Why You're Not Doing Well In Your Classes & What To Do About It

By Naomi Fink on January 12, 2021

This past semester was unlike any other. As many universities transitioned to completely online learning, students were forced to adapt the way they socialize, connect, and of course study. While online learning may have made things easier in some respects — open-note quizzes, longer time frames to complete exams, flexible paper deadlines — it also made it extremely difficult for students to stay motivated and organized. After staring at a computer screen all day for classes, the last thing anyone wants to do is homework online too.

Because of these challenges, you may have seen an unwanted dip in your grades or overall GPA this past semester. Curious how you can do better? Here are seven reasons why you’re not doing well in your classes and what you can do about it for next semester.

Problem #1: You’re skipping classes/readings

Depending on how professors organize their courses, it can be really difficult to keep track of what lectures you need to watch when and what assignments are due when. With that said, it’s on you as the student to stay on top of course material. If you’re watching/attending all the lectures and your professor is very clear, then sometimes you can get away with skimping on the reading. However, if you’re missing and/or ditching classes left and right and disregarding the readings entirely, the consequences are likely to be reflected in your grades.

Solution #1: Work smart

Besides socializing and making friends, you’re ultimately in college to learn which means you probably should be watching/attending most, if not all, of your lectures and completing the majority of your assigned readings. Be smart with your time. It’s okay to prioritize one class over another if it’s in your major or if you have a big exam coming up, but don’t skip out on readings that you can’t afford to miss. Get a feel for the course and if you decide you don’t need both the lectures and the reading to master the material, then make your cuts strategically.

Photo via Unsplash

Problem #2: You’re not taking good notes

Many professors have allowed students to use their notes during quizzes and exams this semester. This should make it easy, right? Not necessarily. If you aren’t taking enough notes or your notes are disorganized, they aren’t going to be the most helpful and it can be difficult to search through 10 different PowerPoints just to find the information you need. At the end of the day, you can only Command-F so much.

Solution #2: Switch up your note-taking style

If your notes aren’t working for you, switch up your style! Check out these seven methods to help you take better notes in your virtual classes. For example, if you’re taking notes on your computer, try taking notes by hand or vice versa. Reflect on your note-taking habits from the fall semester and think about what might help you during the spring term.

Problem #3: You’re not studying

Just because your classes are online and your exams are potentially open-note, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study. Professors will often ask questions that will require you to apply what you’ve learned rather than just spit back information. This means you need to know your stuff and understand it. Additionally, some of your quizzes or exams may be timed. It’s better to have the information in mind than to miss out on easy points flipping through your notes!

Solution #3: Leave time to study

You may not need to study as much as you would during a typical semester, but you should definitely leave at least some time to study. If your quiz/exam is open-note, perhaps spend some time condensing your notes onto a single page or two. This will force you to review the course material and will come in handy when it comes to the actual assessment. Alternatively, a big exam could be a great opportunity to form a study group and connect with other students in your class. Reach out to your peers and collaborate on a study guide or spend some time asking each other questions over Zoom. This will make studying both fun and productive!

Photo via Unsplash

Problem #4: You’re not studying right

Studying is important but what really matters is whether it’s effective. If you’re spending hours studying and your grades are still suffering, it may be a sign that you need to change things up. Research in the field of psychology shows that the context of where you study and the way you study can make a big difference. In a semester of entirely online classes, it can be hard to keep things straight, especially without the context cues of a physical classroom to help jog your memory.

Solution #4: Context matters

Make the context and format of the way you’re studying as similar to the context and format of the exam as possible. If you know your exam is multiple-choice, study and test yourself using multiple-choice questions. If you know your exam is short-answer style, study, and practice answering in paragraph form. Studying the material in the same way you’ll be asked to recall the material makes the information more accessible when you need it!

The same is true for the physical context of where you’re studying. Your brain makes associations between locations of learning and the content of learning itself so if you plan on taking an exam at your desk, then it’s a good idea to study at your desk too. (This means don’t study on your bed!) Put yourself in a different room or change the way you’re sitting to signal to your brain that it’s time to tune in and focus.

Problem #5: You’re procrastinating

We’ve all been there. It’s 11:54 pm and you have exactly five minutes to finish and submit your final project, paper, or exam worth 25% of your grade. You’re up against the clock, adrenaline, and caffeine from your late-night cup of coffee rushing through your veins. One minute left. You click submit and…!

There are a few ways this scenario can play out. One: you get your assignment in on time and feel amazing that you met the deadline. Two: your computer freezes or the file takes a few minutes to upload so, despite all your hard work, your assignment is unfortunately considered late. Three: you don’t finish your assignment and whatever work you submit is incomplete; you hope for partial credit.

