138

I am teaching an honors class for seniors (at a very good university, top 5 in my field). Most students are fantastic. They are very interested, they often surprise me with insights in class, and the class is very lively not because I am a particularly engaging lecturer but because the students love what they are learning. They thrive on painful homework sets and difficult homeworks/exams. They can't get enough of whatever I throw in their way. In all, they are a joy to teach.

Unfortunately, in a class of such strong students, the weak student sticks out like a sore thumb. One student in particular is doing extremely poorly. Generally homework sets are well done since students more or less help each other out, but in quizzes and exams this student has scored failing grades (10-20% range). But because of her good performance in the homework sets, I don't think that she realizes that she is a very weak student.

This in itself is fine, because not everyone can be strong in everything. But what worries me is the subconscious that manifests in her behavior.

For example, she comes to my office hour (she is the only one that comes regularly; I hold three hours' office hour a week, and she is there all three hours. The others come and stay for no longer than 10-15 minutes).

  • She tells me that a particular problem is not doable because it was not covered in class (it was done and I point it out in her notes that she took in class). Her favorite complaint is that a problem seems unapproachable unless we know some advanced topic (that she gleaned from the textbook) that will not be covered for a few more weeks. I ask her to prove it using the advanced topic and she still cannot do it; furthermore, the problems are most definitely doable with what I have covered in class.

  • When I do not post the solutions immediately after the homework sets are due (because as a professor, I happen to have things other than teach this course), I expect an email in my inbox asking where the solution set is.

  • When she does not understand a concept, she bring her notes and says that the class was unclear and that I should explain it again to her (I receive great evaluations, and I am in particular noted for the clarity of my lectures).

The thing that I am concerned about is that less than a month into the semester, she is already showing signs of blaming her problems on me. I know her very well academically, since we have been spending three hours a week going over the course material. There is no chance that she will pass this course (as she has no idea how to think for herself; her idea of academic improvement is to consistently show up to my office hour and listen to me talk), and I am worried about her creating problems for me. She is a transfer student from a community college, and no one else has any data on her as this is her first semester. Furthermore, as a woman, I often find that students tend to demand things from me, and I am seeing signs of this (asking for more office hours in a completely entitled way, etc.)

It would honestly improve the quality of my life so much if I could somehow find a way to deal with her. What can I do to 1) try to get her to drop my course, and 2) cover my ass for the administrative hell she might raise, if she fails my course?

As a disclaimer, I have had weak students before, and I was not this worried about them, because they acknowledged that they were weak, and they actually put work into trying to learn the course. This one, however, seems more into thinking about what things are in her way of learning that I am not doing.

EDIT: Thank you for your sympathy and many insights to how I might deal with this issue. It took me a long time to read everything, but I have decided to do the following:

  • Take a harder line of approach with how she interacts with me in office hours; I will guide her to ask very specific questions, instead of the generic "I didn't get this part of the lecture" and if she protests, I will voice my concerns over her poor performance in quizzes. But I do think that she is not doing anything wrong by taking up all my time. I just have to be more firm in choosing which questions to answer and which not to answer.

  • Document her questions and my answers/approaches to her questions.

  • But since she has been scoring nearly perfect scores in her homework sets (although she is failing her quizzes badly), I do not think that I will suggest that she drops my course for now. The add/drop deadline passed about a week ago, so there is no alternative for her anyway, and I will suggest that she drops the course after the midterm. Or maybe some miracle will happen and she will actually do well!

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    Is there a non-honors version of the same class that she could switch into or at least enroll in next term? – user37208 Sep 29 '16 at 4:40
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    If the deadline to switch is before the major exam, I would say it's certainly in the student's best interest to discuss her options with her. – user37208 Sep 29 '16 at 5:19
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    Early feedback is important. Let her know clearly that her quiz results leave you concerned that she is on track to fail, that using all of your office hours is very unusual, and that, as a university student, she is expected to show much more independent learning. Is there a learning office to which you can direct her for advice on how to review class work, critically read more advanced material, solve problems independently, etc? – Significance Sep 29 '16 at 6:29
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    I may be way off base here but ... You don't mention in what country you are, or what the student's cultural background might be, if different than yours or the other students. This may not be a factor, but can sometimes be an enormous one. – mickeyf Sep 29 '16 at 15:08
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    I once had a student who didn't really have the background for the course she was taking, but she worked hard, came to almost every office hour with real questions (i.e., not "how do you do this problem?" but "here's how I tried to do this problem and here's where I got stuck"), and finally got an A in the course. This is one of my happiest teaching memories. – Andreas Blass Sep 29 '16 at 23:28

