Good Academic Stumbling

When I got halfway through the fall semester of 2016, I never thought I would be failing two-thirds of my classes — but that’s exactly what happened. And, spoiler alert, it wasn’t actually the end of the world; though at the time, it sure felt like it.

I was, and still am, an English major, where I have received generally high grades. But, after completing first-year biology as a lab credit, I’d discovered that I actually really enjoyed the material, and I was excited to take even more second-year courses, where I could learn even more about the plants, animals, and cells that had initially captured my curiosity. But, knowing I would have to take them eventually, I decided to take calculus and chemistry first.

Now, to be fair, I was warned numerous times that both courses I was about to immerse myself in were deemed “high fail rate courses,” but it wasn’t like I had a choice to opt out of them; both are required courses for the biology major, which I was hoping to switch into. Plus, I’m not one to shy away from a challenge.

Pretty early on in calculus, I realized I was going to have to spend an immense amount of time studying, because my brain felt like a sieve that equations poured through, instead of into. So, I metaphorically cracked my knuckles, and cracked open the ‘ol textbook. (Okay, it was an e-text, so I guess I metaphorically cracked that open, too.)

I gave everything I had on the weekly assignments, watched countless Khan Academy videos, and practiced questions until the light in my calculator dimmed out. Still, I felt like I had only absorbed a fraction of what I needed to understand.

When the first midterm came around, my countless hours of studying scored me 47 per cent. Sure, technically that’s defined as a failing grade, but in that moment I felt a strange and surprising amount of pride in myself. This meant that I understood nearly half of the material that had been complete gibberish just a month before, which felt like a bit of an accomplishment. However, it was hard to maintain that feeling when the grade on the paper proved that, even though I knew a lot more than before, I still certainly did not know enough.

As for chemistry, I scored a disheartening 17 per cent, but I definitely deserved it. I was far too focused on trying to understand limits and derivatives to even begin to attempt to understand quantum numbers, or the strange shapes of the atomic orbitals that made my eyes dizzy just from looking at them.

As the semester went on, the topics expanded on the key elements I had yet to grasp. Thus, I progressively became more confused, and my grades reflected that even further.

I know what you’re thinking: how could it possibly get worse from 17 per cent? I promise you, that grade looked like a gosh-darn hero in comparison to my second midterm grade.

By this point I felt hopeless, worn down, and overall, just plain stupid. The feeling of self-doubt made a home in my consciousness, which then lingered into finals season, where my capacity to persevere was reaching its limit (pun not intended). During that time, I stopped sleeping, I stopped talking to friends, and worst of all, I stopped studying. This was supposed to be crunch time, I was supposed to be pushing myself into overdrive, but I couldn’t even look at my notes without feeling utterly defeated. Still, I managed to attend both exams, but I’d lost all faith in my ability to succeed.

I realize that I’m not the only one who struggles with self-doubt; many students set high expectations for themselves in academics, but it can be difficult to achieve those goals when you don’t believe in yourself.

A recent study published by the Journal of College Student Development measured the relationship between university outcome expectations and student adjustment against a student’s belief in their ability to succeed. Their results stated that “the combination of high expectations for attending university and low self-efficacy to achieve these outcomes appears to be detrimental for student adjustment.”

During that time, I doubted myself more than I ever had. It now occurs to me that this negative thought process was holding me back even further.

On the afternoon of my calculus exam, my class was seated in the gymnasium, where the heavy white lights illuminated our clinical-looking exam booklets, which made me feel like I was in a trance of sorts. Upon receiving my exam booklet, I began to flip through the pages, looking for basically anything that seemed doable — but nothing really did.

Any semblance of hope was washed away in that moment, and I began to zone-out. At one point, my eyes became fixated on the clock, which I stared at for a resounding 30 minutes without even feeling time move. When the three hour time period was nearing its end, my exam booklet still looked as crisp and spotless as a fresh coating of snow over a lawn.

At this point, a strange feeling of guilt washed over me, and I suddenly felt compelled to pick up my cold, untouched pencil to form the words “I’m sorry” on the bottom of the last page. I felt as though I was not only failing myself, but that I was failing the professor as well.

Evidently, when I finally worked up the courage to check my final grades, I’d failed both calculus and chemistry in the very same semester. I kept this to myself during the Christmas break that followed, as I couldn’t bear to bring it up.

I felt like an idiot, and I had convinced myself that everyone else would think the same.

But eventually, when enough time had passed, I did begin to talk about it. Although that semester made me feel like I was walking on unstable ground that would never settle, I’ve made it through another year, have since successfully retaken math, and am currently slaying chemistry.

The main difference is, I now feel much safer in making mistakes, because I’ve learned that it’s an integral part of the process. As well, I found that my struggles in those courses made me want to confront the material even further. Most of all, I discovered the relentless, persistent side of myself that I wouldn’t have know, had it not been for failing. Now, when I’m faced with new challenges, I feel much more prepared to handle it.

A 2005 study from the University of Texas, titled “Self-compassion, Achievement Goals, and Coping with Academic Failure,” found that practicing self-kindness in the midst of failure helps to free yourself to become a better learner. The results of the study go on to say that “because self-compassionate individuals are kinder to themselves when they fail, are more aware that failure is part of the common human experience, and are more mindful of their negative emotions, they are more able to see failure experiences as a chance to learn and grow, rather than becoming consumed with fear about what a negative performance says about their self-worth.”

