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It's difficult to stand at the front of a classroom and watch a student fail. Everything in you screams to help them out, to take them under your wing, but odds are you have hundreds of other kids that require assistance, too. You help out as much as possible, since you can't save everyone. Occasionally, you'll come across those students who might be suffering from another problem: getting out of their own way.

Reddit user, u/Lokael, wanted to know:

[Serious] Professors of reddit, what are the top reasons you see students fail?

It's Their Version Of A Job


They don't treat school like it is a job.

If you put in a 'committed' 40 hours a week of class, study, and homework, you generally will do just fine.


One is Not Inherently Linked To The Other

...Having the mindset that you are there to pass a class, not to truly LEARN information and gain a skill. Once you pass a class, it is assumed you now have full mastery of that material for higher level classes...



Cramming for exams, or being arrogant about the material and thinking they do not need to study. My biggest pet peeve is having students who are either not trying, or really don't care, or something. The lab exams are "write in the answer", when someone doesn't even fill in enough of the blanks to pass the exam it hurts me. If you are not going to pass the class, just drop it, a Withdrawal on your transcript is a lot better than a 25% grade


Show Up As Much As You Can

Missing too many classes.

That's really the only way I'll "fail" a student.

There are lots of ways to get a C/D though.

Not turning in assignments or paying attention to directions or doing homework are big.

Sleeping in class, being on the phone, or generally not participating in class lead to point loss, too.


Listen When You Can

Not heeding our advice.

I always meet with students one-on-one several times a semester to review their work, and I notice if they don't make the little changes that I suggest. I'm not a stickler; I'm just pointing out things that I know bosses and other professors wouldn't like. Most students are like "Oh, yeah, that makes sense," and will make the changes to their work, but some are weirdly stubborn and will revolt against the prompt or the clearly-stated expectations. It's weird.


Make All The Mistakes If You Can

They don't learn from their mistakes.

Mistakes are great learning opportunities. It's so common for students to work out a problem, look up the answer and see that they were wrong, then just correct their answer and move on. You should really stop and take the time to analyze your mistake. Why was your answer wrong? Why was the other answer correct? What mistake in your thought process or understanding of a topic led you to your answer? How do your correct it to arrive at the right answer? Fix those mistakes and misconceptions now so they don't happen again on exams. Also, write down that problem you got wrong so you can try it again on a later day.

This and approaching a subject like it's something you can summarize as a series of separate facts, statements, formulae, or reactions. There are underlying connections that you miss when you take this view and it can rob you of a deeper understanding of the subject. Try to find those connections between all the new knowledge you are gaining and the knowledge you already have. Ideally your professor is helping to highlight some connections to get you started.

Learning is a collaborative effort between the instructor and the student. It doesn't work if both are putting forth effort. It's not entirely on the professors to make you succeed.


What You're Learning Can Be Taken So Much Farther

My father is a professor and according to him, the top reason for failure is not understanding the overall concept enough to apply it to different kinds of situations.

The students who do poorly only really understand how to solve a particular type of problem, if they understand anything at all. Then when the assessments come around and my dad throws a 'similar concept/different situation" kind of question, they shut down.



Tutored at university. I had a girl who got an 18 on a calc exam come crying to me. I looked over the exam quickly and asked her how she studied. She studied the night before. Her biggest issue was showing 0 work. There were triple chain rule problems that even a genius couldn't do in their head. I was amazed she even got an 18, I felt it was generous.

Idk where she ended up, it was the only time I saw her. But I hope she figured it out


"Passion is good—but loving something, tending to it, that takes discipline."

The thread has listed the big ones: external pressures. Lots of our students work 30+ hours/week, are food insecure, have to go to the VA for treatments, or have horrendous family problems that make attendance difficult, not to mention mental issues. Please talk to us when you're having these difficulties, or to the clinic or disability services offices—it is possible to work things out.

I'll emphasize that if someone told you you're "just not good at school," they were wrong, or trying to cut you down. Students get bullied (sometimes by a professor) into underconfidence, and then undermine themselves, skipping assignments just to prove they can't succeed. Seek out the people who support you and your education.