12 Answers 12

126

Some short-ish advice:

  • First: Realize that you can't save everyone. I'm on the other end of this, teaching at the community college, which is something like an academic M.A.S.H. unit. Some people you have to realize are, most unfortunately, unsaveable ("black-flagged" in medic parlance). The weakest students are, oddly, the ones most resistant to suggestions about switching to easier courses (I tried this twice this semester to no avail: see Dunning-Kruger effect).

  • Second: Set boundaries. It's probably an abuse of your office hours that this one student is taking up all of them. Proper usage is, as you say, 10-15 min for a particular question or issue. For a particularly weak student like this I may say, "Let's say we have 30 minutes for this." Require that she ask about a particular homework exercise that she can show prior work for. Do not just regurgitate the lecture wholesale.

  • Third: One student failing should not cause administrative hell. Students will fail and this is a normal part of the institution's function. If she does complain then (at least where I am) the instructor is given the benefit of the doubt. The majority of the time, a student in this situation has a record of failing other STEM courses. (If it does cause hell, then you have my enormous condolences for a degenerate administrative system.)

  • Fourth: It doesn't hurt to document what you efficiently can. I keep a digital gradebook via the learning management system; occasionally a student complains, my department ask for documentation, I turn that over (showing multiple documented failures), and that's the last I hear of it. After grading, I actually run all my tests through a bulk digital scanner so I keep a copy before I hand them back (in fact: I make all my tests on one sheet of paper to assist this; takes about 1 minute at the school's feed scanner). This actually hasn't been seen by anyone else in the few years I've been doing it, but it's there if I do need it. Also it's good for me to reference as documentation and examples in the future.

  • 10
    Thanks for your advice. A follow-up question: If I am setting aside three hours a week for office hours anyway, is it OK to suggest to the student that I am not willing to spend all of those times with her, even when there is no one else needing my attention? Most other students are very strong and only very few students come to my office hours. So she is technically not doing anything wrong by taking up all my time. – Sana Sep 29 '16 at 4:52
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    @Sana: I would say yes. In fact, I would say that she definitely is doing something wrong (and equivalently: that you should change your thinking about that as a boundary). If you find it easier to communicate, set a very narrow frame for what's acceptable: questions about specific exercises she can show work on. If she can't show that, tell her to go work on homework and if she has a specific blocking point come back. Do not accept "I can't even get started"; the response to that is, "Look at the example in your notes". – Daniel R. Collins Sep 29 '16 at 4:56
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    You could suggest: "We have 30 minutes today - please select the questions you want discussed in this slot." Give her the choice. If she asks why 30 minutes, you say, it would be otherwise unfair to the other students (which it actually is - if she were to succeed, it is because she has you as very competent "group member"). – Captain Emacs Sep 29 '16 at 6:10
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    Look at it this way: students should in principle be able to understand the material based on lectures and homework without office hours - that's the implicit default. If she consistently takes up hours of your office hours, there is an obvious mismatch between her ability or her command of prerequisites. If the other students don't struggle, then the problem can't be with the content or the instructor. Perhaps arguments like this could be helpful in discussing dropping the course with her. – Stephan Kolassa Sep 29 '16 at 11:37
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    @Sana: I disagree with the other answers; if there are no other students waiting, I think it is entirely fine for one of my students to take up as much of my office hours as they want. In fact, in an honors course, I strongly encourage them to! – Tom Church Sep 29 '16 at 19:55
76

I haven't seen this point mentioned yet:

She is a transfer student from a community college, and no one else has any data on her as this is her first semester

When she does not understand a concept, she bring her notes and says that the class was unclear and that I should explain it again to her

her idea of academic improvement is to consistently show up to my office hour and listen to me talk

She is doing things that work well in secondary school (a.k.a. high school) - she's working hard on her homework and making maximum use of your office hour, and so on. She probably thinks she's working hard and doing well. In school, the exam questions tend to test whether you've learned exactly what was told, not more.

