Back in the saddle: What to do when you fail a course

You sweated out over your exams, crammed in your assessments and have fallen asleep in the library not once but three times. You walked out of your last exam, threw away the little ziplock bag full of your pens and a pencil sharpener you think you’ll never need again and strode blissfully into the holidays. Until an email pops into your inbox and brings you hurtling back to earth. You failed a course.

Whether you knew it was coming, or you’re suffering the shock horror of the surprise of the whole thing, you’re now faced with the all important question: “So what exactly do I do now?” Thankfully, we’ve taken (at least) some of the stress out of the process, and sat down with Meegan McHugh, Coordinator: Transition and Success, to get the run down on ‘where to from here’. Honestly though, the most important thing to remember is you are not a failure, you simply failed a course, and it’s never as bad as you think.

What is the first thing you should do if you fail a course? 

Cutting straight to the chase here. “The first thing you should NOT do is panic or give up,” says Meegan. “If you have failed a course take a moment to reflect on what you did achieve in your circumstances and what successes you had. The next step would be to go over the course you failed and pin point any feedback you received on assignments through the term of study, or any situations that cropped up for you that made it difficult for you to study. By identifying the barriers to achieving the results you want, you can then start to work on preventing these from becoming an issue in the upcoming term”.

 Why is it important to emphasise that you failed, you’re not a failure? 

Negative self-talk can often creep in when we least suspect it. These really typical and awful negative statements will thrash around inside your mind screaming persistently until you finally start to believe them. But don’t. They aren’t worth even a minute of your time. “Labelling yourself as a failure is not helpful for you or your study,” reiterates Meegan. “If you received a fail grade once, it doesn’t discount every success you’ve had along the way. The best way to approach a fail grade is to determine what usually makes you successful.” Positivity forever, negativity never.

Why is it so important to be honest and proactive about your academic progress during the semester?

As much as the whole “Diamonds are made under pressure” scenario is appealing, spontaneous and so much about living life on the edge, it’s also ridiculously stressful. “What we can do, if you notice you are struggling with your study or your course, is work with you to identify the free help we have at the University and implement that help during the term instead of waiting until your results come through,” says Meegan. “If you notice you don’t understand something early, we can help you tap into a learning advice resource, peer study or liaise with your Course Coordinator. If a life event is happening we can chat to you about the mental health and medical support available as well as your options with adverse circumstances or scheduling your study load”.

Who should you contact and/or speak to if you fail a course?

From the very first moment you verbalise it, everything gets easier after that. It stops taking up weight inside your mind and you can then start actively working towards a solution, as Meegan reiterates. “If you fail a course and need assistance working out what went wrong and what assistance could be available, you should make an appointment with a Student Progress Advisor who can work with you to create your own success plan. If you know exactly where you went wrong within the course, chat to your Course Coordinator or your peers about the content area. They may help you reflect and understand the content. To ensure you are on track in your degree, check your program plan and chat to your Academic Program Advisor to make sure you’re meeting the requirements of your degree. Also check your emails! The Uni has a Review of Progress process and we send important interactive communications to students to assist with your successes”.

What is the one thing that students should focus on moving into the next semester, after failing a course?

The last and probably most important point. “Focus on how you are successful, and your achievements so far. Each and every student has a different set of circumstances impacting on them when they come to study at the University of Newcastle. You have been successful and can continue to be successful. Identify what success will look like in the next term of study and ask us how you can achieve that success,” says Meegan.

As a fellow student, who failed a course in my first ever semester at Uni, this is simply a setback, a teeny tiny bump along the road, and as rough as it is now, you will be better off in the long run. Setbacks and failures are all a part of this wonderful thing called life, and you will get through this, I promise.

Image: Jez Timms

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