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Does anyone have suggestions on handling a situation where one student in a very small class (fewer than ten students) is far ahead of the others in the subject matter?

I'm having a hard time describing how tortuous this situation is. I hope someone here can relate.

Dd19 is the outlier, and she's finding it excruciating. She is naturally gifted in her subject area, and she has a very solid background in allied material which the other students lack. But she also has a strong work ethic. She works hard, because going to class unprepared is anathema to her. She's not just skating through the course without needing to work; she puts in hours of preparation.

Literally half of her classmates attend class erratically and make little effort. The other half is split between two who attend, but are frequently unprepared, and one who works hard but struggles with the material.

The class typically involves exchanging homework to go over in pairs. Dd's work is always done, usually with minor errors. Others either haven't done their work or have major difficulties. There's no one she can exchange with without being conspicuously better prepared.

The three others who attend regularly are all good friends. Dd had hoped to make friends in the class, but finds it absolutely miserable to always be the person who is showing the others up. She spends class agonizing over how long she should go between answering questions, because she always knows the answers and the others don't, but she doesn't want to be conspicuous. She just wants to blend in, which is impossible.

Her professor (who is also her advisor; the subject is part of her major) has told her she appreciates that dd's always prepared, but is also showing signs of fatigue with the situation. She's teaching to the majority of the class, which is reasonable, but leaves dd with little to do. The professor has suggested that "anyone who is bored" practice basic, formulaic material which is essentially busywork. Dd really likes her professor. She knows the professor is very busy, and she's uncomfortable because she's starting to feel like her presence in the class is a problem to her professor.

The structure of the program means that another semester like this is inevitable. Dd has developed serious anxiety about the class. 

One solution would be for dd to just stop putting in effort, but she's not going to do that. She is planning on grad school, so she needs to both master the material and have the grades to prove it. Besides, she just isn't capable of not preparing.

She also isn't capable of just not caring. She feels completely isolated and conspicuous and as if her presence in the class is a problem for everyone. 

Is this a problem that the professor should fix, or is this primarily a problem of dd's anxiety? If you had a disparity between students like this in your class, how would you want the better-prepared student to handle it?

I'll be grateful for any suggestions.

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I can relate. Your daughter sounds like mine. I am not certain of the subject, but can your daughter suggest to the professor that instead of doing the busywork, she can read some published research in the field and write a summary of the paper. Or rewrite it in layman's terms. 

This semester, at least for my daughter, is almost over. So maybe the ideas will help for next semester.

I hope some actual professors answer because I am certain they will have better advice.

Edited by LinRTX
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It really sounds like a situation where the only thing your daughter can control is how she reacts to and handles the situation; basically it is a problem of DD’s anxiety (not that her anxiety created the problem, but that her reaction is problematic to her). 

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4 minutes ago, fourisenough said:

the only thing your daughter can control is how she reacts to and handles the situation;

This is quite likely true.

One possible idea dd has had, though, is to request an independent study class for next semester. She's queasy about asking a busy professor to essentially teach two versions of the same class, though, and uncertain if the school would even permit it. It's probably a hugely inappropriate request. But-- the two classes would end up being completely different. So-- I don't know.

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Has she met with the professor to discuss the problem?  If not, I'd start there.  Since she is also your daughter's advisor, perhaps they can come up with a plan for this this class as well as the next one.

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Gently, this seems like dd's problem.  The unprepared classmates and ones who don't work hard or struggle... that's typical.  Dd needs to get used to this.  One thing my dd has done is not to tell people what grades she got, when they are discussing grades.  She says, "I did okay." Otherwise she became the class "smart person," and I don't know if your dd is in a competitive science major, but my dd then would have problems with transactional friendships -- people who wanted to be in study groups with her or only talked to her when they needed help.  Learn to lay low a bit, while still being very prepared and working hard.

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2 minutes ago, EKS said:

Has she met with the professor to discuss the problem?  If not, I'd start there.  Since she is also your daughter's advisor, perhaps they can come up with a plan for this this class as well as the next one.

This is something I've suggested, but dd has thought there wasn't anything the professor could do. And it seems like an awkward conversation, like she's complaining about the other students, or about the class not being right for her, or something. But really, it is just reality which is obvious to both of them, so I'll suggest it again, thanks.

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I’m in agreement that this sounds typical…for a community college. If this is a university, is it the one your dd is best suited for? This has not been our typical experience at the university level, but dc goes to a competitive school that only high achievers would have gotten into. They mostly all seem to work hard. My kid at a non competitive school has had this experience a lot though. Whatever the school, I don’t imagine a professor doing much to change the situation. They certainly can’t change the other students. I would go back to wondering if this was the right placement for her. It wouldn’t hurt for her to discuss with the professor how to best proceed though, particularly since she is also her advisor.

