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Six reasons why students fail in first term college

Updated on May 26, 2014

Navigating freshman year

For many students, first term college heralds a new chapter, a new adventure in learning and in life. Yet, amidst the excitement are adjustments students need to make as they transition to more responsibility. For some students, it's a rough ride, and they end up failing first term. Here are some of the main reasons why.

Rude awakening

One of the main reasons why students fail first term in college is lack of preparation. In high school you were a star. Your teacher unquestioningly gave you A's, or perhaps you didn't have to study too much. Maybe you were one of these students who could do homework and watch TV, or maybe the standards in your high school were fairly low, and you developed poor study habits. Maybe if you did have some problems (such as with reading or with math), they were swept under the rug. High schools vary in academic standards, and in my observation, some simply don't prepare students for post secondary education.

Big adjustment

College life is much different than highschool, and for some students, it's a huge adjustment, one that they don't navigate well.

Structure - You're on your own. Each day is different, and there's no regimented schedule anymore with the same classes at the same time in the same place anymore as in highschool. Instead, you have five or six class at different times on different days. No one takes attendance, no one phones home if you don't show up, and no one runs after you if you don't hand in assignments. You're accountable to yourself, and you have to put more effort into managing your time and being more disciplined and self-directed in your studies.

Emotional - Some students are overwhelmed in their new surroundings. They are out of their comfort zones. They've come from a small town to a big city or even from a foreign country, and they have to adapt to new surroundings and make friends. Students tell me they find college life very lonely at times, a factor which also affects their academic success.

Lack of Support

Some students get lost in the crowd and don't know how to ask for help, even if it's just to clarify a few things on an assignment. They aren't aware of what resources the college or university has to offer, or shy away from finding study partners or groups to meet with. My advice to those students is to reach out and ask. We're here to help. So many problems students end up having could have been avoided if you ask for help. This comes out in my discussions with students after they have failed the course.

Failure to show up to class

This should be a "no brainer", but you'd be surprised. The professor or lecturer is the captain of the ship and will tell you what you need to know to focus your studying efforts. We will clarify an assignment and focus you to chapters or resources to complete assignments.

What I see is students juggling many priorities. Some will cut a late afternoon class to work part time to pay for the tuition (except you need to tell "work" you're taking a class and not vice versa). Then the same students come and expect us to catch them up. Sorry, but we can't do that (that's where highschool and college differ).

Some students work late or party late and then sleep in and miss that 8 a.m. lecture. Or worse, they come to class and sleep right through it. If coming to class is really hard, investigage the option of an online course.

Poor study habits

You leave your assignments to the last minute. You freeze up on tests (and you have poor test taking skills). You think you can "ace" it without studying because that worked in highschool. And, you don't do any reading or reviewing after your class.

Poor self management

  • You are too distracted by residence life. You are spending too many hours at your part-time job. You have poor note-taking skills. You get easily distracted by Facebook and texting your friends while you're studying or even in class. There are those who can't keep their hands off their electronics for even a nano second. When you are focusing on your texts or the latest Facebook posting, you will split your attention and miss something that is being said in class. I guarantee it. If you are missing something, especially a key piece of information or instruction, that will affect your marks. So, shut the device off, just for a short time.
  • Understand too, that you will need to follow up with the course material up after each class. Some students just wait until the next class to open the book again.
  • You don't read the instructions (this is the number 1 reason why students don't do well on my assignments!!!). Please read all assignment instructions carefully!

How not to fail your first term of college

Buy yourself a good day timer - My best students have them and use them to balance work with school and social activities. All courses will give you the critical dates in advance (assignments, tests, exams). Once I give out a course syllabus, I observe some students (these are inevitably the "A students) mark their calendars with assignment due dates. Then they schedule the rest of their lives around these days.

Make friends with students who share your desire to do well - They might become your study partners, your possible teamates on an assignments, or the person who will take notes, just in case you're snowed in and can't make it to class one day. They can also help you to be more accountable.

Introduce your self to your professor/tutor/lecturer - Yes that might seem daunting. Don't be shy. I understand this one, really I do, because I also don't like looking stupid when I take a class, but connecting to your professor will help him/her get better acquainted with you and your work and better assist you when you have problems. Ask him/her a question after class. Try sending an email.The more students connect with me , the less likely, they will be "another number".

Know where the support services are in your college - Most institutions offer workshops such as orientation to college life, study skills and effective note taking. Most also offer web resources, and perhaps even a peer tutoring centre or a writing help centre to support your success. They are especially geared to giving students emotional supports or strategies on studying or test taking etc.

Find a quiet place to study - Many colleges have reading rooms or quiet study areas in the library.

Start your assignments early and hand them in on time! - Many students fail a course because they didn't hand in work. Even if you did a lousy job, hand it in. You can only do better the next time. Like I said, start your assignments early. It's much easier to do a little at a time on an assignment than to cram all the work into the "night before". In my experience, I've known very few people who can pull an all nighter and score high marks on an assignments.

Take an online class - Many colleges and universities are going "mixed mode" . That means you could have an opportunity to take some of your credits online. The option to study online gives you some flexibility to schedule your off campus activities and studies.

First term of college presents many challenges and many opportunities for growth as you transition to more responsibilities. Yet, I've seen many a student fail first term college for reasons that could have avoided. You can make the going a lot better if you take some sensible steps now!

First hand tips on surviving first year college


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  • Rhonda_M profile image

    Rhonda Malomet 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

    Good point - or at best, try not to get too carried away. Oh what I know now that I didn't know back then...and then when I watch students go through it, I know too that they will have to learn the hard way...but learn they do!

  • jjackson786 profile image

    Jennifer 6 years ago from Pennsylvania

    Great hub! I would have added "limit your social life" to the second half of it, because that's what got me into trouble during my first year of college. But I definitely could have used something like this way back then! :)