Barring that, the biggest problem I encounter is not reading or following directions, especially comments on work. There are clear instructions for every assignment, and following them means at least basic success. The same is true of feedback: your professor is giving you specific instructions (ideally) to follow to improve your grade next time. It's all carrots and sticks, guiding you to practice the skills we want you to learn. Follow the directions, and when it's feedback time, take a deep breath and read the comments.

Next highest is this logic: "I find it interesting, so I must be good at it." You may be passionate about Japanese cartoons, but if you take Japanese, you need to study and practice things like vocabulary, grammar, and writing. Or you could be really "into history" and know lots of facts—but your History classes are there to help you think historically, to contextualize, argue, analyze, criticize, give you a new approach to the world. Passion is good—but loving something, tending to it, that takes discipline.


Something Outside Their Control

I'm a university tutor. It's very rare that anyone fails because they're not physically capable of passing the subject. It's usually extenuating circumstances - they're skipping class (to take care of a sick relative or work), they're putting things off (because of fear of failure), they're not motivated in multiple aspects of life (because they don't think they're good enough).

Very common to see 18 year olds who have moved from the countryside to live alone in the city for the first time, and they feel homesick for their family and friends. I teach at a big, competitive university without much individual support, have had multiple chats after tutorials with kids who start crying because they feel isolated and lost on the huge campus.


Perfection Is The Enemy Of Done

Perfectionists with depression/anxiety/lots of other responsibilities.

It basically means not having the time you need to do the work but also never ever handing in anything that isn't perfect. So it goes in a hideous cycle until I work out what is going on and put them into amended due dates/small steps type things, and emphasise that SOMETHING is better than failing.

That and remaining enrolled but not taking the damn class.

(Plagiarism and thinking film theory is a cruising elective for funsies are close second places)


Don't Lost That Password, Now

Not. Reading. Their. Emails.

I work in central admin, and a huge percentage of the fails we see are due to students failing to check their university email account. Frequently, they get to the end of term, then claim no one ever contacted them, so they couldn't possibly pass. We then get sent the massive list of dates and times the increasingly irritated department secretary has contacted them...


It's Like HW IS Meant To Help You...

I'm currently an adjunct professor at a community college. I also teach a how to succeed in college class. The school I work for has a ridiculous amount of resources available to students, including free tutoring and writing help. And students don't use them. They don't check email, they don't turn in homework, and they don't ask for help when they need it, or deny needing it when I offer... I just don't get it.

They have everything to succeed. No one should ever fail- I'm very reasonable with emergencies or other situations if they need extensions with homework. And they just, don't. It's incredibly frustrating to see bright individuals not complete the work they need to pass. Just check your email and do the homework!!!


It's All In Your Head

They convince themselves they're bad at a subject. Some students understand really well and can even sometimes apply what they've learned for an exercise during the lesson, then the next lesson they've forgotten everything, because they're "bad at it" so "it's normal they can't do it".


Use Your Phone To Set Reminders

Lack of time management skills and no desire to think critically about subjects.


This meshed with my experience while a professor, with one difference: Kids nowadays aren't taught to think critically, by and large. They're so conditioned by being taught to the test, and being able to look nearly anything simple up on Google that they rarely have reason to think critically.

It's so bad that the first semester of freshmen chem where I taught was largely taught to the test (ACS standardized test, in this case). I taught my second semester freshmen chem course in a way that required critical thinking to get an A or a high B, and I didn't curve. Let's just say that the admin didn't like that the average in my class was a C-.


It's A Mental Game

Every single student that fails my class has one or both of this character flaws.

  1. They blame everyone else: you can see it when you hear them talk. They don't say "I fail" or "I got X grade", they say "HE failed me" or "HE gave me X grade".
  2. They are so afraid to fail that they barely try. Because they thing that if they don't even try they can always say "if I apply myself I could have done it easily".

You Need More?

•Lack of maturity.

•Lack of any self-study.

•Lack of interest in their chosen subject.

•Lacking the ability to see the long game / plan ahead.

•Merely seeing study as a means to an end (IE getting a well-paid job).

•Inability to think critically.

•Inability to conduct meaningful research.


•General laziness.


Start Strong, STAY STRONG


Halfhearted attention to class, skipping, getting zeros on assignments, then doing frantic damage control near the end. Nope! Try again next term.


So if students do the work, show up, pay attention, care about the class, they'll generally do okay?


Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

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