But at some point a student has to learn that university isn't secondary school. It's much more about working on your own than about absorbing from a teacher. Not everybody knows that when they start. She doesn't realize she needs to change her way of studying.

So I think you could also have a conversation on that, she's there in your office anyway.

  • 3
    In line with your comment that university isn't secondary school, I found this video very interesting, in particular the concept of metacognition. Samford University apparently made a set of these videos to facilitate new student's transition to university learning and expectations. – pjs Oct 1 '16 at 23:28
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    This is the right answer! – deinocheirus Oct 2 '16 at 15:33
  • The combination of these three is a class of students which is very familiar to me. Because of some issues (unknown to me, but perhaps mental), these students are not able to focus and work hard on understanding the concepts and try to rely heavily on others to clarify everything. – orezvani Feb 2 '17 at 13:47
  • I see your point, but where do high school teachers have office hours? Maybe "lower division course" would be a better description. – jaia Feb 1 '18 at 8:45
32

Not a full fledged answer, but some tips:

  • Prepare appropriate responses to complaints. Do not defend yourself, but state your expectations. For example, for "This question is not doable." do not answer "But is doable like this..." but respond "Being able to do questions like this is part of the expectation for the course." For "I did not understand the class and I have no idea where to start." answer "Students in this class are expected to work through the material and be able to grasp the course material. The office hours are for additional questions and occasional clarification."

  • You may take some time to review her performance with her based on facts. Something like "Let's see if your difficulties with the questions are reflected in your other performance. On previous homework you did like... while in the quizzes the picture is very different. Note that the final grade will be determined like... and that your current performance may not be enough. To be able to pass this course you need better performance in... " For the last point it is important to not judge the person but her performance.

  • As for "I have no idea where to start." Use the Polya questions "What is the given data?" and "What would the answer be?" Do not answer these questions under any circumstances but stress that every student has to be able to answer these questions on his own. You may help a bit and reiterate the question several times (from my experience, most weak students need to hear the question more than two times before they even start to think about the answer) but you shall not provide the answers even if office time is over and not even if it is the second or third time the student comes to office hours with this question.

  • Ignore the remarks like "The lecture was unclear." and respond "What question do you have about the class." Focus solely on the student’s learning. Sometimes I would go as far and say "If you don't have questions about the class then I can't give answers."

  • Do not suggest an easier class but try to make it her idea. For example you could drop the line "The expectations for this course is... but that course has the expectations..." Be sure to not imply that she will make that other course for sure.

20
  1. Is it currently mathematically impossible for her to actually pass the course? Or are you just assuming that she won't based on her current work? Either way, you do have a responsibility to let her know. If I were her and I were failing and knew there was nothing I could do, I'd be out of your hair faster than you could blink.

  2. As far as your office hours, I don't think it's particularly good to change them this semester just because you have a student that's abusing them. In the future though, you may want to consider stating that your office hours are a 3 hour block of time during which a student can reserve 30 minutes.

  3. It sounds to me like she's not really paying attention in class at all. Have you put her in the front of the room?

  4. I've had a few students before who want to show up to office hours with the expectation that you'll just do their work for them. As far as her excuses and table-turning behavior, you should address it in a way that is very matter-of-fact without emotionally frontloading it. "Yes, we did this in class." "If I tell you that you won't learn how to do it." Do. Not. Acquiesce. If she continues to struggle, have her break it down into the smallest possible components and go from there. It's okay if they don't like you. It's not okay if they take advantage of you and you allow it.

  5. I agree that you need to be documenting her time with you, what you do with her when she's there, and her progress. For your own protection.

  6. Perhaps you should suggest to her that she gets a tutor that isn't you? If you have a recommendation ready to go, maybe she'll just take that and go work with a tutor.

Hope that helps - just remember that at the end of the day you can be responsible for what you offer to someone's education, but you can't be responsible for their talent, work ethic, or intellect.

