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Student Larissa Wright outdoors

19 May 2021

Dealing with poor grades: student Larissa shares her story

By Larissa Wright

In my second year of psychology, I made the mistake of thinking that the Easter intra-trimester break was a real break, and took myself off to a festival. I returned from the festival, underslept and overtired, and wrote two lab reports. Weirdly, I felt okay about those lab reports (overconfidence after doing so well in first year perhaps), so when I got back a pass and a credit, and both were below the class average, I had something of a meltdown. I mean, my body went into a total fight or flight mode, heart racing like some kind of panic attack, while I paced up and down the hallway crying, trying to shake out my horror at what had happened. The hardest part, perhaps, was that I was WORSE THAN AVERAGE.

Once that rush of horror had passed a bit, I got a bit more solution-focused about it and made an appointment with a Deakin counsellor. During this time, the urge to quit was HUGE. Look at this, evidence that I’m useless, might as well walk away! I had three phone appointments with the counsellor, learned some things about myself, and got on with it.

Through this experience, through peer mentoring others, and through extensive work with my new therapist, I’ve learned a lot about grades and my reactions to them, which I want to share.

I evaluate myself as a person by a grade for an assignment. When I saw I was ‘below average’, I didn’t see that in terms of that one specific assignment. Subconsciously, I saw that as evaluating ME, as a person. My intelligence, my aptitude for psychology or learning, my general value as a human being taking up space on the earth… all below average! So my self-esteem and self-worth tanked instantly.

The urge to give up can be huge. Even without quitting, it’s easy to get discouraged and start putting less effort in. I noticed thoughts like, ‘Why should I bother if I can’t get good grades anyway’, and feelings like trying less would be ‘safe’, because if I got poor grades, I’d know it was just because I wasn’t trying and didn’t care anyway. Thoughts like ‘academia is stupid and I don’t belong here; it’s just not the right path for me’ (but with a few more swear words) popped up regularly.

Comparing myself to other students is a recipe for disaster. Sure, it felt great when I did better than other people, and I often did so it felt safe, but when I got too attached to that comparison to feel worthy, a single bad grade could send me spiraling.

I’ve found some solutions and understanding and remedies to all this, which I’m hoping might help others as well.

You. Are. Not. Your. Grades. That number on that assignment was given to you by a stranger who is evaluating one thing: how well you addressed the requirements in that single assessment task. Now, if I get a disappointing grade, I remind myself of that. Even if there are some things I’m not a natural talent at… like, say, academic writing… I remind myself that I am a unique and nuanced human with many skills and strengths, and academic writing is one of those things that requires a bit more practice and persistence. It’s a learnable skill, not a representation of my worth.

The urge to give up is a defence mechanism. My therapist introduced me to Internal Family Systems, a way of examining your internal processes where you notice the different (often conflicting) needs of the different parts of yourself. I have become acquainted with my Inner Protector, who really wants to protect me from feeling stupid or failing. She’s the one who urges me to run away or give up, and her intentions are good. I thank her for her hard work, but I reassure her I’ve got this, and I don’t let her make my decisions.

Compare yourself only to yourself. We are all in different stages of our journeys. We all have different mixes of skills, different amounts of time and resources to give our degrees, different motivations for being here, different strengths and areas for growth, and different backgrounds. I’ve made a new rule where I don’t tell my friends what marks I got anymore because what for? I’m not competing with them.

I’m not saying don’t worry about your grades; they are obviously important. But we need to look at them objectively for what they are: an evaluation of how well you met specific milestones in this specific task. When you can look at them objectively, you can take the feedback on board, learn from it, seek out the learning and resources you need, calculate what marks you need to get in everything else to compensate for it, remind yourself of your goals, and use that to light a fire under yourself.

Oh, and those psych subjects in second year? I made changes to the way I studied, and worked so hard at studying for exams that I managed to drag both subjects home with HDs, despite those assignments. And I never went to a festival in the intra-trimester break again 😉

You can read more handy study tips and tips from Larissa on Deakin Life. If you are feeling upset about a study setback or need further support for any reason, please know you are not alone – contact the Deakin Counselling and Psychological Support (CAPS) service for a free confidential chat with our experienced counsellors. You can also access a range of Study Support services to help you navigate the requirements of your assignments and exams.

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