 

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Posted (edited)
20 minutes ago, perky said:

a competitive science major

No, not really competitive, though grad school admissions will be. The other students are probably there for gen ed requirements, which is probably why they don't care about the class much.

She absolutely does try to lie low, but when you're exchanging papers on a daily basis with five or six others (mostly with just the three others who turn up to class), staying camouflaged is impossible.

Edited by Innisfree
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This is at a selective university, but not the most selective in our state. I agree she should be at a different school, but she was waitlisted at one of those, and the other was much more expensive. She chose to avoid debt and save some of her college money for grad school. Changing schools isn't really possible. She's finishing her second year, but had finished almost all her gen ed requirements before starting, and would need to spend a lot more time doing different classes in order to transfer. We looked into that last year.

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57 minutes ago, Innisfree said:

No, not really competitive, though grad school admissions will be. The other students are probably there for gen ed requirements, which is probably why they don't care about the class much.

She absolutely does try to lie low, but when you're exchanging papers on a daily basis with five or six others (mostly with just the three others who turn up to class), staying camouflaged is impossible.

This may be where talking to the professor could help.  Maybe the prof could structure it so that they don't exchange papers on a daily basis?

However, this is an area where your dd can grow in handling her anxiety.  Those of us with anxiety (myself and at least one of my children) tend to blame the situation on our anxiety and try to change the situation to lower stress.  It is more adaptive to learn to calm ourselves and to change the narrative about the situation.  Her response is as though a tiger were attacking, but if she learns to step back and assess the true danger of the situation and learn to talk back to the anxiety, that would be a skill that would serve her well as she moves forward in all situations.  The talking to the prof is another good strategy bc it helps her see that she is not at the mercy of circumstance or helpless.  The truth is that she can be the smartest in the class or college and still be fine. Many, many people have had that experience.  The more you can send her the message that you know she can handle this, the better.   I am saying this not to lecture you, but to share the messaging/strategies that we use in our house in these kind of situations.

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This won't be helpful to OP, but I'm wondering if gender differences are at play here.  I asked DH (as a representative of men generally, lol) if he would feel anxiety in the situation your student finds herself.  (I've never been in the situation where I was the smartest one in the room.)  He said he would feel anxiety, but he would be anxious that he was receiving a sub-standard education. 

He recalls in elementary school a student leaning over and asking him, "What are you doing here?  This is a school for dumb kids."  

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I wonder if this is a coronavirus thing?  
 

My son has a class this way in high school, kind-of, and I think it’s from previous classes being so disrupted, and then the teacher has to do the best she can with the hand she has been dealt.
 

I hate it but I do think it’s primarily a coronavirus issue.

 

 

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I am saying this gently, but this may be something your dd needs to get used to at least for SOME of her classes.  This should not be the case in all classes.  My dd is dealing with a core class right now (she is a junior and just now taking this class), and she has experienced the same thing.  However, they are doing a group project and most of the time the three other members of her group were not coming to class, and she could not get in touch with them outside of class.  Dd went to the professor, and she could see what was happening and switched dd to another group.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          One thing that really concerns me is that I am seeing a lack of resiliency in students.  I went to a selective college, yet I remember sitting in class at times being bored to tears because students would ask what I thought were the "dumbest" questions and felt that they probably did not read the textbook before class.  What I hope is that in situations like these, the students will continue to do their best.  You can only control so much in life, and this is wonderful preparation for the workforce.  Ultimately the students are hurting themselves the most by not being prepared for class.  I hope as she gets into upper level classes that she will see less and less of this.  

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2 hours ago, KSera said:

I’m in agreement that this sounds typical…for a community college.

I've also found it to be typical at the second string state schools that I've done graduate work at.  Pretty depressing actually.

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It might be worth it for your dd to approach the professor with her own idea of substitute work.  Given that she is an A student in the class, the professor may be willing to let her deviate and do something that is more of a challenge rather than sit through the class.

I've done similar with one professor.  He assigned a project I knew was not going to result in a polished, well done piece of work, so I proposed doing a similar, but different semester-long project. He was intrigued, and as long as I kept him up to date, he was fine with it because the rest of my work had been excellent.  If he had refused the idea, I would have done the assignment as written, but it didn't hurt to ask, especially since it went above and beyond.

