Here's Why You Thought You Were A “Bad” Student in College?

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During my first year in college, I was sure that I was behind somehow. It seemed like everyone else was effortlessly getting A’s. Meanwhile, I was struggling to get a pass. After beginning college as an engineering major, I realized that engineering may not be on my path. Fortunately, I would later learn that I made a great choice by changing majors. Unfortunately, my comparison based reasoning broke down my self-confidence. I felt like I was a bad student.

Eventually, in college, I started a podcast that researched college students’ experiences, and I realized what had happened. I wasn’t a bad student; I had experienced a destabilization experience as an engineering student.

Destabilization Experiences

So what is a destabilization experience? Research on college students’ Experiences of Earned Success describes destabilization experiences as a "negative confidence shift related to specific skills or content areas"1.

This is what happened to me. I was confident in my engineering abilities coming from high school. Many of my high school teachers recognized my science and math strengths. That’s all it takes to be an engineer, right? Wrong! I still remember the first engineering test; I received a grade well below the class average. This was the beginning of my destabilization experience. My perceived knowledge didn’t match the test results, and I slowly began losing confidence in myself as a student1. Every unit, I would study more than before, and still, the same grades poured in.

I’m sure this has happened to many people. You go into a job feeling confident because of your experience level, then boom! Your manager hits you with a project that is way over your head. You work hard on the project, and when you send your results to your manager, they simply tell you to try again. That, my friend, can lead to a destabilization experience. A slow drain of confidence in the area you were originally excited to work in.

The Power of Feedback

There is hope! The research on Experiences of Earned Success noted that faculty members can give power and confidence to their students through feedback1. The results of the study showed that students who did not have clear feedback felt uncertain about being able to succeed1. While students who were given a clear direction out of destabilization experiences actually benefited from the challenge1. The difference here isn’t how confident students were when they started the class. It’s the quality of feedback they received in the course.

Feedback is not just grades. Grades, percentages, and rankings may have been the reason why you felt like a bad student in high school, college, or beyond. It was for me. Yet, the research says that you were not a bad student solely because of your grades. What does that percentage tell you? A grade percentage is not valuable feedback. It does not tell you how to improve. Therefore, students will likely experience destabilization experiences in classes where they only receive percentages and no real corrective feedback.

I left engineering after my first semester in college, but even now, as a soon-to-be graduate, I’m not sure what went wrong in that class. I don’t know if I was having trouble with physics conversions or the pace of the course. I left that class blaming myself for not trying hard enough, but looking back, I know that I didn’t get the feedback I needed to improve. I also didn’t know when to access the professor for feedback. It was a mistake of mine to not ask for clarification about office hours and their role in the course. Still, I wonder why office hours weren’t explained in the introductory course. Being unaware of the specific language used in higher education can put students at a disadvantage, especially when they do not have family or friends that went to college to make the language common.

The research here points to a critical area that needs addressing in the American education system: student-centered feedback. Feedback seems quite simple, but the research shows its power.

I have come to realize that I wasn’t a bad student. I was adjusting to a new lifestyle and a new type of learning in college. Eventually, with feedback, I learned to adapt my study skills and my writing abilities. I never became a “good” student (whatever that means), but I was able to learn the most in the classes that did have student-centered feedback. All in all, maybe you weren’t a “bad” student. Maybe you just needed feedback to improve.


1. Bickerstaff, S., Barragan, M., & Rucks-Ahidiana, Z. (2017). Experiences of Earned Success: Community College Students’ Shifts in College Confidence. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 29(3), 501–510.