  • 1
    To add to point #2, it's hardly ever a good idea to introduce an overall rule for everyone because of the bad behavior of one or two people. It's better to confront the one or two people and not allow them to abuse the system. An accretion of ad-hoc rules leads to a complex and fragile system. – door_number_three Nov 13 '17 at 5:11
18

Daniel's answer is good, but here are some different suggestions.

  • Contact the student's academic advisor (maybe there is a special one for transfer students) as well as the honors college to make them aware of the issue. (It sounds like this student should not be in an honors course.) They may have suggestions and be able to talk to the student. (Also this will help in the event of your concern 2, but I suspect it's an unlikely concern.)

  • Ask your department head for advice. (Again this should also help protect you in the event of 2.)

  • Consider having a conversation with the student. I sometimes do, and it may or may not have any effect. (Based on your description of the student, I would guess no effect except maybe making her upset, but that doesn't mean she shouldn't be confronted with these issues.) I wouldn't tell directly the student to drop or that they will definitely fail, but I'd point out a couple of concerns (exam/quiz scores, perhaps a lack of expected preparation) and note that the amount of time the student spending on this course may not give them enough time to do well in their other courses, and suggest the student think about it seriously. (Ideally this would happen at the beginning of the semester.)

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    I think this answer deserves some extra attention, especially the first two points. I know this isn't the case in all institutions, but at mine I would absolutely expect to hear if one of my advisees was having this kind of problem. I would also expect our Early Warning system to be invoked. The OP should find out what kind of support their institution offers for students and faculty, and take advantage of it--we don't have to do it all on our own! – 1006a Oct 1 '16 at 17:10
7

I had a similar experience and I behaved like the given answer of @Daniel. The important fact that we should obey point about our teaching styles. In my class, the average student asked me to show more applied examples via the software in the class that I avoided. Also, "I didn't understand what you did in class" is a familiar expression for the average students.

In the next term, I've changed my style of teaching including more examples with full details, giving more time and skip some material from the contents and provide in-time solutions for Homeworks. The result was surprising for me due to the excellent evaluation of my class which was the best among 6 years of teaching experience.

Just give more time on your explanation the ideas in the class with more applied examples (including computer-aided examples, simulation, and playing real stories in the class and etc!) even if you have to sacrifice some material from the course topics.

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    From what the OP writes, this sounds like making the class less interesting to 95% of the students in order to make it more accessible to a single student. All this in the context of an Honors class... – Stephan Kolassa Sep 29 '16 at 10:34
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    "Less interesting" is a weak verdict. Substancial lowering of standards I would call it. Evaluation by current students is widely regarded as irrelevant, btw. You have to ask former students, if your course prepared them for future task, not the current crew, which will give you points for funny stories and making life easy for them! – Karl Oct 1 '16 at 22:28
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I can totally sympathise with you and the stress you must be going through right now.

A few suggestions that might help:

  1. I would suggest that you always see this student with another person (academic, etc) present as a witness to all your efforts and your attempts at helping her. I know you document your discussions, but it might help if somebody else was present too as a witness.

  2. Why not find some really good and self motivated students in your class and pair her up with them? If they can't sort out her queries, then try a post-graduate student instead. If all else fails, then she can come to you. I always find poor students often do better when working in the company of other good students.

  3. As already mentioned, explain to her that you're concerned about her future performance on the course and she might want to consider changing to another course.

Sounds like you're already doing a lot to help her-unfortunately, you can't change every student.

