I'm an Advanced Level math teacher in my country. I teach two courses Pure and Applied. Its duration is 3 years. At the end of three years, there is one exam for the whole three years. Only 1200 students are selected for universities out of 50000.

I told (Privately) two of my students that they are going to fail the August AL exam if they are not going to work hard.

They have no knowledge of their syllabus. (They joined my class three weeks ago). I myself told them the truth and they stopped the class telling me that I'm a very discouraging teacher. I could have told them "Yes you can," but as a teacher I told them the reality.

Is it better to tell them that "You will get an A" or to tell them the truth?

This course contains 40 lessons and it is a 3 year course from which now only five months are left.

  • 6
    That is very hard to answer without having the full facts. Yes, I can often predict with a fair rate of success how each of my students will do in exams (and even later professional life), often with little hard evidence. But I would not base any decision on such a hunch. I consider it my duty to help them overcome any shortcomings, but also to assess them fairly, and in an objective manner.
    – vonbrand
    Mar 2, 2016 at 12:12
  • 8
    Based on your comments and accepted answer, it appears you are not looking for an honest assessment of how you could communicate better with your students. You are just looking for validation.
    – David Hill
    Mar 2, 2016 at 16:27
  • 12
    "I directly told two of my students that they are going to fail the August AL exam" and "I told them privately that they gonna fail if they are not going to work hard" are pretty different advices. Please just give a more objective and complete account of the exchange by revising the question. Mar 2, 2016 at 16:37
  • 11
    So you're saying that the students joined mid-course, with only about 15% of the course (5 months out of 3 years) left? How is that even possible? Mar 2, 2016 at 17:08
  • 7
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it appears to be about high-school education, and undergraduate entrance exams, which are off-topic, here. Mar 3, 2016 at 9:15

11 Answers 11


With only three weeks you can already tell they are bound to fail in five months? Yes, that is too discouraging.

There is a middle ground between "you will get an A" and "you will most certainly fail", i.e.,

If you want to pass, you'll need to strengthen this and that and do a lot of exercises on the material of the class. I know August looks far away, but actually, it will come sooner than it seems, so I suggest you start working on this right away.

By assuring them they are going to fail you have discouraged them from even trying, and possibly planted a predisposition: they know they will fail, you know they will fail, so they will fail (or you will fail them, or they may think you graded them too strictly to fulfill your prophecy).

Your task as a teacher is to help them learn as much as possible, and at the end, assess if they have learnt enough and grade them. I was recently teaching some programming courses, and some of my students were really bad. I knew one of them wouldn't be able to finish the tasks on time, but he took a bunch of tutorials and painstakingly went through them, trying to understand every step of the way. At the end, he didn't know enough to pass, but certainly learned more than if he had just given up at the first try; and he knew that was a possible outcome.

  • 13
    Your task as a teacher is to help them learn as much as possible, and at the end, asses if they have learnt enough and grade them. But that is not all: his task as a teacher is also to provide his students with honest feedback, which is what he did. And you may think you helped your weak student, but the student might have wasted a couple of thousand dollars on a class he needs to repeat, and wasted a lot of time and energy that would be better spent working on material appropriate for his current level.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 2, 2016 at 16:06
  • 9
    This is spot on. The teacher is not a financial adviser or scheduling assistant. They provide honest feedback in the context of supporting and encouraging learning. However, qualified and attentive the teacher is, they are not monitoring students 24/7 and are not soothsayers. Let the test determine failure or success - not your fallible pessimism.
    – Dave
    Mar 2, 2016 at 16:19
  • 1
    @Dave If i'm going to be their last teacher. They will definitely blame me for their failure . Thank you. I have no interest in taking their money for nothing. They have not done anything for 2 and half years. So what ? Mar 2, 2016 at 16:22
  • 2
    @AngeloMark No, you definitely shouldn't lie and I do not think Dan Romik intended that. The information you give is quite disconcerting. Sounds like it's better to seek another institution. But, failing that, best you can do is telling them "Your chances are like winning the lottery, very slim. Hard work, 16 hours a day, will improve it from hitting 6 numbers right to hitting 4 numbers right." - or similar. Mar 2, 2016 at 17:39
  • 6
    Don't expect gratitude. Not from good students, and certainly not from weak ones. You do a good job, because that's what you do. And sometimes, you will get the odd grateful student, and it does not even have to be the strongest one; and that's nice. Mar 2, 2016 at 17:52

In general, it is not a good practice to make negative remarks about a student in front of others. Any such feedback should be provided in private. Also, since your course is only three weeks old, you may not have enough information to gauge a student's ability.

