January 20, 2018

How to Talk About Dropping a Class

How to talk about dropping a class - photo copyright 2011 Rick Sherrell

In my last post about Asking for Help (it’s the new smart, remember?), I discussed that when students begin to struggle in a class, they silence themselves. In fact, they may become so silent that they turn invisible—as in, they stop coming to class altogether. Then, not only does the student fail to ask for help, but they risk a zero for the class (a transcript killer!) if they don’t go to the Registrar’s office and drop it.

Of course, rather than get the zero, a drop is always the best option. But, please, before you take this option, really think about why you are dropping and talk to your professor first.

Let’s start with the why:

Disliking the professor, finding the work too hard, too much, or not getting the grades that you believe you deserve are not good reasons to drop a class. They are the most common reasons students do drop, however.

If you don’t like a professor, guess what? “Like” in the student-professor relationship is a wonderful bonus (and a bonus that you will probably have, more often than not!), but not a given. You are supposed to learn from a professor, be treated fairly, and have a comfortable working relationship. That relationship is finite. If you are bored or just plain don’t click with the person, this is still not a reason to drop. A term is only 10-15 weeks at most. You can deal with almost anything when there is an end in sight.

If you aren’t getting the grades you feel you deserve, there are also ways to deal with that. You first communicate with your professor (yes, even if you don’t like them!). That doesn’t work? You advocate for yourself and take your argument higher (saving this discussion for a later blog post). Still, you don’t drop the course.

Think of the broader ramifications of dropping a course:

• You will likely lose money–or someone will lose money–if you’re past a certain date;


• Depending on the class, you delay the inevitable. You will have to take the class again!

If you stay, you will gain far, far more by dealing with that frustrating prof/assignment/class-as-a-whole head-on than if you simply bail out.

Look at sticking with the class as a selfish move, if you have to: Every day is one less day that you never have to see this prof, class, or topic again. Why on earth would you want to start over?

Have I convinced you? I hope so! Here’s what you do next:

• Go to your prof at the very first sign of trouble and be specific with your problem. Don’t just say, “I’m so confused and don’t know what to do.”

Say, “I’m starting to feel a little confused about X concept or X chapter and am concerned that I may not get through this class.” You can also say, “I got totally lost when you went over X.”

If you missed work (hopefully you deal with the problem before this happens!), tell the prof, “I missed the last assignment because I did not understand it. I should have come to you sooner and I will next time. I can have the assignment to you by Tuesday. Will you still accept it? Will you help me ‘get it’?”

• Tell your prof if you have a life situation that threatens your success in the class. But do it the second you know that there is a problem! I can’t tell you how many students tell me that a disaster was unfolding after the fact! E-mail your prof, call them, make an appointment, but tell them! You never have to disclose what is going on, you can say: “I have had an unexpected life emergency and I worry that it will threaten my success in this class. Can you help me figure out if I can still pass?” (Or get ____ grade, if that is your goal).

If you are taking an on-campus class, maybe you can transition to an online class to finish up your term. Maybe you can take an “Incomplete” in the course, depending on your school’s policy or how the rest of your work has gone. But don’t just drop without investigating all of your options!

• Remember the other support services at your college ALL designed to help you: Your counseling center, tutoring centers, math resource centers, even your librarians. Utilize these people and put them on your “stay in class” team. It’s what they are there for!

• Keep the feedback loop going with your prof. Follow through! Say, “I did what you recommended. Would you please take a look again? I am still feeling unsure.” Go ask for help as many times as you need it. Just because you had one conversation doesn’t mean that’s the end. Follow up on your plan.

The one disclaimer to these recommendations: If you have not attended class all term or you have missed a ton of work without contacting your prof, catching yourself back up and having your prof’s support to do that is going to be extremely difficult. Then, unfortunately, you may have to drop the class or take the grade consequence, if you’ve passed the drop date. If a major life emergency is the reason that you didn’t go to class and you do end up with a failing grade, your Registrar’s office can help you identify your options.

As a student, you never, ever have to struggle in silence. Don’t drop classes and simply fade away. Use your voice to get you the resources to succeed. As I said in my last post, your professor—and everyone else on campus—signed up to support you.

About the Author: Ellen Bremen (17 Posts)

Ellen Bremen is tenured faculty at Highline Community College and the author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success (NorLights Press, April 2012). Ellen stops at nothing to help students strengthen their communication skills: Peanut butter and jelly to illustrate problematic messages, pipe cleaners to teach communication models, and Post-it notes to reduce speaking anxiety. Ellen holds degrees in Post-Secondary Education and Communication. As an interpersonal communication expert, Ellen has watched students struggle to navigate their classes, especially their communication with professors. Ellen's goal? To help students correctly--not cluelessly--speak/deal with those who teach them. The outcome? Better student-prof relationships, improved grades, and confident and competent communication skills for college and beyond. Ellen's philosophy: College is THE safe training ground for students to practice and hone assertive and professional communication skills. Then, students can transition this sought-after skill to their professional and personal lives. Ellen looks forward to answering students' simple and complex questions about communication in college, and particularly professor-related challenges.


  1. Thank you so much for your comment, smithmichael: I looked at the site and what an important tool! Fantastic! Love the title of the book, as well. Of course, I totally agree with you about the deliberation. Good for students to practice that in college… where the stakes are high, but not quite as high as with a boss. Ellen

  2. I love your description in the conversation. anyways…i am the author of crucialconversationsapp.com. Interpersonal communication is irreversible. Once the word is out of your mouth, it cannot be swallowed back. So one should make sure that whatever one blurts out from the mouth it should be done with deliberation. For more information related to this please visit at the given link : Interpersonal communication

  3. Thank you so much for your comments, Renee. I agree with you that keeping those important dates in mind is key. With respect to talking with profs, sometimes, in special circumstances, there may be other possibilities, like taking an incomplete. Ellen

  4. Great information! As an Resident Assistant we stress to our residents all of the important dates like the last day to drop a class for a refund, for 50% refund, and the final drop date. I think it is important as a student to keep these dates in mind because by the time it is the final day to drop a class it is halfway into the semester and there might not be a lot of time to make the changes that are needed to pass the class. I think with most just dropping seems the obvious choice, but talking with professors and building that relationship can be very beneficial.

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