What Happens if You Fail a Class in College?


Failing a course does not mean you can't be successful in earning your degree. Here we provide strategies to overcome your grade and how to prevent failing a course in the future.

Many college students struggle with classes. Some students feel overwhelmed by their coursework, need help in a particular subject, or have other obligations that prevent them from succeeding. Whatever the reason you're struggling, the time may come when you find yourself in danger of failing, or perhaps already failing, a class. If so, now's the time to take some steps to understand your grade, learn about the impact of a failing grade on your academic record, and reflect on your academic performance.

While you may fail a class, remember that failing is not the end of your educational journey. Instead, it may just be an opportunity for self-improvement.

How Can I Determine My Grade?

Understanding where you stand grade-wise is extremely important. Even if you can't turn a failing grade around, you'll have a better idea of what you can do to succeed in future courses.

One of the most important things you can do to understand your grade is to read the class syllabus. The class syllabus outlines the course policies. It should also include a grade breakdown and tell you which assignments are worth what percentage of your grade.

After reading your syllabus, take steps to determine your current grade. To calculate your current grade, you'll need all of the grades you've earned in the course so far.

To determine your grades:

  • Log into your college's learning management system (LMS) and access the online grade center for the course in which you're struggling.
  • Email or talk to your instructor about any grades about which you're unsure.

After you've determined the grades you've earned on individual assignments, you can calculate your standing in the class.

Should I Approach My Instructor About My Grade?

If you're unsure about your current grade or your chance of passing a course, talk to your instructor. He or she will be able to give you a really good idea about your chances of passing and/or explain where you've gone wrong in the course to date. Your instructor may also be able to recommend any actions you can take to turn your grade around.

When talking to your instructor ask:

  1. About opportunities to improve your grade before the end of the semester. See if it's possible to resubmit assignments, makeup work you have not completed, or pursue extra credit assignments.
  2. Whether or not you're eligible for an 'incomplete' if you're dealing with an emergency, a prolonged illness, or some other sort of crisis. If you get an incomplete, you'll have a term or two to complete any assignments you couldn't finish during the term.
  3. For tips about how you can improve your performance in future classes. Whether you eventually fail the course or not, you'll likely get some good advice about how to be a better student.

What Will Be the Impact on My Academic Standing?

If you're going to fail a course, you should know how it will impact your academic standing at your institution of higher learning. Remember, though, failing one course does not mean your academic career has come to an end.

How Is Grade Point Average (GPA) Calculated?

Your GPA is calculated based on your grades in individual classes and the credit hours associated with each class. For example, a three-credit-hour class will carry more weight than a one-credit-hour course. To determine your GPA, you'll need to adjust the weight of each class based on its credit hours. For most courses, letter grades equate with a designated number of points:

  • A = 4
  • B = 3
  • C = 2
  • D = 1
  • F = 0

A grade of 'F' will dramatically decrease your GPA since it's worth nothing, while pass/fail courses can have a range of impacts on your GPA; see your university policy. Ultimately, calculating your GPA is not very difficult, but an important step you should take.

What Is Academic Probation?

Academic probation is a trial period where you've essentially been given a warning. Many institutions will put you on academic probation if your GPA drops below a certain point, such as 2.0. If your GPA does not improve over a term or two (depending on the institution), you may be put on academic suspension or expelled from your college. Be sure to talk to your academic advisor so you fully understand the situation you are in and how to remedy it.

If you're put on academic probation, your college or university may provide you with student success resources and/or track your performance, for example, meeting with an academic advisor or coach and/or completing regular progress reports. Once your GPA rises above 2.0, you'll no longer be on probation.

What Is Academic Suspension?

Probation is just one consequence of failing a course. You may also find yourself on academic suspension if you do not improve your academic performance once you're on probation, which means that you cannot fail any other classes during this period.

While on academic probation:

  • You'll typically have one term to improve your performance before being placed on academic suspension, which may last for one term or more.
  • You won't be able to participate in any academic-sponsored or university-sponsored extracurricular activities.
  • You may be expelled from the institution if you continue to perform poorly following the probationary period.

What Are the Financial Aid and Funding Consequences?

In addition to a formal sanction from your institution for failing one or multiple courses, failing can have a substantial impact on your ability to fund your higher education experience. In other words, you may lose your eligibility for financial aid or additional funding.

For example:

  • Many college scholarships require a specific GPA, often 3.0 or higher.
  • Federal grants like Pell Grants may require you to maintain a 2.0 average.
  • Financial aid, such as federally subsidized or unsubsidized loans, require you to meet the satisfactory academic progress (SAP) criteria, which are based on your number of credit hours and overall GPA.

Is It Possible to Repeat a Course?

In many cases, you may need to repeat a course you've failed, for example, if you need the credits for your degree program. However, if you don't need those credits, you may want to repeat the course to bolster your GPA.

Repeating a Course to Fulfill Major Requirements

If you fail, you may need to repeat a course because it's required for your major. For example, if you're a chemistry major and fail a required course, like organic chemistry, you'll need to take the course over.

Grade Forgiveness

You may also want to retake a course to take advantage of your institution's grade forgiveness policy (if it has one). Grade forgiveness is a policy that allows you to retake a course and replace a failing grade with a passing one. In other words, if you earn an 'A' grade during your second attempt in organic chemistry, that grade will replace the 'F' grade you previously earned. Many institutions will limit the number of courses you can repeat under a grade forgiveness policy.

How Can I Avoid Failing Future Classes?

Whether you're working to improve your grade or have already failed a course, spend some time thinking about ways to better succeed in the future. Rather than letting the experience get you down, use it as an opportunity for growth. With some reflection, you'll be able to emerge from the experience of failing a course as a better-equipped, more successful student.

Should I Talk to My Academic Advisor?

Schedule a meeting with your academic advisor, who will have substantial experience coaching students through similar challenges. Your advisor will also likely remind you that a failing class is not the end of your academic career--or the world.

When chatting with your advisor, ask about:

  • The impact of a failing grade on your degree program. For example, many nursing programs will not accept students who failed an upper-level nursing course.
  • Use of a withdraw (W) or withdraw fail (WF) before the term ends. A W will count as credit hours attempted and will not affect your GPA. A WF will count as credit hours attempted but will negatively impact your GPA.
  • Alternative classes if you believe you can't succeed in the specific course you failed.

In addition to talking about the class you've failed, your advisor may provide you with a variety of insights. So be sure to ask important questions relevant to your situation.

How Can I Improve My Future Academic Performance?

Use the discussion with your advisor as a springboard for your efforts to be a better student. Make a list of the steps you can take to better manage your time, study more effectively, and overall get the most out of every class you take.

Some steps you can take include:

  • Using a day planner or linking another online calendar to your smartphone and setting aside regular homework or study time.
  • Decreasing the number of, and amount of time you spend on, extracurricular activities.
  • Taking advantage of free on-campus services like academic coaches and tutors or librarians.
  • Locating and visiting your colleges' student success center.
  • Finding a peer or faculty mentor.
By Jessica Lyons
April 2021
college college success

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