  • 2
    I would think knowing nothing from the required knowledge in the syllabus is quite a bit of information to gauge how well someone can handle a class. If I was taking an advanced algorithms course in CS and didn't understand the basic principles of logic, my chance of passing the course is slim at best. Mar 2, 2016 at 15:07
  • 4
    @M D I said them in private. After the class. Told you have to do all the 40 lessons syllabus of 3 years in 5 months. For me it is the hardest truth. Mar 2, 2016 at 16:14
  • 1
    Sorry I misunderstood your original post and thought that you gave the feedback during a class.
    – M D
    Mar 2, 2016 at 16:27
  • 4
    Looks like this response is not relevant as the assumptions about the OP do not match what this responds to. Mar 2, 2016 at 17:20

You may use the same trick that support staff and sales representatives use: avoid using expressions like "no", "cannot", "sorry but...".

Instead you turn it around like so: "In order to achieve this goal, we need to do the following...", and then list all the things that are required for it to happen.

If you follow this pattern you have been honest and given full disclosure about what they need to do, without explicitly discouraging.


The response to such a case is almost always: "Yes, but...". You present a clear and present picture of what their problem will be, make clear that it is going to be more challenging for them than for anyone else at the course, as they started late, and they thus have to work much harder than anyone else to achieve the standard. You may be quite right that they are not the students that end up with an A, but it is not for you to decide at this stage whether they are, only to demonstrate to them what they need to do to achieve it.

Maybe they will surprise you, maybe not. But present to them their available choices, and there is always the chance of a "Kobayashi Maru" (unexpected solution of a seemingly impossible dilemma).

TL;DR: make them appreciate the difficulty of what they aim to do, but don't tell them that getting an A is impossible, because you do not know for sure this at this stage, as well-founded as your estimate may be.

  • +1 for the Kirk reference. And a possible example is that the students in question has a lot of time on their hands and the discipline to make use of it.
    – Davidmh
    Mar 2, 2016 at 14:37
  • This is a 3 year course containing 40 lessons. And they have stopped two classes before mine. Differentiation was the easiest among them. Unfortunately they do not know how to differentiate $x^n$. Mar 2, 2016 at 16:17
  • 2
    @AngeloMark Ah, yes, I know that type of student. I then slightly modify my statement. While I (privately) agree that they are not going to succeed, I still wouldn't say it. I found it much more effective to make clear what they need to achieve (even if I do not believe they will) to succeed. You made clear your problem was that they complain about you demotivating them. Well, what I say is that you can say - practically - the same thing as you did, but in a different form, and they cannot complain about you anymore by visualising to them through how many hoops they have to jump to succeed. Mar 2, 2016 at 17:18
  • @CaptainEmacs They just come and go. I remember how our teachers scolded us when we got lower results . That is why we have BSc(maths Special) . Modern generation only know how to cuddle with teacher and do nonsense. Eventually they will complain both types of teachers. That is the ultimate truth. But they will eventually realize it. Mar 2, 2016 at 17:30
  • 2
    @AngeloMark I am afraid these are the times. It's not the fault of the students, it's not the fault of the parents, and it's not even the fault of the institution. We have a fashion in our time that learning must always be fun and easy and entertaining and everyone should achieve an A. No, the statement should read "everyone can achieve", and in math, not even that is true. The best you can do now is to manage expectation. But once people expect you to make pigs fly, all you can do is to attach wings to the pigs and say that you are working on the flying part and prepare the catapult. ;-) Mar 2, 2016 at 17:46

When I was in college I had long hair, wore a bandanna and workout clothes to my classes, if I ever showed up. The fact is I learned faster on my own.

I was in an advanced Calculus class my freshman year due to me testing out Calc I-III. I showed up the first class and grabbed the syllabus and then a month later, the class before the first exam.

The professor asked me a question, I misheard, and he basically told me the same thing you told your students.

I came to the test two days later, turned it in a half hour later - he asked to talk to me in the hall. He said he rather not fail me and asked me to drop his class. I just told him to grade the test.

I got a 97% on the test (points taken off a problem for not showing work). I grabbed my test and left the class right after.

The next test, same deal, he asked to talk to me in the hall. This time asked me if I thought about switching my major to mathematics (I was taking his class for an elective).

My point is - you do not know who you are talking to. By making assumptions you will just make yourself look like an ass. If you want to get your point across make a really simple (very simple) pretest that anyone that has a chance passing should get a 100%.

