On Campus

So you failed your exams, now what?

Understanding academic probation, what it means and what to do about it

As exams wrap up across the country, most students are looking forward to patio nights and a stress-free summer. But some students are dreading their final grades after a not-so-perfect year.

A failed class, a flunked exam, or a mediocre grade-point average are outcomes no student wants to have come May. But what are the actual consequences of an ‘F’ on your transcript? Or missing required credits to move on to your next year or to graduate?

While most students may have heard of “academic probation,” not everyone knows what it entails. The first thing to remember is failing a class doesn’t mean you need to pack up your textbooks and join the circus, and getting put on academic probation won’t necessarily cripple you academically, if you seek help.

“The whole point of academic standings is to identify students who are at risk and then make them aware of the services that are available in obtaining better academic grades,” University of Calgary’s associate vice-provost (enrolment) and registrar David Johnston said. “When we admit a student, we want them to graduate.”

Academic probation is just one of many possible academic standings a full-time student can be assigned at the end of the year. In many cases the bad outweighs the good. At most schools, the only desired outcome is “In Good Standing,” which means you’re in the clear. There are varying degrees of unsatisfactory standings that come with conditions for the following school year, ranging from meeting benchmark grade-point averages, to withdrawing for a year.

In addition to “In Good Standing,” most universities include “Academic Probation” and “Failed” as the three possible standings. And the conditions of these standings are typically outlined in the university’s academic rules and regulations. Students receive notice of their standing in the summer, after grades are calculated through a mailed letter or an online transcript.

At a school like Calgary’s, when a student’s grade-point average is less than 1.70, the equivalent of a C-, students are put on a probationary period. This is typical of most schools, though the grade-point average threshold varies.

“The purpose, of course, of the first warning is to get them on track academically,” Johnston said. He said it’s normal for first-year students to come into university unprepared for the heavy course-load and higher academic standards than they are accustomed. First-year students, he said, are the largest group his school sees placed on academic probation.

Since grades are dealt with at the faculty level, it’s not clear exactly how many students each year are put on academic probation at each school.

It’s often just a matter of showing students their current learning styles aren’t working, associate dean of the faculty of science at the University of British Columbia Paul Harrison said. “Universities are pretty selective of who they invite in,” he said. “Students deep down have the skills if they apply themselves. Unfortunately some of them don’t.”

He said students also usually come out of high school with limited exposure to their chosen program or knowledge of the university’s expectations for them.

Manager of the Student Academic Success Centre at Carleton University, Kathleen Semanyk said besides academics, there could be any number of circumstances that prevent students from meeting program requirements. “We hear everything from ‘We’ve had a serious illness in my family,’ ‘I’ve lost a loved one,’ ‘I had to find a second job,’” Semanyk said. “It’s really common for students to think they’ve hit the end of the academic road.”

Johnston said, what also tends to happen is students may find their chosen program is not as well suited for them as they had hoped. “It’s aptitude and interest,” Johnston said. “If you don’t have an interest it’s hard to apply yourself.” Just the same, students may find their skill set doesn’t match what their program asks of them.

In all cases, both Johnston and Semanyk said students are strongly encouraged to meet with academic advisors to discuss their options.

During academic advising sessions, which are scheduled appointments, an advisor who can look at grades, program requirement and academic standing can suggest a better program fit, workshops offered by the school on everything from essay writing to time management or recommend further resources such as health and wellness or medical counseling. Some schools also provide faculty-specific advisors who are intimately familiar with professional program requirements, such as in engineering or nursing.

Academic probation is mostly a warning at the University of Calgary, and requires a student meet requirements laid out by the university in order to achieve a good standing the following year. But at some schools there are more than three standings options, and the level of conditions varies.

At Carleton, for example, if a student’s grade-point average is less than a 1.0 (D), or they have failed to achieve good standing after being put on academic warning, they are suspended from study in their chosen program for one year.

At the University of British Columbia, which operates on the three-grade standing system, if a student doesn’t achieve “In Good Standing” in the year following their academic probation they will receive a “Failed” standing at their next evaluation and will be required to withdraw from the school altogether for one year.

Semanyk stressed the importance of meeting with an academic advisor after students receive their academic standing, regardless of its severity. At Carleton, she said with advisement students can learn how they can get a “No Decision” outcome at their next evaluation, which would buy them more time to improve their grades.

The most serious of standings at most schools include being permanently removed from your program of study with no possibility of reenrollment or being withdrawn from the university, sometimes for several years, or permanently. Students also have the option of appealing their grades or academic standing by submitting a formal letter of appeal to their faculties, said University of Waterloo dean of arts, Ken Coates.

“It is the students’ responsibility to maintain their standing the best they can,” Coates said. He said students should never jump immediately into a formal appeal. “It’s really advisable for them to see an undergraduate advisor in their faculty,” he said. In some cases, Coates said an advisor could suggest the student’s circumstances warrant an appeal and advise them through their school’s official process.

For example, Coates said a student may have enrolled in a class, which they decided they no longer wanted to take and tried to drop. If for some reason they didn’t go through the appropriate steps to drop the class and now find themselves with an ‘F,’ dropping them below the grade-point average required by their program, the faculty committee responsible for their appeal may be sympathetic.

Coates said in his faculty of 7,000 students on average he hears 75 appeals each year. “The range of reasons why people appeal is enormous,” Coates said. “We’re getting more and more appeals all the time.” He said what’s important is for students not to wait until it’s too late if there is a foreseeable problem that would prevent a student from performing to the best of their abilities.

Semanyk also emphasized that students take a proactive approach to their grades. “There are things throughout the year students can do when they think they’re in the wrong course or they’re worried about the outcome of their year,” she said.

Academic advisors are available to discuss progress and standings, pick courses, and set goal’s for a student’s academic future. “To be forewarned is to be forearmed,” Semanyk said. “The best students we find in terms of no surprises are the students who come to see us regularly.”

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