on addressing those particular skills deficits? If you've got those three pieces of information in your head, that will put you in a good position to help not just this student, but hundreds of future students in a similar position. Nov 1, 2022 at 15:58
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    'Their personal information is likely just a result of panic, I think.' Or just that they're at an early stage of their education, and haven't yet learned about not including irrelevant cruft in their writing. Nov 1, 2022 at 15:59
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    I did well in HS but poorly in college primarily because I never learned how to study. Taking an extra-curricular course on study skills offered by my college helped. Something along those lines may help this person as well.
    – user158559
    Nov 1, 2022 at 16:27
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    This is slightly opposite to my experience... IME high school often rewards brute force effort and college less so. IME the students who did well in high school but struggled in college are ones who didn't necessarily find school easy but put a lot of effort into repetition, memorization, etc. Nov 1, 2022 at 17:29
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    @bta Even more critical: read the textbook. In STEM especially, 90% of struggling students have never once opened the course text. Many students even have a transformative (almost spiritual) experience once they learn this, having never learned that university texts are actually quite good, with the better ones being curated over decades to pedagogical perfection. This one tip yields more reward per unit effort than anything else. I may edit this into my answer, even.
    – Jerome
    Nov 1, 2022 at 22:16
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It's worth pointing out that many high school curricula (including AP courses in general) are based on memorisation, and making the shift from regurgitating information to thinking critically from multiple perspectives will be hard for many students. Thank them for being proactive and seeking support, and advise them to:

  1. Read thoroughly over the course outline and materials.
  2. Recognise that effective study consists of using the right strategies (the Feynman technique etc.) instead of pure hard work
  3. Encourage them to learn and think independently using multiple sources of information.

Let me elaborate on point number 2: John's clear belief that just working harder will translate into higher grades. While hard work is a prequisite to success, this is is only true if their effort is applied in the right direction. Studying for chronically long hours is only going to accelerate the risk of burnout and inhibits the brain from learning effectively.

So I would follow up with the student (face-to-face if possible) on strategies for them to get proper support on their learning. This can be achieved in two ways: 1) making sure John gets feedback on their learning so that they can have some direction and 2) in the long run, allowing John to try out a range of study techniques so that John has autonomy over their own learning. The first method can be achieved quite reasonably: encourage John to ask questions in lectures, and develop a plan for them to ask questions during their tutorials. Suggest that they view feedback on their written assignments as information on how to improve and not as reward and punishment, while also using office hours wisely. Regarding the second point, collaborating with other students, such as splitting up the work and then feeding back to each other, is also a great way for John to not feel as alone and adapt to a new learning style that involves independence, asking for help (which he already does), and eventually metacognition.

Avoid any remarks that might signal you mistrust the student: they are most likely desperate, confused, and stressed at this moment. Most importantly, detach the process and the experience of learning from the grade and support them in using their own intellectual curiosity to think around and sideways through the material. De-emphasising grading, as educators Ken Robinson and Alfie Kohn have done, will help create an open and trusting environment, where students are more interested about learning, rather than worrying about failure or limiting their learning to what is on the test.

Most importantly, encourage John to use their support network. This will enable them to be resilient enough to overcome these challenges and feel like they belong.

Ultimately, remember that John wants to do well and that his behaviours are a reflection of the lack of support and guidance he has experienced during college. A great professor or TA like you can really make a difference in students' lives.

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    I'm not sure that Biology 101 requires "thinking critically from multiple perspectives" -- it is probably a lot of memorizing organic chemistry. The more you already know about it, the better, of course: With an existing framework, new information falls into place. Without it, everything sounds French and is overwhelming. Given the vast differences in high school standards across the U.S., that is probably the case here. Nov 1, 2022 at 13:30
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    The greatest thing about this approach is that sincere Johns will benefit from it while manipulative Johns who just hoped to get the grades up without any work will suffer from the "support" and back out as soon as possible.
    – Džuris
    Nov 1, 2022 at 13:43
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    @Peter - unless things have vastly changed since I took it many years ago, Bio 101 wouldn't be expected to have very much (if any) organic chem. It's an intro course, and should be a general overview of the field, not digging into serious subspecialties. That being said, it's going to be a great deal of memorization and much of the material will probably be unfamiliar. I was crap at this when I went to college, and it took me a while to come to grips with good practices. Nov 1, 2022 at 15:11
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    @Peter My point is that learning how to learn and think for one's self is an inherently valuable skill, even if it might not be immediately useful in the short run. Biology certainly has a lot of memorisation, but biology is also like any other subject where there are patterns and connections between different topics, and a broad exposure to physics, mathematics (statistics), psychology, and even sociology will enhance their understanding. Just memorising will hurt John in the long run if they understand everything at surface level and cannot apply their knowledge to unfamiliar situations.
    – Toby Mak
    Nov 1, 2022 at 15:20
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    To add to the first paragraph: my (anecdotal) experience is that AP classes are a detrimental trap for a great many students, and the false confidence it gives them outweighs the possible benefits. In particular, my teaching experience has taught me that AP calculus is a borderline-dangerous class, often leaving students worse off than they were before. They're then absolutely baffled as to why they're now struggling, as they were led to believe such classes were representative of university: if they didn't have to study then, why would they have to now?
    – Jerome
    Nov 1, 2022 at 22:33
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Like others, my interpretation of that email is that it is probably genuine. A lot of new students struggle with transitioning from strategies that worked in highschool to strategies that work in university. In all universities I worked at we had courses aimed at helping students make that transition. Maybe such a course also exists in your university, and you can direct that student to that. Sometimes there are also other resources available, like counseling aimed at effective study habits organized by the university of as selfhelp groups.