  • 1
    (1) means wasting not only your own but other peoples time on that one student. That's like keeping the door open when talking to a female student (as a male prof). It is actually insulting on that student. If you have so little faith in justice and your administration, i recommend a therapist, or relocation. – Karl Oct 1 '16 at 22:18
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    @Karl It's an extreme measure perhaps in the present case, but saying that it is an insult? There are institutions which require you to keep the door open when you talk to a student. – Captain Emacs Oct 2 '16 at 12:17
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    @Karl There are institutions (esp. in the US) which have such a policy. It's not the individual's decision. Some of these are high ranked and while, yes, I find that uncomfortable, many things that one used to be able to treat in the framework of "good/bad manners" have now been elevated to actionable contraventions. Not my personal preference, but that's how it is. In the present case, it is not clear whether the student is as untrustworthy as the response might insinuate. However, even the best of us may encounter cases which they'd rather meet with witnesses. I agree: only as a worst case. – Captain Emacs Oct 2 '16 at 12:31
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    The situation discussed here is precisely a consequence of this shift in what is considered the socially acceptable norm. When I studied, a weak student with "entitlement syndrome" would have been treated harshly and with no or very little effort to address their issue. Today, this is considered unacceptable. This shift in power towards the students causes reactions in form of "open-door policies" (of course, in parallel as to how harassment by authority persons is now being seen differently). Calling it "bigoted" is, in my opinion, a too simple description of a complex balance-realignment. – Captain Emacs Oct 2 '16 at 14:28
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    @Karl: Indeed - "making sure to be seen to be doing the right thing" is probably the most generic description of hypocrisy, independent of prevailing social code. In times of socialism (i.e. financial communism - everyone expected to be equal on money and compete on intellect/achievements), scientists in humanities (but also in STEM) were pressed to support dialectic materialism (I still own books attesting to that). Today, intellectual communism prevails (where everyone is expected to be equal on intellectual achievements, and compete on money), we are pressed to support conformist idealism. – Captain Emacs Oct 2 '16 at 15:40
6

I just wanted to offer an alternate perspective on this thread from personal experience. I think there's been a lot of great advice on this so far and I agree 100% that if the student has an entitlement problem and is making you misersable then yes, you should take steps.

That being said, your question made me feel sad because when I was in graduate school, I might have had a professor that considered me to be your weak student. It was my first semester and I was taking the class to fulfill a Masters/PhD requirement. I had come back to school after working professionally for nearly a decade, so I was rusty on a number of topics, but I had decided that if I just worked hard enough then it wouldn't make a difference.

I really struggled with one of my classes in the first semester. I was there for every single class, every single office hour of the professor, and every single office hour of the TA. I spent 30+ hours a week really trying to understand the material and working to do the assignments. I went at it with the honest belief that if I just kept working at it, I would get it. In addition to the office hours, I also tried to get tutoring from the school (was not available) and asked friends for help with concepts. In exams, I scored in the 10-20% range too and it was incredibly frustrating. I spent a lot of time trying to work things out and during that time, when I would get really upset, I would wonder, "If I'm spending this much time and energy on this and no matter what I'm doing I just can't seem to get it, maybe it isn't me." Looking back, I think I can honestly say that the problem wasn't solely mine---while the professor had good teaching reviews, the number of people who dropped the class was around 50%. Additionally, I'd like to think I'm not a complete idiot and I did finish both my graduate degrees at a top ten institution in my field.

The reason why I bring this up is because there were a few things you mentioned that bothered me a little. For one, you said she sits in your office hours every week for three hours. Maybe she is looking for excuses, but sitting in that many office hours is probably not her idea of a fun time. You also said she does well in the homework sets. I'm curious about how much time she's spending to do well in those.

You definitely have more perspective on the situation than I do and as I said, if she's got an entitlement issue and is making your life miserable, then something needs to change. However, I just wanted to say as someone who was a struggling student in a class that had many of the same issues that you list, it was kind of painful to see you asking about what you can do to make her drop the class. It was also painful to see the question about limiting the office hours you dedicate to her. Yes, it shouldn't be a rehash of the lecture, I just wonder if the three hours of office hours are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amount of time/effort she's putting in to really trying to get the concepts.

That being said, it might also be a complete mismatch of communication styles. It may be possible to try having an in-class exercise asking students to explain the concept you just taught to the person next to them to see if she's more able to understand that way.

  • Wonderful comment and this is something I have experienced first hand. Not only did was I shoved into a graduate level course in a totally different department, but on top of that I was missing a few important prerequisite. I went to all office hours, all TA hours, I worked day and night on homeworks and scored poorly. I would like to blame it solely on myself but I just cannot, because I realized when the professor would start on a brand new topic that does not require those missing prerequisites, I would earn top mark in the following homework assignments. Close to 70% of the people dropped – Carlos - the Mongoose - Danger Oct 16 '16 at 2:34
  • And it was already considered an open ended course in the math department (I'm in a completely different department), the professor's style was to make it even more open ended by asking questions so hard the TA who nearly has a PhD in his field could not come up with answers. More frustratingly after I have done the course, I compared his grading style and assignments, tests with previous years and found that previous years was much more reasonable and the course was much less open ended. So now I am a much more sympathetic person to students who are not performing well. – Carlos - the Mongoose - Danger Oct 16 '16 at 2:37
5

Just a few added points.

