Talking to Your College Student About Grades

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Obviously, grades are a big part of the college experience.  Students attend college for many reasons, but classroom experiences, and the grades that go along with those experiences, are an important measure of college outcomes.  Some students seem to care more than others about their grades, but all college students know that they matter.  Families, too, differ in how they view college grades.  Some parents are anxious to hear about every test or paper; others may not be interested in grades as long as they are passable.

Starting a conversation with your son or daughter about grades may be completely natural for some parents and more awkward for others.  But talking to your student about his grades is important.  Don’t take them for granted or assume that all is well if you don’t hear anything.  Remember that in college, grades go to the student rather than parents.  Your student has ultimate responsibility for his grades, but it is reasonable for you to ask to talk about them.  This is especially important if your college student is a new college student in his first or second semester.  Help him consider what his grades may mean and what he can learn from them.

Here are a few suggestions to help you with that all important discussion about semester grades.

  • If possible, establish even before the semester begins that you expect to see and discuss regarding grades at the end of the term.  This way, when you ask to see them later, it is a natural outcome of your earlier agreement. 
  • Set a careful tone when you ask to talk about grades.  You are not going to make judgments, but rather help your student use grades as a measure of progress, to keep track of accomplishments or difficulties, and to understand and interpret what grades might mean.
  • Take time for a real discussion.  A “How are your grades?” in passing will probably get a “Fine” in response.  Set aside a time when you both have at least a few minutes for a real conversation.
  • Remember that first semester grades for new students are often lower than expected.  They will probably be lower than high school, and the first semester is a time of tremendous transition for most students.  This doesn’t mean that you should dismiss them, but don’t panic if they do not look like high school grades.
  • Don’t take good (or great) grades for granted.  Congratulate your student on high grades and remind her that you recognize that good grades are usually the result of hard work and successful transitions. 
  • Look at the entire picture provided by grades.  Are they generally good with one bad grade?  That may indicate a particularly difficult subject (not all students do well in all subjects), a particularly difficult professor, or some other special circumstance.  This is very different than grades that are all low. 
  • Do help your student try to honestly evaluate one, or several, poor grades.  What happened?  What might he do differently next time? 
  • Help your student understand that the purpose of good grades is not to please you, but to accomplish the learning necessary to do well in college.  Although there is often a vast difference between grades and actual learning, overall, grades are seen as an indicator of classroom success.  Your student needs to accomplish his goals educationally, not worry about pleasing you.
  • Help your student look for patterns.  Is she receiving good grades only in her major?  Are her poor grades all early morning classes, evening classes, once a week classes?  Does she do better in classes with many papers or many tests? 
  • Help your student evaluate the meaning of each grade.  Students know that in some classes an “A” is easily earned, and in other classes a “C” may be an indication of an outstanding student
  • If your student’s grades have taken her by surprise, help her think about how she can get a better indication earlier next semester.  Has she met with her professors during the term?  Did she get midterm grades?  Has she kept all of her papers or tests? 
  • Help your student consider next semester in light of the information grades give him about this semester.  Should he consider changes to his schedule?  Should he repeat a class?  Did he do poorly in a prerequisite class that indicates that he is not ready for the next level?  A conversation with his academic advisor may help him put these questions in perspective.
  • Help your student consider her grades in the context of her entire college experience.  If she has wonderful grades but does nothing but study, she may be missing out on some advantages of the college experience.  If her grades are poor because she parties several nights a week, she hasn’t found balance.  If her grades are moderate, but she is involved in important activities or taking on leadership roles, she may be gaining many advantages outside of the classroom and gathering important resume experiences
  • Help your student use his grades to think about a plan of action and strategy moving forward.  How is he still feeling about a choice of major?  Is he motivated to do well?  Are his grades an indication that he needs some time off?  Does he need help with study skills, time management, note taking?  Grades are only one indication of success, but they can provide important clues about areas for improvement.
  • Help your student investigate support services that may be available on campus to help him next semester. 

A discussion with your student about her grades may be exciting for both of you, or may be a difficult conversation, but it is an important exchange to have.  As a parent, you will need to find the delicate balance between supporting your student and cheering her on, and making expectations clear and asking for accountability. It is important for both you and your student to remember that you are on the same team.  You both want your student to succeed, but the ownership of the process does belong to your student.  You can help your student use her grades as indicators of success or areas for improvement, you can help your student understand the importance of grades, you can encourage your student to take advantage of all support available, and then you will need to allow your student to move forward on his own. That balance of support, congratulations, expectations, and insistence is not easy, but will help your student grow.

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