A long standing practice in academia is the categorization of students based on their grades. Students feel being ranked by grades in post-secondary determines their next steps and whether they should stay within their chosen field of study.
Attending post-secondary comes with a heavier course load that doesn’t discriminate. Toleen Abdul, a fifth-year fashion design student at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), says high expectations come from professors regardless of program or major.
“As ableism is woven into the fabrics of higher educational institutions, universities are built to make students believe that if you can’t deliver to these high and often unrealistic expectations, that it’s a problem of your abilities and not anything to do with them not providing more resources and support for students,” says Abdul.
Unfeasible expectations make it more difficult for students to achieve the high grades that got them into post-secondary. However, receiving bad grades can be a result of issues beyond the traditional grading system.
Professor Craig Jennex in the department of English at TMU says his undergraduate experience was affected by communication issues and hesitancy with assignments due to a lack of direction from professors.
“My main mistakes were not adequately reading syllabi, not understanding assignments and what was being asked of me, not starting on assignments early enough, not proofreading my work and not being in communication with TAs and instructors,” says Jennex.
Communication between professors and students is key when it comes to improving marks. Providing appropriate feedback helps improve a student’s problem-solving skills in future assignments.
“It’s futile to let a student know they did something incorrectly without extending the knowledge to them of what can be done to achieve better results in their work,” says Abdul.
The pressure to meet the requirements set by professors and overachieve their expectations can wreck a student’s confidence in their chosen field of study. Those in creative programs can get discouraged when the grading system becomes too narrow to take individual creativity into account.
“When an instructor doesn’t understand or rather disregards what you’ve worked to achieve in your piece and makes certain critiques based on their own marking scheme, which oftentimes does not consider the aspects that make up your own individual capabilities as an artist—for instance, style and medium of expertise —it becomes discouraging,” Abdul says.
In order to stay resilient, the first step is to try to separate oneself from their grades.
“We are proud of our work and we put ourselves into it and want it to be well-received, but we are not our work,” Jennex says. “Sometimes we mess up or misunderstand the assignment. Sometimes we need more time to develop our skills. This is fine.”
Students avoiding the urge to identify with their grades, open communication with professors becomes easier. The discussion around grades becomes one of learning how to improve them instead of a student trying to defend their work.
“In my final year of undergrad, I was comfortable enough approaching instructors about my work,” Jennex says. “Not in a defensive way, but in a ‘how can I do better’ sort of way. I wish I started doing this earlier.”
The resources that help guide students to succeed academically whilst suffering from mental health challenges expand, as do the mental health conversations.
Post-secondary institutions are slowly recognizing that one in five post-secondary students meet the criteria for a mental disorder. Furthermore, students should reach out if they feel their grades or ability to hand in assignments are being affected by their mental health challenges.
“The best advice that I was given that I like to share with others with related challenges is to access the institution’s accessibility and accommodations support services,” says Abdul. “This really helped me to have support in place when I needed it.”
Student resilience is not about pushing to the breaking point with all-nighters, poor nutrition and neglecting social relationships. Students will often exhibit these behaviours when they believe they must finish their degree in the standard four-year period. Rejecting that expectation can be beneficial to a student’s wellness.
“In the times where I put my health first by taking breaks from studying, asking for extensions, meeting with professors during office hours to discuss my access needs and enrolling in fewer courses per semester, I was advocating for a better environment for me to access my studies,” Abdul says.
Abdul says that resilience for her is putting herself first and continuing her degree despite the challenges she has faced.