Failure shouldn’t be how you learn to be a good student

Students are expected to know how to be good at school, but few of them can realistically be expected to

Illustration by Marissa Ouyang/The Peak

Written by: Gene Cole, Opinions Editor

When I first got to SFU, one of the first jokes I heard was that the most relieving thing you could hear from a peer is “I haven’t started either.” It’s not exactly an extreme statement, but it’s far from the only time you’ll hear students here making light about unpreparedness, disorganization, or failure. I’ve seen a lot of things like a TA assuming the tutorial hasn’t done the readings, or mocking a friend’s detailed calendar as “working too hard.”

But once you start really failing — like I nearly did a few years ago — your opinion on academic skills and failure changes quite quickly. It turns from a joke into an absolute disaster.

Most of the time, it’s just a sign you’re lacking something; academic skills like studying and scheduling, and/or the ability to sufficiently handle your personal life. But while students are expected to have these, there is no true guarantee that they will.

As much preparation as some high schools and colleges give, the university workload is incomparable to anything most people do before their 20s. Even with the intended lighter difficulty of first-year classes, there’s still no shared preparation for being capable in a university environment.

The only guaranteed preparation we have is SFU 101, a non-mandatory online course that you’re automatically enrolled in on Canvas in your first semester. The intent is to prepare for this more complicated life, but when you’re fresh into post-secondary or are transferring from another institution, it’s easy to see it and think “eh, I don’t need this” and let it fade in the back of your Canvas account.

A potential solution to this would be for the school to provide a live, mandatory seminar to teach these skills and inform students of resources in-person. Alternately, new students could be required to attend a single mandatory appointment with an advisor in your first semester to make sure you have a plan, check what your skills are, and help you contact resources you might be in need of.

These both would realistically be difficult to implement, given the likely massive cost for the school and time commitment by staff and students, but optional resources just don’t do enough. As it is, it’s far too easy for students in need to miss these resources if they aren’t sat right in front of them.

When academic skills aren’t directly taught, it leaves a lot of students behind. In many cases, it means you end up in Back on Track, SFU’s three-term retention program for students with a Required to Withdraw in place of their academic standing.

But it’s here that a lot of students learn that it’s not just the academic skills they’re lacking; The course focuses on managing everything in life, from personal relationships to mental wellness. Much like academic skills, these are things that make a massive impact on your ability to succeed in school, but very few people have them ready by the time they enter post-secondary.

The importance of these skills are certainly no secret to Back on Track’s advisors and instructors. In an interview with Bernard Ryu, a Back on Track advisor and instructor for one of my terms in the program, he was quick and happy to expand on this value.

“University isn’t about cramming facts and information into your brain, it’s about you evolving and growing as a person. Whether it’s healthy counselling, or student learning commons, or academic advising [. . .] I think the prevailing and consistent theme throughout is to look at the student from a holistic point of view.”

For a lot of students, post-secondary is more than a difficult level of education. They’re growing more independent, they’re responsible for their own needs and social life, and many need to start juggling school with greater responsibilities like work and family. Much like academic skills, these aren’t taught in a mandatory way at SFU, and it’s hard to say where or how a student could be expected to know them by their first semester.

After all, there’s tons of reasons why someone would lack these skills and not even know it. When asked where successful students gain the skills taught in Back on Track, Ryu answered “There’s a group of people — myself definitely included when I was younger — that don’t know how to study, or how to work hard. Maybe you were above average, or you did okay, or things came relatively easy to you.”

These aren’t things that I want to have learned after almost failing. Everything from Health and Counselling to academic advisors are all optional things, but what they provide is so significan. It’s frustrating how many students only end up seeing them in dire situations that aren’t in our control.

For now, though, I’d urge any new students to start seeking these resources themselves the moment something goes wrong. Ryu’s advice to students who may be walking the line of failure was to “Go ask questions [ . . . ]. There’s literally thousands of SFU staff that are non-instructional staff, non-prof or TAs that come to work — like myself — Monday to Friday, sometimes even evenings and weekends.”

The resources to be good at school are here at SFU. But we absolutely need something more than a few helpful reminders in our SFU Mail to get us there when we need.