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What kind of a class is this? If it is a required course for her major, there might be several options:

  • credit by examination. Student demonstrates to the professor mastery of the material, professor writes letter to registrar to award student credit for the course. (In my school, if student receives less than an A, they get credit but no letter grade; if they get an A, they get that A on their transcript)
  • independent study. Prof and student agree on a course of study and student does not attend class but meets with prof periodically one-on-one. A little more work for the prof, but very rewarding for both parties.
  • Course substitution. Advisor fills out form for registrar that course X should be substituted for the Course Y requirement.

There is virtually no way to handle this kind of disparity in class. It is awkward for both the student and the instructor.

 

Edited by regentrude
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I can understand that your daughter is bored and frustrated with the behavior and lack of participation of the other classmates.  I am not sure, however, why the situation would cause anxiety.  Depending upon her background, and the school she is attending, this is a situation she may face in many other classes.  On average, other students at her university may not take learning as seriously as she does.

As far as the busy work component of this class, does she already have mastery of the work that is being done in the class?  If so, she can probably approach the professor and ask for credit for examination for the class (it would probably be too late for this semester, but it might work for the next class).  Or, is it that she needs to learn the material being offered and is learning it and then feeling bored because others haven't caught up yet?  When you say that the professor teaches to the majority of the class and your daughter has little to do, does that mean during class time itself?  Sometimes a good deal of learning can occur when repeating the basics you already know.  You think of new ways of framing the information, new analogies, new questions, a new way of presenting the information, and gain insights and make connections you haven't made before.   

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11 minutes ago, regentrude said:

What kind of a class is this? If it is a required course for her major, there might be several options:

  • credit by examination. Student demonstrates to the professor mastery of the material, professor writes letter to registrar to award student credit for the course. (In my school, if student receives less than an A, they get credit but no letter grade; if they get an A, they get that A on their transcript)
  • independent study. Prof and student agree on a course of study and student does not attend class but meets with prof periodically one-on-one. A little more work for the prof, but very rewarding for both parties.
  • Course substitution. Advisor fills out form for registrar that course X should be substituted for the Course Y requirement.

There is virtually no way to handle this kind of disparity in class. It is awkward for both the student and the instructor.

 

Also a possibility is course by-passing. Some schools allow a student to take a higher level class and upon completion, get credit for both that class and the pre-req.   

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4 hours ago, Innisfree said:

One possible idea dd has had, though, is to request an independent study class for next semester. She's queasy about asking a busy professor to essentially teach two versions of the same class, though, and uncertain if the school would even permit it. It's probably a hugely inappropriate request. But-- the two classes would end up being completely different. So-- I don't know.

No, this is not a hugely inappropriate request. The professor, by now, is aware of the mismatch in level, so asking makes complete sense.
The prof can always say no if they're too busy.

It should be completely within the professor's discretion to do this - academic freedom and all. I don't see why a school would not allow it. All the school cares about is that they receive their tuition.

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I have occasionally had situations like this at co-op, and it's tough to teach.  With a co-op situation, I have to work with the students in class, but in a college environment I'd be thrilled to give a student in that situation some independent work and then we could chat for an hour every 2 weeks.  I once had an independent study student do guided reading to look at topics of interest (we'd pick a topic, they'd read and then write in a googledoc, I'd add some comments and suggest the next reading based off their interests, and repeat).  We only met a couple of times.  Something like this would possibly be easier, and definitely more interesting, for the professor than teaching a 2-tiered class, which is stressful.  

There are a lot of things that happen in college that shock some of my students.  They talk about CC classes where only 1-2 students do the work.  My friends who teach at 4-year schools talk about 1/3 failing.  Even with co-op students I am seeing something of a bifurcation, with my good students taking advantage of resources that weren't there 10 years ago (videos, animations, etc to help understand things) so that they are doing incredibly well.  Meanwhile, more students are also passively not taking notes in class, thinking that they'll watch the video later, and then seeing due dates as suggestions and panicking when they get to the end of a section and have a ton of accumulated work to do.  For years I had lots of As and Bs, and then a few Cs, Ds, and Fs...now it's like my Bs have split and I have more As and also more of all the lower grades.  Co-op is, intentionall, a very supportive environment, but I can't imagine how these habits are playing out at the college level.  This isn't all a post-covid thing - I started noticing it 4-5 years ago.  In our state that was largely open by fall 2020, with most of these kids back doing co-op and extracurriculars, at least to some extent, I don't tend to think that it's primarily a covid issue like it might be in other areas.  I blame some of it on the fact that with tech it's easy to think 'I'll get to it later', where students 10 years ago were frantic to write down everything and ask all of their questions in the short time we had together, but I'm sure there's more at play.  

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17 minutes ago, Clemsondana said:

I blame some of it on the fact that with tech it's easy to think 'I'll get to it later', where students 10 years ago were frantic to write down everything and ask all of their questions in the short time we had together, but I'm sure there's more at play.  