  • Okay ! Yes I'm not talking about just a single course unit in university. Even I did my freshman semester test in two days an got A. I'm talking about 40 course units . Two 5 hours papers at the end. This is not a semester month single course. Calculus is one of the courses listed. Thank you. I know you are talking about university life which I have finished. So this is not 3 or 2 credits paper. This is an island wide contest paper. Mar 2, 2016 at 17:56
  • I am just saying maybe they don't need prep and maybe they don't need to study. I would focus on showing them with proof (prep-test) or showing them where other students are at comparatively. You aren't giving them useful feedback.
    – blankip
    Mar 2, 2016 at 17:58
  • Think that you are going to do all the courses in 1st year 2nd year 3rd year just in 5 months ? All of them in one paper containing big 20 essay questions ! Mar 2, 2016 at 17:58
  • Just looking at your course list... I would be fine with doing every one off the top of the head when I was 19. Now maybe not haha. But then yes. For the Calc class I studied an hour the night before each test. So take that times 3 tests per semester times 40 courses and that is just 120 hours of studying - not that big of a deal.
    – blankip
    Mar 2, 2016 at 18:00
  • 1
    Ah for the model papers they got 4 out of 100 an 12 out of 100. Even there school term test marks are 13 and 17. I did not ask whether I would look like an ass , I asked if a teacher should lie or not! Mar 2, 2016 at 18:00

Many students lack the emotional maturity to understand you are telling them this for thier own benefit, but they will eventually realize it. A high schooler doesn't typically take a graduate level physics course, nor should someone who does not have the rudimentary math skills necessary to effectively complete an advanced class be taking it. Their time is simply better spent on progressing in area of math they have a base knowledge in. I wouldn't feel bad about telling them this, even if they get mad at you for saying so. It is, what it is. The field of mathematics is very linear as you know; you can't just jump from pre-algebra to econometrics without a hiccup, it will be a foreign language.

  • Yes of course ! This is a 3 year course containing 40 lessons. And they have stopped two classes before mine. If i'm going to be their last teacher. They will definitely blame me for their failure . Thank you Mar 2, 2016 at 16:20

Teachers should make every effort for students to learn, but in some professions, you also have to weed-out those who don't qualify.

In this case, you should have a conversation with these students and give them your honest assessment. If they really want to pass this course, you may want to set some intermediate goals. Could you prepare a sample test to cover a subset of the material? If they're able to do what it takes for them to learn it, they may have a chance.

This just seems like a very rigorous program that many students cannot handle. You owe them your professional opinion. It's up to them to heed the advice and either do what it takes to improve or drop out.


Instead of telling the student that he or she will fail, and thereby making a judgement of them at your own prerogative, you could delegate this difficult judgement to the student's own mind.

Doubtless you do not baselessly decide a student will fail or not on a whim, you have some sort of logic. Even in your question you have hinted at the logic: They have poor knowledge of even the syllabus and seem to be at such a low level that they are unlikely to cover all the material in the time that remains. Also, sometimes instructors who have seen dozens or hundreds of students develop an intuition for the sort of student who will do well or badly, just based on how the student is acting. This may not always be 100% correct, but in my experience is often quite informative. Rarely have I seen an instructor claim that student X will do badly, after which student X will perform well in spite of expectations (note, I say "rarely", which means exactly that - not never, but not often).

Take the logic, and the facts you are basing your thinking on, and explain these to the student. Do not conclude that they will fail or not, let them judge for themselves how likely they are to succeed, how much work it will take, and whether they are willing to do that work.

For instance:

  • "You were consistently in the bottom 10% of the class in the last 5 quizzes - in my experience, it is very uncommon for a student to suddenly improve in the exam after a run like this - I have never seen it happen having taught about 400 students."
  • "You have missed 60% of the lectures - in my experience, students who miss that many days have a lot of difficulty dealing with the exam, because class discussions are directly relevant to the exam questions."
  • "You don't seem to know the syllabus very well, but this is a very comprehensive exam. Students who don't know the syllabus would have a lot of trouble getting up to speed with the material in a timely manner."
  • "The exam is soon and there is a lot of material to cover - do you think you will be able to manage it all in time?"

After explaining your reasoning, make sure to finish with something like "If you want to succeed in this course, you would likely need to work very hard, based on what I've told you".

Advantages of this:

  • It is honest and treats the student like an adult, not a child, letting them make their own decisions about their life. The responsibility for the decision is likewise placed on the student, not you.
  • If the student is a genius who can succeed anyway, they are free to disregard your advice, and nothing you said is falsified even if they do since you only advised them of heuristics and probabilities.
  • If the student indeed fails as you suspect, you have not told them a comforting lie about how they will "get an A".
  • Limited self-fulfilling prophecy effect - you do not tell the student that they cannot succeed, thereby killing their motivation and thus ability to succeed, you are only giving them an idea of their odds.
  • If the student is enlightened by the information you provide, they have the opportunity to steer the discussion in a direction they are comfortable with: Those who feel they have the mental fortitude can say "I'm gonna fail, won't I?". Those willing to rise up to the challenge can say "This sounds like it will be a very tough exam, what do you think I can do to improve my odds?".

