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July 8, 2020

Student Success

Overcoming intimidating school subjects: a game plan.

A woman works late into the night being lit by her laptop backlight.

Almost everyone has that one school subject that strikes fear in their heart. For students returning to the classroom, the prospect of repeating a class they struggled with—or even failed—could rekindle old anxieties.

Students retake school subjects for many reasons. Sometimes they want to improve their grade; sometimes they failed and need to pass the course to qualify for advanced courses. Some students might have struggled with the course material; some might have been overwhelmed by external pressures. Others maybe haven't taken a class in a while and their chemistry or algebra is rusty.

Further Reading: How to earn a degree on your schedule.

But if you root out the source of your struggles, you might find the strength to take on even your most dreaded school subject.

Overcoming intimidating school subjects.

Repeating a course is something that many students have experienced, but it isn't clear which of these students are best positioned to succeed the second time around or why. A study published in the Journal of Education for Business examined three groups of first-year students and found that while most repeat students improved their grades, how much they improved varied wildly. With a few exceptions, students with low GPAs who failed a course generally didn't perform well when retaking it.

However, Michael J. Armstrong, one of the study's authors, suggested in The Conversation that the key differentiator is to “thoughtfully prepare for repeat attempts” at the course.

In other words, if you have to retake a course or exam—or are just revisiting a difficult subject—you need to go in with a game plan.

Identify why you're struggling.

The first step to conquering your most dreaded course is to understand why you've struggled with it in the past. But sometimes you might be too close to your problems to see them. It can help to have a professional—such as a mentor, an advisor, or a counselor—to help diagnose the problem.

Amit Patel, a Program Mentor at Western Governors University’s College of Business, works with more than 90 MBA students. Part of his job as a member of the mentoring faculty is to help students navigate their professional and personal obligations as well as their academic hurdles. Many of his students find themselves in danger of failing or retaking a course or exam.

One of Patel’s students took and failed the proctored assessment for Accounting for Decision Makers twice. She took a break from her degree program after her second failed test. When she came back, she worried about taking that course and exam again.

Patel sat down with the student, who'd passed her other accounting courses, and examined the factors that led to her failures. They found that during her first two tries at the Accounting for Decision Makers assessment, she’d been working long hours at her job. She’d also been nervous about the course material. During her break from the program, her job responsibilities had slowed, and she now had more time to focus on the course.

Once the student understood how her outside pressures had affected her, she and Patel made a study plan so that she could focus on the course material she found most challenging. He was able to help her see that she wasn’t destined to fail the class because she was a poor student.

“Real-time mentoring is invaluable because it permits us to view and analyze what occurred in the past while also coming up with solutions that account for present conditions,” Patel says.

Use available resources.

Most schools offer tutoring and counseling resources to their students. Taking advantage of those resources early and consistently can help you improve your academic and study skills so that you’re better able to complete your courses.

For example, WGU students have access to a range of services, such as course faculty, who can help with content-specific queries; the Writing Center, which helps with grammar and APA-related concerns; the Math Center, which offers help for math challenges; the Center for Student Success, which can help students with time management and testing anxiety; WGU WellConnect, which offers 24/7 access to counselors for life events; Career Services, which provides résumé and career-related guidance; and, of course, Program Mentors and other faculty members like Patel.

Students can also find resources on their own—they might join online study groups or attend online learning skills workshops.

Change your habits.

One of the most sobering findings in the Journal of Education for Business study is that students who failed courses still tended to earn the lowest grades when they repeated the course. Researchers reasoned that those students were merely repeating the course without addressing the issues they experienced the first time. They were approaching the course the same way—and not seeing different results.

Students “simply continuing their original behavior and hoping for ‘better luck’ the second time is unwise,” Armstrong wrote in The Conversation.

That’s why it’s so critical that you identify—and address—the problems you had the first time around. Armstrong suggests that students spend fewer hours at part-time jobs, attend learning skills workshops, and join study groups.

WGU students can also work with their Program Mentor to build better habits. Patel works with his students to develop solutions that will help them do better in a course or on an exam, rather than trying to do the same things over and over again.

“Once we identify contributing elements, we isolate and develop solutions, whether that is scheduling the exam earlier in the day or selecting a calendar date allowing calibration between a student's various responsibilities,” he says.

The importance of a plan.

While some school subjects might always be intimidating, don’t worry about retakes. Retakes can be good—they show that you’re determined to succeed. And if you’re just becoming a student again after a long stint away from school, it’s OK to use a little extra time and resources to warm back up to it.

The important thing to remember is that failing an exam or a class doesn’t mean that you’re bad at school. It just means that you need a little support, an honest look at why you're struggling, and a plan to overcome the challenge.

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