That is definitely one of the aspects! My lecture attendance has fallen off, much more than a decade ago at this point in the semester - because they know that online lectures are available. But of course it is much more difficult to remain focused when watching videos on your computer, and I highly doubt they pay the same degree of attention as they would in the classroom.

It's a similar thing to paper handouts, Before printed copies, you had to take notes. Everybody did. Having copies of lecture notes seems to create the false equivalency of "I possess the piece of paper, so I have the knowledge".

Technology is a wonderful thing when wielded to advantage, but it can also be a terrible enabler of procrastination and laziness.

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28 minutes ago, Clemsondana said:

I have occasionally had situations like this at co-op, and it's tough to teach.

I was a TA for a multivariable calculus class this past fall.  Attendance was voluntary and many times I only had two students.  The WORST was when I'd have one student who had done all of the homework and understood every last thing combined with a student who hadn't even looked at the week's assignments and had a tenuous handle on the prior weeks' material as well.  Ugh.

Let's just say that I declined when they asked me to continue the TA thing this semester.  

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3 hours ago, regentrude said:

What kind of a class is this?

It's a language class. She's had a strong background in other languages, but is a beginner in this one, which isn't required for her major but is strongly recommended for grad school admissions. The other students are probably just trying to satisfy a language requirement, which will require them to continue for at least one more semester. After that, dd will probably be the only one continuing, which will mean independent study.

1 hour ago, regentrude said:

No, this is not a hugely inappropriate request. The professor, by now, is aware of the mismatch in level, so asking makes complete sense.

Thank you! This is what dd was hoping to hear.

3 hours ago, Bootsie said:

I am not sure, however, why the situation would cause anxiety. 

It's a combination of things. The situation in class is just painful. The three others who turn up to class are good friends and sit together. They prefer to work with each other, but one of them is always stuck with dd, whom they otherwise ignore. They're perfectly polite, I think, but they are comfortable with each other. When they trade papers with dd, they say things like "It's probably all wrong," and, indeed, it is largely wrong. Dd's left trying to figure out how much to offer corrections, how much to encourage, etc. Teaching them isn't her job, and wouldn't be appropriate, but she can't interact with them on an equal footing.

When the prof asks questions, dd says no one answers. So, eventually, she does, but she doesn't want to always be the one answering, so she sits there and tries to figure out the least painful interval for answering vs leaving the question hanging.

She's had plenty of classes with a big discrepancy between a few students who work hard and many who don't. It's harder, though, when she's the only one on the spot, expected to get things right. She's started to feel that she'll disappoint the prof if she makes a mistake. There have been times when she's said that she has trouble with one thing or another, and the professor, who's trying to be pleasant and complimentary, says "Oh, surely not." But she genuinely does have a relative lack of experience in that area, and she could use help, but everyone else needs help more. And the offhand comment which was intended to be nice ends up making her feel like she can't disappoint her professor, but she also can't get help.

In short, it's mostly her temperament, but the situation doesn't help.

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28 minutes ago, EKS said:

The WORST was when I'd have one student who had done all of the homework and understood every last thing combined with a student who hadn't even looked at the week's assignments and had a tenuous handle on the prior weeks' material as well.  Ugh.

Yes! It's this exactly. Is there anything the prepared student could do to make it less awful?

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34 minutes ago, Innisfree said:

When they trade papers with dd, they say things like "It's probably all wrong," and, indeed, it is largely wrong. Dd's left trying to figure out how much to offer corrections, how much to encourage, etc. Teaching them isn't her job, and wouldn't be appropriate, but she can't interact with them on an equal footing.

When the prof asks questions, dd says no one answers. So, eventually, she does, but she doesn't want to always be the one answering, so she sits there and tries to figure out the least painful interval for answering vs leaving the question hanging.

In short, it's mostly her temperament, but the situation doesn't help.

I disagree that it's mostly her temperament.  For the reasons above, it sounds like a nightmare class at a nightmare college.  Yikes.  I'd be fairly mad to pay tuition for this "education."    

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Ugh. What a cruddy situation. It honestly does seem like she undermatched her school to me. If this course sequence is an aberration, then that's good. But this is her main course of study? And once she gets past these initial classes, then it will just be independent study? That just seems... like a terrible situation that goes beyond a couple of language classes being a bad fit and awkward. Like, are you saying she's... what... majoring in Romance Languages and once she gets past Italian 1 and 2, that she'll be in independent study and that there aren't a lot of students studying any of her languages past the initial courses? That just seems miserable.