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I would discount the "not intelligent" comment, myself, for a number of reasons that are not particularly important. The key thing is that this student is doing the correct thing in asking for help. That's very hard to do even in high school, let alone college.

I had no trouble in high school; I did the homework during class and goofed off a lot. When I went to college (a year early) I drowned. I couldn't keep up and came within a whisker of flunking out. I thought I was working hard, but I was doing the wrong sorts of things. Memorization can be helpful, but if you can't bring up the memories when you need them, it's wasted time and effort.

What I eventually learned was how to take notes - do a rough copy at the time, and that evening rewrite it all into a separate study book. That let me see where the holes were and add supplemental material that would help me remember and understand it and its context later on. Everything is clear in class - it's 2 weeks later when you're doing last-minute studying that it might as well be written in Martian. I also learned the benefit of office hours by TAs, as well as the absolutely critical benefit of study groups. Everyone is different, and a group lets us all benefit from different angles of view and different lines of attack. I was never a great student in college, but I got to where I wanted to go; I suspect that John can do better than that once he learns where to put his hard work.

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Try briefly going over their submissions in the last couple of exams and see if you can figure out why they're failing, and maybe some targeted advice can be offered there.

e.g., are they failing basic memorization tasks (dates, names, this-means-that)? Intro courses often involve a fair amount of regurgitation so is the problem simply that they are not reading and memorizing relevant facts? Or are they apparently getting the memorization but failing to connect the dots or not understanding how to apply the knowledge?

Just spitballing here but while the other suggestions have good general ideas, you are in a position to really look at their answers and make a targeted guess as to what they are specifically failing to understand. Identifying the key weakness may help them get more specific tutoring.

(I think the personal details were meant to help understand where they are coming from. Oldest of 4 means they are probably used to being the mentor, and not having to get one. I take it to mean they really have no idea why their efforts are failing or where to turn for guidance. A good tutor can definitely help but the exam giver/grader may have some unique insights...)

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    Looking at recent performance is a good idea, an experienced tutor can tell a lot that way. One of the faculty on my undergrad course used to send us each an end-of-year summary of our performance compared to the complete 3-year scores of all students from recent years. There was a clear minority of students who started strong, declined slightly in the first year and dropped badly in subsequent years - and seeing that group's trajectory persuaded at least one of us that we should change our habits despite doing "OK" so far. Nov 2, 2022 at 9:19
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I think it is impossible to know whether this is genuine, but I do think Ivan has quite a few points, despite all the downvotes. The red flag for me is the soccer scholarship and the "I am not intelligent" statement, together with the completely irrelevant statement about being the oldest of four siblings for pity.

There is an expectation among students on athletic scholarships that their primary task is sports, and passing classes is a mere formality. Many colleges are all too happy to play along, since this generates a lot of revenue for them. I've known quite a few TAs in my time who were more or less told explicitly to pass such students.

The student might be hinting that you are failing to play along, dressed up in the "I so want to improve" trope. The latter is because the student does not have a full-ride athletic scholarship (as evidenced by taking your class), so his enrollment hinges on his academic standing, officially. Asking for special treatment explicitly is obviously out of the question.

Also, even though college is harder than highschool, and grades go down a bit, I do find it hard to believe that a straight-A student would completely fail Biology 101, even at a top-tier university.

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There's a distinct possibility that this student has undiagnosed ADHD and should get that looked at and get helped. Doing well in High School and then crashing out in University once outside motivations are removed is a pretty classic scenario. Low test scores is not always a symptom of this (it tends to be missed smaller assignments), but if the subject matter is difficult enough they'd need to know how to study when their brain is screaming to do literally anything else (which they wouldn't have learned in High School) it could still be the case.

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I think this student is at a loss. He was good at high school (and worked hard for this, perhaps), but now he is in trouble, no matter how hard he tries. The reason? Perhaps he has just chosen the wrong subject.

It is a common mistake to think that somebody who is good at high school will be successful in every field of study. Everybody has special talents, and is less talented in other fields. Perhaps you do not realize this at school, but you do when it is getting more difficult.

Some students chose a subject because they think they have to (their parents want them to be a lawyer or doctor), some chose a subject because they want to work in a field with good prospects (bad at maths, but studying computer science), or they just want to do something where you can earn a lot of money, no matter what it is. These are often the students that fail. You cannot deal with a subject on an academic level without talent or at least some interest.

I would encourage the student to find out where his talents are and perhaps chose something else. Tell him that he is not stupid, but has perhaps just taken a wrong decision.

