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Grade Expectations

Particularly for parents of first-year students and sophomores, but really for ALL parents, framing the issue of grades in a realistic way could be enormously helpful in managing parental expectations and alleviating stress and anxiety in your students.

I enlisted the input of a couple of experts from campus: Dr. Christy Buchanan, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Advising and Professor of Psychology, and Dr. James Raper, Director of the University Counseling Center.  Both the Office of Academic Advising (OAA) and the University Counseling Center (UCC) see students who have issues, pressures, or anxieties about their grades.  The UCC and OAA have vast experience in mentoring and counseling students around grades and other issues. (I’ll also put on my academic adviser hat and add a few bits too.)

So let’s talk about grades.  Dean Buchanan says this:

I cringe when I hear a parent state that they have expectations for their student to get a 4.0.”

It might be helpful here to point out how Wake Forest grades are defined.  College is not high school, and As here are different than As from your students’ high school pasts.  From the Undergraduate Bulletin:

“For most courses carrying undergraduate credit, there are twelve final grades: A (exceptionally high achievement), A-, B+, B (superior), B-, C+, C (satisfactory), C-, D+, D, D- (passing but unsatisfactory), and F (failure).”

Let that sink in just a moment.  A is exceptionally high achievement, B is superior, C is satisfactory.  A grade of C does not mean failure.

So if you (or your students) are using high school grades as your benchmark, please consider adjusting or letting go of your expectations.  Here’s why.  Not every student will be universally good at all subjects in college the way they were in high school.  There will be classes here that will be a struggle, just because the level of work and pace of work are higher.

Real life example: I was in a bio class at Wake that was nearly killing me.  I think my test grades were B, C, and D going into the final.  This was a class that stretched me to my limits.  I tried my best but I was just barely hanging on.  My final grade was the best I could do, and believe me I was grateful to pass.  But I worried about my parents’ reaction.

And many of our students share that worry.  Students feel pressure – real or imagined – to replicate their high school grades, or live up to some arbitrarily set GPA from their family, and this can add a tremendous weight onto their shoulders.  Striving for straight As (or even As and Bs) can come at a price – and to get the grade, you might have to give up a lot of less tangible, but equally important things, in the process.  Dean Buchanan says it well:

“It’s much more helpful for parents to expect their students to ‘do their best’ in class while also striving for a healthy and well-balanced life that includes sleep, exercise, and healthy involvement with friends and extracurricular activities.

Students do not thrive when they study all the time, and they do not thrive when they feel pressured to get higher grades than those that naturally result from a strong effort in the context of a balanced lifestyle.   Our students get good jobs and get into graduate programs with a range of GPAs.

For as long as I have been advising, I have seen students in my office who are stressed to the limit over grades.  Some put all their eggs in the “study, study, study” basket, even when that is not making them happy or productive.  That unhappiness can bleed over into other things – not sleeping well, lack of enjoyment in other parts of life, not going to campus activities (or even Student Health or the University Counseling Center because “I don’t have time – I have to study!”) – all because they think they HAVE to get an A on a particular test.

Is getting that A or working yourself to death striving for a GPA worth your physical or mental wellbeing?

Students thrive best when they find a niche of people on campus – whether in an extracurricular activity, going to on-campus sporting events or lectures, volunteering, etc.  If your student is single-mindedly in pursuit of grades, he or she might not be finding a friend group, having new experiences, and/or taking advantage of all our resources.  Becoming well rounded and learning healthy balance is critical – and it is very hard to find balance if you feel you can’t do anything but study.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say that grades are unimportant.  Of course they are.  But so is balance.

So when should you be concerned about grades?  Dean Buchanan puts it this way:

“Students need a 2.0 overall and in their major to graduate, so clearly it’s good to expect that over time. In our office, we are concerned if students are getting one or more Ds or Fs.  Parents might also legitimately be concerned if a student is consistently getting Cs across all or most classes, although exploring the reason for this is important. 

If parents are concerned that their student is not working to his/her potential, I urge them first to express caring concern.  Ask if everything is ok.  Ask if there is something going on that’s keeping the student from doing his/her best.  Asking with caring concern might help the student open up about struggles – rather than simply stressing students out and intimating they are not pleasing their parents or living up to parents’ expectations.

Urge the student himself/herself to seek out help from professors, from the Office of Academic Advising (OAA), from the Learning Assistance Center (LAC), or other academic resources.   In general, expressing caring concern is likely to be more productive than is expressing disappointment in or expectations for a specific GPA.”

As an academic adviser, I would make one addition to the Dean Buchanan’s message: for first-semester freshmen, they are still very much learning the ‘new normal’ of college level work, which is a lot harder than high school.  It is not unusual to see lower grades that you were used to seeing on your student’s high school report card.  I see a lot more Bs and Cs on midterm reports – even some Ds.  My experience has been that the first semester grades are typically the worst, and will go up in time once students understand the expectations and get the swing of time management.

I don’t treat my advisees’ Cs or Ds as a reason to panic or threaten, I treat those as an opportunity to explore what is going on, and to refer students to some of the resources on campus like the OAA or the LAC.  Please consider doing that as well.

How does the grade situation impact students emotionally?  Dr. James Raper and his staff of counselors see a lot of students each year with stress, anxiety, or concern about grades.  Some thoughts from Dr. Raper:

“I think it is certainly important to work towards good grades in college.  What is interesting about many college students, however, is that they tend to be supremely critical of themselves and their work while also believing that those around them are having an easy time of it (as they say: “winning at life”). 

The intensity of self-criticism, and the anxiety cycle with which it is connected, frequently causes students not to reach their potential.  I will often describe it to the students with whom I work as “white knuckling” their approach to academic work. 

We – along with the Learning Assistance Center and the Office of Academic Advising – typically advise students to take a more balanced approach to their studies.  Take breaks intentionally to engage in healthy self-care.  This is different from procrastinating; it is refreshing yourself and recharging yourself so you can be better able to approach the work with a good mindset.

We also challenge students’ thinking about what they “have” to make grade wise.  We ask them to consider “what if I ‘only’ got a B or a C?”  What would really happen in my life?  Does it really have bad/irreversible/critical consequences? 

The point of that exercise is not to encourage a student to have a goal of a B or a C.  The intent is to challenge the unrealistic and damaging perfectionism that many students have, and which actually hinders the student’s best work. 

If students can loosen their grip on their academic selves, what they often find is that their best self can come through.”

Over the years I have heard students’ express that they fear parental anger, disappointment, punishment, or withholding of affection (or tuition) because of grades.  I’d argue that what your students need in a discussion of grades is your understanding and empathy.

So Deac families, here is how you can really help your students.

Focus less on the letter grade and more on the effort.

Use care and concern when you question your student abour grades

Ask yourself if your student getting a B or C in a class is really going to determine that path for the rest of their life.

Reflect on your own experience and be ready or willing to share a time when you got a bad grade and how you recovered.

Reassure your student that your love is not directly proportional to their GPA (or their major, or intended career, etc.)

When the time comes, help them put grades into proper perspective.

Tell them NOW, this summer, that you don’t expect them to be perfect – and they shouldn’t expect that of themselves.

If you can help take the stress (real or imagined) off your students, it might free them up to be able to work with a clear mind and less anxiety about what your reaction will be if they get a particular grade or GPA.

Imagine what a great gift that would be to your students.

— by Betsy Chapman