These days, I still struggle with self-doubt, and I still find myself feeling a bit uncomfortable when I talk about that dreaded semester. But I continue to tell people about it, just to prove that something like that doesn’t have to ruin you; in fact, it can end up fuelling you, if you allow it to. And, a neat thing happened when I started being more open about my past failures — other people began opening up to me about theirs as well. It felt really good to know I wasn’t the only one, and it made me wish that the word “failure” didn’t have to be one that we whisper.

Rachel, a biology student, offered her opinion on failing courses at university by saying that “you’re not gonna be good at everything, and there are gonna be things you don’t get right away. I think you should put your best effort into everything you do, but if you happen to fail a class, it’s not the end of the world.”

It’s important to be reminded that failure and laziness are not always synonymous. Difficulty in academics can be a sign of learning, questioning, and grappling with new material. Sometimes, this process can take longer than the few months offered in the semester. Rather than being so fearful of failure that we don’t even try, we should be able to feel safe enough to learn from our mistakes. Things that may come easy to some, might be extremely difficult for others. Man, wouldn’t it be a boring world if everyone understood everything at the exact same rate?

“Bad grades can always be improved, but the most important thing is your mental health,” says Shyanne, a geography student. “Nobody is perfect, so your grades are not perfect either. Remember to always ask for help.”

Although the thought of dropping out never once crossed my mind, I wondered about the retention rates at UFV. The Ministry of Advanced Education defines retention rate as “the percent of students who returned to public post-secondary studies or were awarded a credential.” Between the academic year of 2014/2015 to 2015/2016, they reported a 75 per cent retention rate in post-secondary schools in British Columbia. In 2016/2017, UFV had a 77 per cent retention rate between first- to second-year students.

Although these numbers aren’t bad, there is still a significant percentage of students who are leaving post-secondary. This could be due to a number of factors, including financial difficulty, mental health, physical health, family commitments, poor grades, or other life circumstances. Fortunately, UFV has many resources aimed at helping students. UFV offers counselling services, financial aid, disability resources, academic help through the Academic Success Centre, and many other activities around campus aimed at strengthening the UFV community.

According to UFV’s strategic enrolment management plan, “students are more likely to drop out of post-secondary education during the first year than any other time.” Fortunately, my rough semester occurred during my third year, which I’m quite grateful for. I’m not sure how I would have reacted if I had flunked my first semester here, rather than my seventh. I can only hope I would have bounced back in a similar way. By third year, I had pretty well established UFV as my second home, and I think that played an important role in keeping me here after things got tough.

So, having said all that, I’ve compiled the top three things that have helped put me and my grades back on track:

If they’re available, attend Supported Learning Group (SLG) sessions.

The SLG program began as a pilot project in 2008, and received permanent status two years after. And, in 2009, the SLG project received the UFV Outstanding Initiatives award. This semester, SLG supports 14 courses, with a total of 41 sections.

This is the first semester where I have actively attended SLG sessions since my first year, even though they’ve been offered in a few other classes I’ve had. So far, I haven’t missed a single one, and I gotta admit, they’re worth going to. Not only do you receive neatly organized worksheets that can help you navigate which components of the course are most important to focus on, but it’s a great opportunity to meet fellow students who are working through the same material. Early on in the course, I met a couple of people who attend the sessions as regularly as I do, which makes it a lot more comfortable to go to. Though I generally tend to prefer studying alone rather than in groups, I’ve found that SLG gives me a better understanding of the material, so that I can be more successful in solo-studying afterwards.

Find a good space to study.

For me, I’ve learned that the places I’m able to do the most highly focused work are basically limited to the computer lab in G building, and at home, in the comfort of my own bed. Now, I know this might not be for everyone, but this is just what seems to work for me. I have friends who swear by studying at Starbucks, but I honestly can’t stand the noise and the crowds. And I have other friends who tell me that my bed is a bad place to study, because it should be associated with relaxation and sleeping. Basically, all I’m trying to say is to find somewhere that works for you, which can take some experimenting and some time to figure out; which leads me into my next point:

Time.

I know I touched on this a bit earlier, but this is probably the most important one. Our lives are a delicate balance of school, social life, work, exercise, and whatever else life throws our way. I know it can be hard to find time when you feel worn out from working weekends, or evenings, or whatever else, but it’s important to spend time digesting concepts early on, so that they can broil in your brain over a longer period of time. And hey, if that amount of time happens to be longer than a semester, don’t sweat it; everyone learns at different paces. I mean, I took chemistry a year ago, and I was pretty amazed at how much of it I had retained over that time period — especially considering I barely understood anything about that course the first time around.

Having around a month left in the semester, I hope anyone who is having a rough time can be a little bit more gentle with themselves, and can continue to persist onwards in the face of difficulty. As long as you learn from your mistakes in some way, and accept that failure is a completely normal experience, you shouldn’t let bad grades define you.

And I think that famous Thomas Edison quote still holds an important message:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found ten-thousand ways that won’t work.”