Student Success and Failure

“If you feel bored with doing this math, imagine how you’ll feel if you have to take it again.”

Some students pass and some students fail.

One of the hardest lessons that I have had to learn as a teacher is about the necessity of failing students.     I want my students to succeed.      I spend a lot of time encouraging my students.    I start off the class with talk about dream jobs, and I keep extra credit going all quarter long to help them trying to achieve more.  I spell out what it will take to pass each test, and what is necessary to pass the class.

Most of my students go on to succeed… and some start to like math in ways they never knew was possible.   Whether the student is learning math just for the sake of a technical program, or if whether they are filling requirements before moving on to something different:  in either case,  they will have learned some important lessons about how to categorize, how to look at problems, and how to study successfully.

And of course, some students will fail.  Sometimes they fail due to their life circumstances – while this is tough, I also know that they will probably retry and succeed.    Some fail due to fear.   These students are afraid of failure, or don’t want to ask any questions.   These are the students who get caught by their own psychology:   they get caught in a cycle of feeling guilty about not being able to do math, then they feel guilty about not working on their math more.   Of course, the cycle of guilt and self-recrimination tends to remove any emotional advantage to study.  These are the students who need the most help – they can succeed, but you have to be able to catch them, and they will be very quiet about their difficulties.    My experience says that if you give them extra work, they will resent you for about 5 minutes before they’ll be grateful for giving them a little momentum.

Then there are the students who fail due to apathy.   No matter what, some students won’t really engage in the class… they won’t do their work, or they will try to get by with the least possible effort.   Then they will try to bargain or beg themselves into a passing grade.

When students earn a failing grade, it is best to let it stand.   You will not be doing them or their future teacher any favors if you pass them on for reasons of mere sympathy.   Otherwise, they won’t learn that their habits have consequences.   One excuse that scares the hell out of me is – “You can’t fail me, I need a 3.0 so I can be a nurse.”   Realistically, I don’t want anyone who can’t do basic algebra doing dosage calculations.

In any case, it is still difficult after investing so much time in my students to not feel some sense of responsibility for their success or failure.   But by the time they’re through with class, they students will have earned whatever grade they will get.


I have to let them go sometime.


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