“I Was Too Embarrassed”

Exploring the Reasons Students Don’t Engage with Instructors to Improve Performance

“I was too embarrassed. He would think I was stupid,” replied my private tutoring client. This was her only response to why she did not meet with her professor after failing every exam the first time she took A&P 2 at a nearby university. I told her that most professors I know don’t assume that you are unintelligent if you’re struggling to understand material. The startling part of this exchange was her response to my reassurance, which was to ask, “Really?” She was genuinely surprised to hear that he would not assume she was an incapable student.

I didn’t think too much about this again until I picked up another student who also failed A&P 2 at a nearby community college. The story was the same, with a few added details. Despite failing 4 exams, no attempt was made to meet with the professor to discuss strategies for improvement. I asked her why. “Probably because I was embarrassed I did so poorly. I didn’t want to face my professor. Also, I didn’t think it would be helpful to go back and look, because reading the correct answers doesn’t really help matters if you don’t understand the content to begin with, so why make myself look stupid?” Now my curiosity was peaked. Is this how most students who don’t want to review and discuss their performance feel? Do they assume that they will either be judged, or that there’s nothing to be learned from seeing their mistakes? This might be especially true when exams are not cumulative. They may assume it’s better to just move on, in which case they are likely to repeat the same mistakes in preparing for the next assessment. It is easy to assume that only the students who are struggling will make appointments to review their performance, but from my experience, t’s usually the students hitting close to the average that view their exams, and the high and low scoring cohorts stay silent. The question then remains: Why would embarrassment stop a student from discussing their performance? Wouldn’t the desire to avoid more failure, or repeating a course, outweigh the risk?

Let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that you have created a supportive environment, you make yourself available, and when students do come, you provide constructive feedback that leaves them more confident and better prepared moving forward. However, the students who are struggling still don’t reach out. What else can, or should, an instructor do, for a student afraid of judgment? It is all too easy to write this off as a “silly” emotion, especially if you are a friendly, enthusiastic instructor (and I’ve never met a HAPSter who wasn’t!). However, after my experiences with the tutoring students over the summer, I decided to change up the language I used when I invited exams this academic year. I stressed the importance of failure in success.  I shared stories of my own academic struggles with students, stressing that some topics came naturally, and others were very hard to grasp, and took many hours of self-study outside the classroom to finally take hold. Finally, and what I feel made the biggest difference, I added the simple statement “please do not feel embarrassed to meet with me and review your exam” to my class email. The result? The number of my A&P students who came to review their midterms this year tripled from the five previous years.

For students, it does not always go without saying that we won’t judge their intelligence or ability. Say it. It takes almost no time, but you may see it make a big difference in the number of students who reach out for help. Do the easy things to get them in the door, and they may leave more self-directed, confident students. It may be hard for those of us who work in education to imagine letting embarrassment prevent us from getting better grades, but I’m sure that if we were all honest with ourselves, we could identify something we avoid because of fear of judgement. Students ultimately have to help themselves, but we can certainly help them get out of their own way.


Dr. Krista Rompolski is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Drexel University. 

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