Two things strike me. One is that it seems obvious that she really needs to have a chat with the prof about this. The prof is her advisor. She should be able to sit down and explain everything and ask for her to collaborate on solutions. You said the prof is also getting weary about this. It also should hopefully diffuse things by getting the elephant in the room out in the open. Hey, prof, the fact that I'm the only one doing the work and excelling at it is making me more and more anxious. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to behave when I'm the only one who seems to know the answer. I'd love to be in a more challenging course. I don't expect you to change the class for me, but I'd love to know how you want me to act. And since I'll take this course again next semester, I'd love to hear if there are ways that I could change things to make the course work better for me, like maybe doing it as an independent study.

But two, I agree with others that she also has to try and let this anxiety go. I know it's easier said that done. But she's clearly letting a lot of this get to her and none of it is personal. Like, yeah, it's awkward, but those other girls in the class aren't bullying her, the prof isn't putting the weight of teaching them on her, the prof doesn't expect her to know everything and isn't going to judge her for getting it wrong, the course not being geared towards her needs isn't her fault... It's just not personal. You say it's not in her personality to not work hard, and that's fine. But she has to start choosing to know it's okay that she's above the rest of the students. It happens sometimes. The top is uncomfortable for some people, but get comfortable.

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With the added explanation, it sounds as if she is not in a situation where she already knows the material (so testing out of the class isn't a possibility).  It sounds more as if she is in a situation where she has a solid background, has natural ability in the area, and comes to class prepared, so she is finding the material presented in class boring and redundant.  At this point, does she think that she is getting anything out of attending the class, or is all of the learning occurring outside of the classroom when she does her class prep?  Does she feel like she is learning from taking this course--just that the learning is not taking place during the class meeting time?  If so, focusing on the learning that is occurring, rather than her frustrations may help.  

I encourage her to talk to the professor.  The professor can provide a better perspective and may be able to offer a solution such as coming to class only on certain days when new material will be covered and not on days where it will be mostly review and practice.  She could ask a question like "I am interested in this subject matter, have a strong background, and enjoy doing the work for the class.  I notice that I am answering a lot of the questions in the class and want to make sure that I am not so eager that I am domineering the conversation and giving others a chance to participate.  Do you have any input for me as to whether I need to scale back my participation?"    

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I don't know, I think this can happen to many academically prepared students especially in some of their initial classes.  In particular if it is a special interest area.  My kid is at a top 15 public and has had a couple classes early on that were mind numbing that he muddled through for the credit.  He's also had classes he would call super hard.  

I don't think it would hurt to talk to the prof, especially for the next semester.  Maybe they would allow a special project or an indepednant study.  But I also think there are times in life where you have to grind through stuff that isn't that interesting and jump through some hoops.  Is she getting treatment for anxiety?  If going to class is literally triggering for her, talking to a therapist about it might be a good idea.  Like my kid had a couple classes and he complained about them in passing as boring, etc.  But he also just shrugged and got on in with it and used his extra time for his harder classes.  

In the context of a FL class, it definitely makes sense that a student who has FL experience would pick up a new FL faster than someone trying it for the first time so I can see why a FL1 class in college could turn out that way.  

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3 minutes ago, MamaSprout said:

Can she take the next class over the summer somewhere?

I don't know, but I can suggest that she investigate that option. Thanks.

She's contacted her professor and has an appointment next week to talk about the situation. We're hoping that an independent study turns out to be possible next fall. She really appreciated everyone's advice!

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4 hours ago, Innisfree said:

I don't know, but I can suggest that she investigate that option. Thanks.

She's contacted her professor and has an appointment next week to talk about the situation. We're hoping that an independent study turns out to be possible next fall. She really appreciated everyone's advice!

I’m so glad she’s going to talk to the prof! Let us know how it goes!

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A great update: when dd emailed her professor, the prof responded quickly and positively to her request for a meeting about the class. This afternoon, when dd arrived for the meeting, she didn't even have to ask for an independent study next semester. Her professor suggested it, and dd said the prof sounded excited about it. Dd Is happy and relieved, and looking forward to what they can do.

And this is why dd loves her department, even though the school might not be a perfect match. It's small enough that she knows all her professors well, and they know her. She's getting an incredible amount of personal attention. So, imperfect situations can still be good.

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One idea for the remainder of this semester.   I totally understand wanting to lay low.   I can't tell you how many times I've counted to 12 before answering a question.   But, this is a bit unusual in that the others aren't really trying.  So, maybe just start taking advantage of class time.  Answer those questions, ask questions even if the others won't understand.  I feel different if the others were putting forth an effort and still failing.   Effort but still struggling would have been me.  My foreign language classes in college taught me humility (but no Russian)  

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