Academic Advice: 4 Tips for Struggling Students Looking to Get Back on Track

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Juggling homework, classes, extracurriculars, your health, and a social life isn’t easy. With so much to do, it doesn’t take a lot to get behind on your studies. Just a few hiccups can lead to late assignments and suddenly make you feel buried by responsibilities.

But just because you feel like you’ve been backsliding doesn’t mean you’re permanently behind. Part of college is figuring out how to deal with obstacles so you can set yourself up for success. To help you get started back on the path to success, we’ve asked Jon Mladic, Dean of Library and Learning Services at Rasmussen College, to weigh in with his advice. Whether you’re in the middle of a course or want to start preparing for the next one, these strategies can help you get back on track and stay there for the long term.

Tips for getting back on track academically

Here’s some good news—the fact that you’re reading this article means you’re ready to make things right, and that’s the most important step. From here, it’s just a matter of finding the right strategies.

1. Don’t beat yourself up

Nobody wants to miss an assignment or fail a course, but it’s important not to let that hold you back. In fact, it’s essential that you don’t. According to the Center for Motivation and Change (CMC), shame can cause people to withdraw and avoid new things. When you start to believe that you’re “just not driven enough” or “just not college material,” getting back on track becomes all the harder as that negative thought spiral can weigh you down.

“You have to adopt a growth mindset and be willing to try something new even though it’s tough,” says Mladic.

Remember—you’re not the only one who has ever fallen behind in school. It can sometimes take 200 days to form a new habit, so give yourself a little grace and get back to it. You probably didn’t learn to ride a bike without a few wipeouts, and the same rationale applies here—so dust yourself off, learn from it and try to do better next time.

2. Deal with any underlying issues

“I think the first thing for a struggling student to do is to really nail down what went wrong,” says Mladic.

While there are a lot of reasons people fall behind in school, for many, anxiety is often the culprit as it can lead to avoidance or putting things off. Mladic recalls several students avoiding class registration and homework for subjects they’re most nervous about. Unfortunately, this only makes the issue worse.

After scrolling through social media for two hours instead of studying, you're now closer to the deadline and no closer to finishing the project. Your anxiety increases which can trigger more avoidance and the cycle continues.

Others may see this as a simple case of procrastination, but if you’re dealing with anxiety—like the majority of college students—it’s important to acknowledge that there might be more going on.

When you start to feel anxious about something, try slowing your mind down. Instead of thinking “I have a ten-page paper due in two days,” break it up into small, manageable tasks. Try setting a timer for five minutes and just see what you can get done. You might surprise yourself and find you can set the timer for another five minutes. Talk yourself through it, and remember that whatever you can accomplish—even if it’s not perfect—is better than avoidance.

3. Switch up your approach

If you’ve always used the same strategies to manage your time, stay focused and study, it may not be your work ethic that’s the issue, but your approach to the course.

Mladic has worked with lots of struggling students in his career, and when asked how they intend to make the next quarter better, most respond, "I'm going to try harder." 

“It's a good start, but more often than not, it’s not the problem,” Mladic says. “The problem is that they were approaching the class the exact same way that they've approached it previously.”

Even if you’re spending five hours on a project, if those hours aren’t productive, you won’t see the results you want.

“Now is the time to reevaluate and come up with a different approach that might be a little bit more effective,” Mladic says.

Even small things like the time of day you study can have a big impact on your success in a course. Exploring what time works best for you—rather than what you think you should do—is a great place to start.

“I've seen students do really effective work on their lunch break, other students wake up really early or stay up late at night.”

In the same way, the environment in which you study can also influence your success.

“A lot of students think that to study, you have to be in a completely silent environment and use note cards. That might work for some people. But other students study a lot better when there's some background noise at a coffee shop. If something doesn't work for you, try another approach until you find one that does.”

4. Ask for help

Asking for help may be one of the most important things you do in your academic journey. But this can be difficult when you’re not sure where to turn and are dealing with a big project. Navigating library resources can be intimidating for students, which might cause them to wait until the last minute to get started, says Mladic.

“The best ways that I’ve found to avoid that is to actually schedule an appointment with a librarian,” he says. “They can help you find resources, navigate databases, and narrow down your topic. It’s a much more efficient way of getting started.”

So, as you look at your course syllabi, scan ahead for any big research papers or projects and plan to meet with a librarian early on.

“You can either spend a weekend doing the research on your own and hope that you end up in the right direction, or you could spend an hour with a librarian and end up with what you're actually looking for,” says Mladic.

Another resource Mladic recommends to students is peer tutoring. Not only is this a great way to get extra help on your homework, but it’s an easy way to stay accountable when you set up a reoccurring appointment.

"I see a lot of students use tutoring as a time management tool," says Mladic. "If they know assignments are due on Sunday and schedule a tutoring appointment every Wednesday, they'll have at least started that homework with a few days to spare.”

By using resources like this, you can get help and get ahead of your responsibilities. Going to college can be challenging, so take advantage of everything available to you and never be afraid to ask for help. There’s no asterisk on your diploma that says, “This student asked for tutoring help,” so leave any reservations you might have about seeking out help at the door. There are entire teams of people who are invested in helping you succeed—take them up on the offer!

Get ahead of the curve

Getting back on track won’t happen overnight. It might take a little trial and error, but with the right resources and some dedication, you can find what works for you.

“You can do this,” says Mladic. “It's not impossible. We found out what doesn't work for you. So now let's find out what does.”

To learn about more resources available at Rasmussen College, check out our article, “9 Surprising Student Resources You Didn’t Know Rasmussen College Offered."

Hannah Meinke

Hannah Meinke is a writer at Collegis Education. She enjoys helping people discover their purpose and passion by crafting education and career-related content on behalf of Rasmussen University.

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