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You're being manipulated.

Every single line of that student's statement contains some sort of appeal to pity or other trope.

The whole thing is a red flag large enough to mount to the back of a CCP motorcade.

I am here at this college on a soccer scholarship.

Casually mentioning financial hardship...the corollary to humble-bragging.

I am the oldest of 4 and I am from Southern California.

Implied dependency: won't you think of the children? They'll be so disappointed if you let me fail!

I am not intelligent.

Self-deprecation: disarming tactic meant to lower your expectations.

I understand that high school is easier than college.

Classic! Telling you exactly what you want to hear is what puts the "con[fidence]" in con-artist.

I've seen Reddit grifters angling for some chump to send them a new iPhone try this too-- "I know I need to be more responsible with [whatever], but..."

GoFundMe is also rife with this sort of rhetoric. Despite raising thousands of dollars for cat chemo or whatever, the money always goes to a bunch of other unaccounted-for nonsense that's totally beyond their control-- and now the grifter starts a second round of funding to deal with the cat. "For real this time, guys. Anything helps."

But I was a straight As in high school and I want you to know that I'm a hard worker.

Fall from grace, and a disingenuous one.

He's clearly a new student and presumably part of the COVID generation, where teachers struggling to adapt to remote-teaching handed out As to students who bothered to show up to Zoom meetings. This is no fault of his, but grade inflation may have inappropriately qualified him for admission. He is not above exploiting it nonetheless.

He says he's a hard worker. His grades so far suggest otherwise, but the only evidence in his favor is "just trust me, bro."

After I failed the first exam. I did all I could to improve my grade by getting a D on the second exam. I don't know what else more I can do.

Desperation. "All I could"? "What else more I can do"?

Sparse on evidence/details, so immediately suspect omission. Ex: a statement like 'I spent twice as long studying' might be factually true, but omits the fact that he went from studying for 5 minutes the night before the test...to 10.


It's well-crafted enough to tickle your sympathy nerve without telling any outright lies you can hold him accountable for later. He's even cautious enough to not ask you for anything specific-- he's fishing to see what you're willing to offer.

This is a bad time to extend charity or sympathy to anybody under the age of 25. An entire generation that's had years to rehearse these acts are now bringing them to production outside of high school. Some of them make it as far as the workplace, where they eventually cross my desk.

Do not give in. You'll be expected to do so again in the future (for him, if not the friends he'll direct your way for easy negotiation), and when you finally put your foot down, you'll find yourself on the receiving end of a (false or exaggerated) discrimination or workplace violence complaint.

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    I don't disagree, but I also don't think it's helpful for the OP to get into a sincerity vs. bs detection arms race with students. (I find that worrying about sincerity just upsets me and doesn't actually solve any problems.) IMO it's better to simply ignore the sob story and treat this exactly the same as you would treat a student who has no special circumstances but is sincerely struggling with the class, i.e. offer office hours, point to other resources, etc. Nov 2, 2022 at 16:13
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    @user3067860 - Agreed 1000%. It's also exhausting! The story itself is irrelevant to academia and nothing but drama comes from calling anybody out on lies (I just tore it apart here for demonstration). Sincere or not, the circumstances should not matter to the OP, and any disabilities (like "lack of intelligence") the student has that interfere with their performance need to be documented through the proper channels-- OP taking it upon themselves to make concessions for this student's story could easily lead to discrimination complaints when s/he is less moved by the next one.
    – Ivan
    Nov 2, 2022 at 17:39
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The odd thing here is that the OP is a soccer scholarship student - and therefore faces down all sorts of verbal and physical intimidation in every match he plays - yet still hasn't the guts to talk to you personally on this.

But maybe this is just a case of 'brave in one thing, timid in another' that bedevils all our characters.

You need to meet this guy sometime soon in your office, alone and uninterrupted by phone-calls, door-knocks from grad students, etc.

Don't be afraid of your own tendency to be blunt. Sportsmen might benefit from less diplomacy and more plain speaking - as long as it's relevant and fair to the situation. Soccer coaches are real blunt.

Just remember that you are a professor, not a psychologist. It's possible that there may be family issues involved here ("oldest of four" ~ parental expectation ~ fear of failing to 'lead' younger siblings, etc) so it would be wise to liaise with a guy from the university student counselling bureau.

Other respondents here have raised things like time management, study technique, note taking, being more vocal in class/tutorials and so on. That's a possible dimension and every student would do well to attend advisory classes on these things. But I doubt if it's the main thing in this case.

So you just have to get that meeting organized and take it from there.

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I'm creating an answer here, that doesn't apply to this student, but might to other students that fit the description from the title:

Find out if they are neurodivergent.

Many neurodivergent people are very successful in High School, but fail at College. Especially highly intelligent people with ADHD and/or autism can have straight A's in HS, but fail hard when it comes to College/University. They might need medication for ADHD, or they might need different strategies to study. But learning that they are neurodivergent can make the difference between failing and excelling at higher education.

This does not at all seem to be the case with the student that OP describes, but if others find this question based on the title, it might apply in the situation they are dealing with.

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