“My prof encouraged me to stay. I thought I should go. I failed. Now what?”

Posted by on May 23, 2013 in General | 47 comments

You had good reasons for dropping your class. You were encouraged to stay. What do you do now that your concern about what would happen… happened?

(Last week, I wrote about an “Incomplete” grade versus failure, based on a student question. Here is a slightly different situation, also along the lines of an incomplete. What do you think?)

Dear Ellen,

I thought I did everything right in communicating with my professor this term. I did not do well on my first exam and my professor took me aside and said he/she was concerned. We agreed I needed more study time. I faced a terrible injury three weeks after the exam and went to the prof again to explain what was going on. We discussed whether or not I should stay with the class. I was told that I should.

I took my next exam and was told I was barely passing due to absences related to the injury and that test. I asked if I should withdraw and retake the class, but the professor said, “No, you will be fine.” After my third exam, I was still barely passing. The prof said, “You have three more weeks to bring your grade up.”

My adviser suggested I ask for an incomplete, but the prof refused. I offered to do whatever it would take to finish the class, but suddenly, there were no options. By this point, it was too late to withdraw.

I don’t understand. I kept in touch with my professor, openly discussed my concerns, and I was encouraged to stick with the course. Now this feels like a mess and I’m very upset.



(Before my response, what do you think about this situation? I know I have encouraged students to stay with a class–situation-dependent, of course. If I believe a student should stay, then I feel it’s my job to have a Plan A, B, and even C in order. The student must agree to each plan and its potential ramifications. If there is no hope, I try to be realistic about that, too. These are incredibly hard decisions to make.) 

Dear Student,

It sounds like you have had a very stressful term, both physically and emotionally. I am sorry that you have had to deal with this. I’m impressed that you kept such close communication with your professor. Here are my thoughts:

Since the prof encouraged you to stay with the course in just about every conversation, an Incomplete seems completely justifiable to me. Based on my experiences, if I advise a student not to withdraw, I often have this option in my back pocket.

I can see this issue from both sides. Often, students self-select their withdrawal. Many students tell me, but some won’t. Depending on the situation, I actually wish they would to see if there is something else we can do. When faculty need to help students make this decision, it’s a tough call. I recently had a student who was doing very well in class, then diagnosed with a serious illness. We came up with three possible outcomes. One of those included an Incomplete, which I was fully prepared to give.

Had the student not been doing well, I might have recommended withdrawing the course so he/she could focus on the medical situation. Even if it meant a lower grade, student really did not want that option because it would delay graduation. My point here is that we were both prepared for several realistic possibilities.

In your case, the encouragement to stay was hopeful, but lacked a concrete plan. Therefore, I would ask again for the Incomplete. Say, “I really appreciate all you’ve been doing to help me this term. Obviously neither of us realized how much my injury would affect my performance/attendance in class. However, at every turn, I kept asking about my status, if I should stay with the class or leave, and as I understood, you believed I would be fine. Now I am facing a failing grade and having to retake this class. I respectfully ask that you reconsider an incomplete based on medical issues.”

Here is another thing you can offer: Re-joining the classes you missed next term. This would show that you are committed to digging in and finishing. Then, you and your prof can collaboratively choose a date to submit your final work.

Before you make the request, please think about this: Do you want that incomplete? If you were my student, your existing points would be averaged with points earned via the incomplete work. Will you be satisfied with that grade? If yes, then go for it. Otherwise, starting over may be best.

If the prof is unwilling to do anything, that will be unfortunate. You could enlist your adviser’s help or, of course, take the matter higher up to a department/division chair. Before you do that, I would circle back with your professor for one more conversation. I only suggest this because it sounds like you had positive interactions.

Say, “In our numerous conversations, I thought there would be a contingency plan based on my medical issue since I was encouraged to stay. I was mistaken not asking this earlier, but what did you think my options were when we had these discussions?” This will hopefully remind your professor that not every student is meant to stick with a class if there are mitigating circumstances, unless there is a clearly agreed-upon plan for completion or exit.

It sounds like you had early intuition that this course was not going to work out with the medical issues. I can see how listening to that voice would be challenging if someone is telling you “things will be fine.” If this occurs again (hopefully it won’t!), press for what happens if “fine” doesn’t pan out.

I wish you the best. I’ll be interested to hear an update.


(I have an update on this situation and will post it in the next blog. Once again, what do you think?)


  1. I read an article on your old blog about failing a class and ways to fix it. I was hoping you could help me a bit further :) Spring of 2009 I was enrolled in 4 classes that I ended up failing because of multiple stays in the hospital=too many missed classes. I spoke to my professors and although all but one was willing to let me make up the classes it became too much for me to attend after being put on bed rest (I was pregnant). Now I am trying to go back to school in the fall and I want those “f” grades to disappear. One of the classes I need to retake is no longer in the catalog. How can I fix that grade if I can’t retake the class?? I’ve heard of academic renewal. Does it remove all my grades or only that semester? And if I retake the other classes will the failing grades still show up on my transcript?? Thanks so much for taking the time to read this :)

    • Hi, Ashley,

      I have been off blogging for most of the summer, but wanted to respond to your question! I had the exact same thing happen with my transcript, so I totally understand your predicament! Make sure you check with your college about their specific policies, but usually, you can do academic renewal and it will purge the courses from one full term. Remember, the “I” grades don’t really affect your GPA, so if they stick around, I doubt anyone would pay attention. You can also supply a note with your transcript explaining that you had a health situation. Regarding whether or not a failing grade still shows up for a retaken class, I believe that original course is not stricken, but the GPA would be adjusted. Again, check with your college on their policies. Bravo to you for cleaning up your transcript and moving forward! Ellen

      • Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to me! I really appreciate it! I am planning on making an appointment with an advisor next month or maybe October when all of their new semester craziness has calmed down a bit. I’m really hopefully that this can be resolved because without that semester I have a 4.0 and I REALLY want to get into nursing school! Again, thank you!!!

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  2. Oh, not sure if this matters but I’m at a community college. :)

  3. I had some good reasons to drop the class, but now I changed my mind. Not sure, but anyway, thanks for the article, it gave some thinking material for me.

  4. I am a senior in highschool. I have awful ADHD, type 1 diabetes, epilepsy, and crippling depression. None of those are legitimate reasons for my failing but they often get in the way of my studies. Right now I’m not failing anything, but it looks like I won’t graduate due to my Applied Calculus class. Everything is going over my head, and after seeing a tutor, working with the teacher and watching videos online, I still don’t grasp some of the basic concepts. I honestly think I may be pushed to the brink of suicide if I don’t graduate, since I have everything planned out for college. I have a presidential scholarship to a private college and plan on nursing, so I’ll never have to take another math class outside of college algebra. I wish I could just skip all of this and go straight to college, because I am totally prepared.

    • Carson,
      Don’t feel like it’s the end..just keep doing what you’re doing. Maybe you’ll be surprised and it’ll all come to you! But if not, remember that education isn’t a race, it’s a marathon. I’m in college, graduated from high school with high honors in 2013, and I should be graduating with my bachelors degree a year from now if I had been able to take a full schedule every semester. Unfortunately, life happened and I have to work full time to pay for my bills as well as school; I’ll be lucky if I have my associates degree next year. I’m just saying, keep your head up and focus on your goal, not how long it takes you to get there. Good luck!!

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