Sometimes that last-minute rush of adrenaline can help you cross the finish line and get your assignment in. Odds are though that the work you submit is probably not your best, and that will likely be reflected in your grades. According to the American Psychological Association, 80 to 95 percent of college students procrastinate, so if you find yourself doing so, you’re definitely not alone. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

One of the biggest problems that feeds into procrastination is lack of motivation. We tend to avoid doing things we don’t want to do until we can’t avoid them anymore. For assignments, this translates into pushing things off until right before they are due. As many college students say, “Due today? Do today.”

Solution #5: Get motivated early

How can you combat the procrastination problem? By getting motivated early. Pretend your assignments are due a day earlier than they actually are. Incentivize yourself with rewards like study breaks, snacks, or something new from the store, and find yourself a study buddy to help keep you accountable. It’s also helpful to cut out as many distractions as possible while you’re working; it’s a lot easier to crank out a paper when you’re not simultaneously trying to hang out with your roommates.

Additionally, you can avoid last-minute cramming by breaking down your tasks into smaller subgoals. Have a 10-page paper due in two weeks? Take a day to research, a day to outline, a day to write each page, a day to insert citations, and a day to proofread it all. Voila! Your 10-page paper will be a lot less daunting if you set smaller goals to accomplish each day. There will inevitably be setbacks so adjust your timeline as necessary. The same method can be applied to other assignments and studying as well. The point is to start early on and build off of your progress, hacking away until little by little you achieve your ultimate goal. You can do this, and it doesn’t have to be dreadful.

Infographic created via Canva

Problem #6: You’re sleep-deprived and/or Zoom fatigued

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably a college student, and if you’re a college student, then you’re probably sleep deprived. Whether you aren’t sleeping enough because you have a lot on your plate and you take your work really really seriously or because you’re having fun and hanging out with friends till the wee hours of the morning, the consequences may be reflected in your scores.

In addition to the usual lack of sleep that college students experience, this semester may have amplified things. With so many classes taking place online, you may not be doing well because you are simply spending too much time staring at a screen. Zoom-fatigue is real! Screens before bed disturb your sleeping patterns but now that you’re online all day, it’s even worse.

Solution #6: SLEEP and/or take breaks!

If you feel your academic performance is suffering due to lack of sleep, then get in bed and catch some Zs! This is an easy fix — at least in theory. As a busy college student, it can be really hard to find the time or make time to sleep. Aim for eight hours and try your best to stick to a schedule. You can even create a fun curfew contest with friends or roommates to hold yourself accountable. Whoever misses curfew most in two weeks has to bake the other cookies!

Besides leaving enough time to sleep, it’s also really important to make sure you’re taking breaks. Go for a walk, do some stretches, and/or just give yourself a few minutes of screen-free time. You’ll be more productive and feel less tired if you do.

Problem #7: It’s not you, it’s the class

Sometimes the reason you aren’t doing well in a class isn’t your fault. There are many factors that contribute to a less-than-desired grade. Firstly, the professor or course you’re taking may just be a really tough professor or course. It happens. Not everyone is going to get an A, especially if your professor has grade quotas to meet.

You also may not be doing as well as you’d like in a course because there is a grading curve. This can work for or against you. If each quiz/exam is curved, your grades may seem higher or lower depending on how other people in your class perform. Education should be about how much you learn, rather than how you compare to others; remember that. Alternatively, if your grade as a whole is curved, it may be hard to gauge how you’re doing in the class. You may have a C the entire semester that gets bumped up to an A at the end of the semester or you may have a C that stays a C depending on how everyone else scored. Grading curves may be even more drastic now that so many classes are online. Do your best and don’t worry about the grading curve too much and no matter how you’re doing, do not resort to cheating. It’s dishonest, wrong, and unfair. Have integrity, even if you can get away with it.

Solution #7: Reach out to your professors and TAs

If despite your best efforts, you’re still not doing as well in your classes as you’d like to, reach out to your professors or TAs. Express your concerns and seek advice. How do they recommend studying? Is there a specific concept they can review with you? Your professors and TAs are there to help so take advantage! Sometimes it’s not your fault and even if it is, it’s okay to ask for help. In fact, asking for help is encouraged and is a great first step towards improvement.

There are many reasons why you may not be doing well in your classes. You may be slacking, not taking enough notes, not studying efficiently, procrastinating, lacking sleep, Zoom-fatigued, or something else. Whatever the reason, you can always improve. Use these seven solutions to address the issues you’re experiencing and turn your grades around for next semester; Spring term is a fresh start!

Naomi Fink is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a candidate for a BA in Psychology and Philosophy with a minor in Urban Education. Some of Naomi's hobbies include hiking, volunteering, yoga, swimming, art, and of course, writing!

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