How to Talk to Your Instructor About Challenges in Your Courses

While you are a Penn State World Campus student, you also share many other identities, like parent, child, employee or business owner, and many others. Personal or professional challenges you face may affect your work as a student. If you encounter challenges, it may be wise to communicate this to your instructor so they can be aware of your situation and consider any requests for support you might make.

Before You Contact Your Instructor

It is most beneficial to contact your instructor in advance. As soon as you know there’s a potential problem, give them a heads up (email might work for this). That way, it won’t be entirely unexpected if you need to approach them later for specific support.

If you decide you do need specific support, consider what you are asking for and what you will need in advance of writing the email message. Tell them directly what you are seeking, and ask if they’re available for a conversation. This shows respect and conveys that you are taking the process seriously. This could start with an email requesting to speak with them by phone or video call.

  • Example: “I’d like to share some personal challenges that are impacting my performance in your course. Can I talk with you?” or “I’m experiencing a personal emergency and need to request an extension on this assignment. What is the best way to discuss this with you?”

During the Conversation

Be clear about your intentions before starting the conversation. Are you making a request, like having a due date moved or attending extra office hours? Or do you simply want to inform them that there’s a reason you haven’t been performing as well as usual? Then, describe the situation and express how you are affected. Stick to the facts, and consider how many details you want to share. There may be details that are important to you that are not necessary to make your point. At the same time, don’t assume that your instructor will know your feelings or the impact of your situation simply because you described it.

Next, ask for what you want and explain how it will benefit you. Be concise, direct, and specific — they can’t read your mind!

  • Example: “I’d like an extension on the assignment until [date].” or “I just want you to be aware of this situation in case I have a need in the future for flexibility.”

It’s also important to tell them how it will help you to have your request granted, if you are making a request, and to let them know what you have done already in the assignment, to demonstrate your active participation. If you don’t get the immediate reaction you are looking for, stay calm. They may be having a bad day and dealing with their own challenges. Be confident and remember that you control your behavior.

Managing Their Response

Your instructor may respond in different ways. If your discussion happens over email, acknowledge their response to you and respond as quickly as possible. Your direct involvement will help to expedite the resolution process.

They may grant your request, or they may be willing to negotiate and compromise with you. Be open to their suggestions and show that you understand their point of view. They may get many similar requests from students. Approach the situation as a two-way conversation, versus each of you stating your points separately. You may be able to offer an alternative that will be acceptable to them if they do not agree to your initial request. Even if you don’t get the result you’re looking for, make sure to thank them for the discussion. Don’t worry that they will “think of you differently now.”

Other People to Contact

Contacting your academic adviser after you have contacted your instructor is recommended. You may have already contacted them about the disclosure that is impacting your ability to meet a deadline or course requirement, and it is an important step to take if you have not done so already. Your academic adviser can support and advocate for you if this request affects your academic progress. Your adviser can also share what they have learned from other students who may be experiencing similar extenuating circumstances.

If your request is related to circumstances that involve a functional limitation and you have not already contacted Student Disability Services at World Campus, we recommend taking this step. Working with Student Disability Services means that the student can request reasonable academic adjustments for an interim period or for the semester in which the student may be eligible for a reasonable accommodation. These reasonable academic adjustments are specific to the Student Disability Services process.

Students can also file a grade adjudication petition if their request relates to a final grade.

Ultimately, all grading decisions and requests for extra time to complete assignments and course requirements are strictly under the instructor’s purview. Factors that affect their decision may be the type of course work and requirements that are impacted by the request. For example, a request relating to group work may be received differently than a request relating to individual work. The department that the instructor teaches for may also have specific policies for deferred grades or time extensions.

The Office of Student Affairs is not able to compel an instructor to make a favorable decision for a student as it relates to their request, but you can contact the Care and Concern team to seek our consultation for your extenuating circumstances and recommendations for action.