Does Your Student Have These Traits?

Spring semester is here, and the Student Success Center staff is noticing some common traits we see in freshmen who struggle. These are common behaviors that—without intervention—can seriously prohibit students from finding the resources they need. If you identify your student as having any of these traits, ask them what they are doing to develop them while they are here. (You can remind them that the Success Center has academic coaches and workshops to help them!)

When it gets uncomfortable, they back away.

Story: A student with a very low GPA from her first semester was in my office this week. She had an A in one class, and poor grades in the others. I asked her about her relationship with the professor in the class that she passed. She went on and on about how much she liked that professor, and how much they talked. She agreed that her conversations with this professor helped her understand the material in the class. I asked her if she did the same with her other professors, and she said, “No. I didn’t know what to say, and some of my professors scare me.”

This one is the most common, and it’s the most damaging. There is no growth without discomfort. In order to succeed, students need to make appointments with their professors, talk about course material, and ask questions. They need to speak up in class. They need to walk into an office on campus and say, “I need something.” Is your student doing these things? Students tell us they are not, because “it’s uncomfortable.” They know they have a need, but addressing that need means doing something they’ve never done before, so many of them choose instead to live with not knowing, to live quietly as they were instead of simply knocking on a door and getting the problem solved.

The student in the story above had identified the importance of meeting with and talking to professors, and had seen the results. Yet she was unable to replicate it with other professors because doing so made her feel uncomfortable.

What Helps: I often ask these students, “Do you like to swim? You know, go to the beach, or swim in a pool on a hot day?” Most often they say yes. I then ask, “The first time you were thrown in a pool, was it comfortable?” They always say no (and they begin to see where I’m going with this). Of course the first time is always uncomfortable. What’s on the other side of that discomfort? Everything they want.

They avoid what’s “different.”

Story: A student had an Incomplete grade from a class in the fall, meaning the professor would continue to work with her in the spring to allow her to make up the work to receive a grade. I met with her to ask her how it was going. She said, “I don’t know.” With the deadline approaching (where unresolved Incomplete grades turn into F’s), I asked her what she was doing to make up the work. She told me she wasn’t sure which assignments were still due, and she didn’t know how to turn in the video assignment she made. So instead of asking, she did nothing.

Students need to learn new systems, new skills, and adapt to new routines. Checking and sorting through e-mails. Organizing assignments in a planner. Understanding how to use Blackboard and Web Advisor. Managing their obligations, their budgets, and their time. Similar to the first trait, these new systems are unfamiliar. Many students don’t like feeling lost, so they avoid these things altogether. This always causes more stress down the line, but some students accept future discomfort, convincing themselves they will be better equipped to handle it at the time.

What Helps: I often use ridiculous analogies to get them to see how detrimental this behavior is. I’ll say something like, “If your foot was on fire, would you say, ‘I’ll wait until it’s my whole leg before I do anything…’ or would you put it out right away?” Help your students navigate new responsibilities by showing them how it’s helped you. Give real world examples that apply to them. We have great time management and organizational skills workshops through the Success Center to help them shift the way they see “different” opportunities, and help them navigate new systems.

They use excuses.

Story: A student in our Academic Success Planning course this semester only handed in half of his assignments last semester, because “I’m a pro at catching up.” This included charming his professors and using excuses as to why papers were late, or homework wasn’t completed. In our coaching session, he said to me, “When it comes down to it, it's my fault. I'm tired of playing catch-up and I’m sick of hearing my own excuses.”

Comfort is a common theme. Many students have developed a way to avoid difficult conversations by making excuses. After a while, they realize excuses work with some people, and they become a go-to strategy. Look for this in your student. Are they taking responsibility or placing blame? Are the things that are happening in their lives due to others, or do they recognize their own role in their success and struggles?

What Helps: Reality. I like to ask students to tell me about a project or a paper that they did well on, and how that felt. We talk about how good it feels to get something off the To-Do list. When responsibilities are hanging over their heads, everything is stressful. When they can see the value in finishing tasks early, it adds perspective. When the excuses get too excessive, you can also remind students that they become their excuses. They are no longer seen as responsible or dependable. Ask, “Do you want your friends to say, ‘Yeah, [your student] is nice, but you can’t depend on them.’?”


All of these are developmentally normal for freshmen during this transition, and we see a lot of positive traits in your students as well. Together, we look to shape your students into the young adults you envision them becoming. As always, we thank you for your help!