The disadvantage is that some people may feel that full, unconditional confidence in a student's potential (even in spite of the facts) is necessary for optimal learning outcome. If you subscribe to this notion, you are effectively doing a disservice to the student, by not giving them the most optimistic version (and instead giving a sober, realistic version). The decision here is whether you subscribe to it, which is for you to resolve.


Kudos to you for wanting to honor the truth. Now:

I myself told them the truth and they stopped the class telling me that I'm a very discouraging teacher.

Question: Are you happy with this interaction? If you continue with the same tactic in the future, do you think that you'll get a different result, or the same result? Some observations:

  • There's a difference between "telling a lie" and "being diplomatic" (it's not entirely a black-and-white relationship). You could say something like, "Yes, it's possible to pass. It's going to take a lot of work. In your case, we know that there are some gaps that are going to make it more challenging for you. In my experience, few students in your situation pass the final."

  • Due to the Dunning-Kruger effect, the worst students will also be the ones least capable of honestly assessing their situation, or interpreting your advice. Regarding the suggested line above, they may hear the first word and then zone out on everything after that. Being brutally honest with these students is more likely to cause more conflict. Maybe you're okay with that.

  • I've personally been wrong about predictions like this in the past. I actually had a disagreement with an administrator in which I said of a particular student "She obviously has no chance of passing the final" (had failed 2 of 3 tests to that point, skipped the 3rd). Then she did actually pass the final, and I had major egg on my face. So there's at least some margin of error in our predictions that you have to account for in your statements.

  • Depending on your situation, your employer may also possibly sanction you or say that it's not your place to encourage students to leave the institution (actually, there's a famous case today where the President of Mount St. Mary's College in the U.S. was forced to resign over similar comments). But this needs to be balanced with possible complaints on the other end regarding how much people "blame you" for their failing.

  • A great idea, as others have mentioned, is to use/highlight a first-day diagnostic and later in-class quizzes (or tests, or test previews, or whatever you call it). This gives documentation you can point to, that the student in question was deficient all along, even on the first day before you had any interaction with them. This at least gives a stronger trail of evidence if a student or administrator complains in this regard.

I would encourage you to broaden your skill set and find a way to be diplomatic in this regard.


It is not your responsibility to tell them if they are going to pass or not (in your view) unless they ask you explicitly. Your responsibility is to teach, theirs is to learn. If they don't learn it is their responsibility, if they don't care to figure out how they are doing, it is their responsibility.

Your responsibility is to teach them, help them when they ask, be available, and be honest to them (when asked a question).

If they are disrupting the class it is your responsibility to tell them to stop, but you are not responsible to tell each and every student if they will pass or not, just to do your best so they can understand the material.

You could, if you have already given them partial grades, make a general statement such as "whoever has a grade so far of less than xxx better work harder or he/she may fail the exam", but make it general, not personal.


Never underestimate the power of motivation, goal setting, and breaking a task down into "bite sized" chunks.

The word "educate" comes from Latin "e" and "ducare" - "to draw out that which lies within". As a teacher, you may think it is your job just to cram knowledge into your students; but as an educator, it is your job to "find what lies within the students, and bring it out".

That means that you have to get to know your students and their innate motivations; shape those motivations towards the goal; and then leverage their talents and passion to help them prepare themselves to meet the challenges they will have to overcome along the way.

While giving an honest assessment is an essential element of this, it should be cast in the context of the bigger goal: "at the rate you are studying, you will only cover half the modules needed to pass the exam" is an objective statement, and the student who hears that feedback can decide "work harder", "plan to take the exam next year", or "drop out". On the other hand, "you will fail" is not objective, and does not permit the student to make adjustments that will get them closer to (your or their definition of) success.

I moved to a different country when I was 17; the school I attended had a special course to prepare for the very tough entrance exam of the most prestigious universities. I was told that, as a foreigner with little English, my chances were extremely slim - almost no pupil of that school had ever passed the exam, even after being "in the right syllabus all their life", and having English as a first language. But the way they phrased it, it became a positive challenge to try where others had failed. Nobody stopped me from studying harder than I had ever done - and I passed.

Realism is good - but focus on bringing out the best in your students. They will amaze you.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .