What to do if you think you may fail a course

It can be scary knowing you might be about to fail a course—especially if it's never happened to you before.

Photo: Ali Seglins

Let's face it, university can be hard. Sometimes you blink your eyes and it’s already Fall Study Break and you never caught up on that one course that’s been slowly slipping through the cracks all semester. If you think that you may receive an F (0-49%) in your course, keep reading.

1. Know what failing a course means

It's important to understand how failing a course impacts your GPA and transcript. An F in your course counts as a zero towards your overall (or cumulative) GPA (you can use the online GPA calculator to figure out how much each individual course affects your GPA). If you choose to repeat your failed course, the highest grade will count, but both attempts will still show up on your transcript.

You’ll also need to check with your department (departmental advisors or assistant dean) to find out how failed courses are handled in your program. Depending on what faculty or program you're in (e.g. undergrad, professional, graduate), there could be additional consequences or next steps.

2. Reflect on out how you got here

There are a lot of factors that can contribute to a failed grade. They could be personal, social, environmental, or any number of things. To help you figure out how you got here, ask yourself these questions:

  • When did you first notice that you were struggling in the course?
  • What did you do when you noticed you were struggling?
  • What factors outside of the classroom were/are impacting your studies?
  • Have you accessed support services to help deal these factors?

If you think you may fail a course as a result of a Dalhousie academic policy (e.g. an academic offence or violation), I recommend making an appointment with DSU Advocacy Services for advice related to your student rights and responsibilities.

3. Talk to someone

However you got here, you should talk to someone – your professor, an advisor, or someone else in your faculty. I know how hard it can be to admit to yourself, let alone someone else, that you’re struggling, but I promise it's easier when you have people supporting you through it!

Your profs want you to succeed, and usually they have lots of strategies to help students get out of this situation. They can help you understand the content better and give you study strategies for the particular format of their class. The sooner you talk to them, the better (if your exam is tomorrow, it's too late).

Advisors are also an amazing resource available to all students. This handy page can help you figure out where to go for advising, whether that's within your faculty or one of Dal’s Student Success Centres. They can help you with steps 1, 2 and 3 (figuring out what failing a class means, helping you figure out how you got there, and even tips for talking to your prof). Dealing with anxiety or stress? Don't forget about peer and professional mental health supports available in Halifax and in Truro.

There are also programs available that can help you like Stay on Track or Back on Track. The Back on Track program is designed specifically for students facing academic probation (GPA less than 2.0) to help them improve their academic standing.

4. Use all of this information to make a plan

This part is different for everybody. Based on what failing a class means, how you got there, and what advice you receive from your professors, advisors, or other support services, you'll be able to come up with some next steps. These could relate to your course load, schedule, study habits, major, or anything else. Figuring out what to do next can be stressful, so it's important that you feel supported throughout the process.