  1. Make sure that this student understands how the grade will be generated, and where she currently stands. If this student isn't failing, you should put your grading scheme under a microscope and figure out why.

  2. Make sure that this student has all the prerequisites for this honors class, and really belongs there. If she doesn't, recommend that she withdraw, and then start up a policy of reviewing prereqs before letting students continue in the course. If she does have the prereqs, take a good hard look at whether the other students have better backgrounds, and up your prereqs in future iterations to match what students need to excel in the course.

  • Enforcing prerequisites can be harmful to non-traditional students. I started my PhD in computer science in 2002 with my only formal CS education a master's degree completed in 1975. It would have taken years to do all the chains of prerequisites leading up to the graduate courses. – Patricia Shanahan Oct 2 '16 at 13:16
  • @PatriciaShanahan That's why they ALWAYS say "or instructor''s permission" – Scott Seidman Oct 2 '16 at 14:25
4

I am going to suggest a rather different approach. Others have mentioned that she should use a tutor, I am going to suggest that you should be the one to go see a tutor. Specifically I am going to suggest that you have a one-on-one with the head instructor of the tutoring staff to get advice on how to deal with this student.

I assume your institution has a certified tutor training program such as CRLA and whoever is in charge of that program is the one you want to talk to, their title may be something like Learning Specialist.

We all have our fields of expertise and sometimes it is easy to forget that tutors do too. The job of a tutor is not to help students do the homework, but rather to help the students to become better at being a good student. You would be wise to get advice from such an expert. Perhaps they might even be willing to observe a session with your student in your office, or you could prearrange to have the student meet you and the tutor lead at the tutoring center if you have one on campus.

Doing this may help the student to survive not only your course but many others as well.

  • 1
    For the benefit of those at U.S. universities who might think that such a program does not exist at their university, names such as "Learning Resources Center" are what to look for. – Dave L Renfro Oct 3 '16 at 14:18
  • A little confrontational, but otherwise a good point. – jpaugh Oct 3 '16 at 14:46
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    @jpaugh This wasn't meant to be confrontational. When I suggested that the OP see a specialist it is because it is obvious the OP cares and is looking for good advice. We all have our opinions and classroom experience but a learning specialist is the best qualified to help the OP to help the student. These people focus on one thing, helping students, and they know more about pedagogy, androgogy, and the wide spectrum of problems and solutions in that field than any "mere" professor :) who must remain focused on other subject matters. – O.M.Y. Oct 5 '16 at 5:01
3

This sounds like she need a little more professional help than could be given by a professor. Universities sometimes haves offices where there is free counseling available for student-related issues, such as dealing with anxiety (which may be the reason of the discrepancy between her test and homework grades) and the difficulties in getting more self-dependent.

You may have to sweeten this suggestion to her by a (truthful as I suppose): Your homework grades are excellent, but you require a lot of help to do it; and in the tests you seem to have some problems; maybe you plainly are nervous or want to do everything perfect. Currently I don't see that you will pass the course, but make sure you don't fail again for the wrong reasons.

2

There are two ways how to deal with it.

If You want them to pass You can suggest them to look for tutoring. Suggest them to ask their schoolmates or older students for the tutoring. Your assistant or PhD. students are option too.

If You are neutral about them passing your course You can show them the tests results and suggest them leaving the course. If it is in the start of the semester, there sould not be many obstacles to switch courses without punishment.


I wasn't great student and I was lost in one part of Thermomechanic course. It consisted of one lecture and one practise per week. I asked the PhD student that conducted the practise lessons for tutorial. During this tutorial they taught me everything I needed to understand the troublesome part. They just found the way I was thinking and explained me the topic this way.

I also selected one lecture, optional in my studying plan, and after first lecture I talked to the professor. I told him I had been totally lost in the lecture and that I hadn't know it was final lecture for material science. He suggested me to ask for lecture withdrawal and selecting different lectures if needed.

protected by StrongBad Sep 29 '16 at 13:51

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