How to Deal with Academic Setbacks

Students are often faced with academic setbacks, whether it be a poor test score, a low mark on a project, or a failed course. When this happens, don’t fret; instead, learn from your mistakes. The absolute worst thing you could do is to ignore it and continue without changing your habits.

Not handling the setback promptly and properly could be damaging to the student, potentially driving down motivation, confidence and sending the student into a downward spiral. Parents are often faced with the challenge of pulling the students up and out of their disappointment and trying to set their kids back on track.

The closer the student is to grade 12, the harder the challenge is, as the student is now faced with severe competition for the university program he or she desires. When facing academic setbacks, there are two major issues that need to be dealt with:

1) Confidence
2) Skills and knowledge

Rebuilding Confidence After the Setback

Restoring confidence is not an easy task; bad results often create self-doubt. At this point communication and analyzing the root of the problem is crucial. As I often tell my students, intelligence is rarely the cause of bad test results. It isn’t that the student “is not smart enough”, or “I am not a math person”. The issue is often that the student is not trying hard enough, or more specifically, the student is not putting enough effort into it. Think positive. Think of the setback as a lesson to be learned, and an indicator that something has to change for the student to do better, whether it is their studying habits, commitments, or the amount of time allotted for homework.

Once they’ve accepted the fact that a change is needed, it is up to the student to decide and commit. I often ask my students: if you really could succeed on this, how much time are you willing to put in? We then put together a schedule, whether it is 8-10 hours/week dedicated to math or 3-hour blocks of studying time. I ask my students to commit to this schedule at least for the first month, and then a new studying pattern will begin to evolve.

I once tutored a student who had a 35% average in grade 11 math. He gave up on himself. I told him that he could do it, given that he put enough effort into it. He was willing to try. Over the summer he spent 4 hours per day rebuilding his math foundations, practicing large volumes of math problems. Paper stacked up into piles. When the new term started (his grade 12 years), his mark climbed into the high 80’s and finally settled into the 90’s.

The strategy to restore confidence is to start small and build small successes one at a time. Give the student a pat on the back when he’s done something right; encourage and compliment his intelligence when he completes a difficult problem. When he experiences success over and over again, no matter how small, confidence will begin to rebuild.

In one of my later issues, I will talk about how to motivate a student in more detail. Essentially, the student, or any human being, must have reasons to work hard, i.e. what will the student get in return for working hard? It is rarely just high marks. Is it recognition from peers? Love of winning? Feeling a sense of significance? The parent has to figure it out and guide the student properly. It is rare that the student will perform well just because he “has to”.

The Skills and Knowledge Issue

Once you can motivate the student, the next step is to figure out what exactly went wrong and how severe it is. Why did the student test poorly? It is often caused by the following reasons:

1) The student did not try hard enough
2) There are foundational gaps from prior years (occurs often in math)
3) Lack of understanding of the new concepts
4) The “TIPS / Thinking-inquiry” problems

For issue #1, as described above, the solution comes with commitment and practice. The other items are trickier to deal with. In math, for example, to overcome the gap, the parents need to first determine where the gaps are.
Does the student have a lack of understanding of algebra? Adding/subtracting? Is he confused with graphing? Very often from previous grades, the student may have overlooked or done poorly on a unit or two, which will accumulate into current problems. The student needs to dig into those gaps and fix it. For example, if the student lacks understanding in solving equations, he will need to revisit it and practice a large number of problems on it, in order to regain understanding.

If the student wants to perform in grade 12, foundational knowledge is critical, because the grade 12 year is a combination of skills and knowledge from grade 9-11. I strongly recommend that if the student is faced with foundation issue, he should not drag the problem out because it will only get worse. In grade 12 math, for example, a lot of the steps involved in solving the problem requires knowledge from previous years. Regardless if the student understands the current concept, if he lacks the knowledge or skill from previous years, he will lose a lot of marks, sometimes even half the mark on the question, just because those steps are incorrect.

We have plenty of experience working with students who have foundational gaps. We provide 1-on-1 tutoring to help the student build their knowledge and strengthen understanding of new concepts. We also offer private credit courses, with small class settings (maximum 8 students), where the student can get individual attention from our instructor to guide him or her throughout the course. In many cases, our students have improved over persistence and hard work, and the willingness to keep trying.

The post is originally written by Queen Elizabeth Academy – Tutoring Mississauga.

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