My student looked away and hesitated, and I knew the question to come.
"What would I have to get on the final essay to pass the course?"
I actually appreciate when students ask the question because it's important that they get a realistic sense of what's possible and of what they should expect.
I pulled out the grades, and showed her that there's really no mathematically possibility that she can pass the course. (I hate that part.)
And then we talked about the difficult adjustment to college, the surprise at how much more work it requires than high school. And how to do better next semester.
I did some damage control, pointing out that I, too, had a difficult adjustment to college, that I'd failed a couple classes, and that people can "come back" from a rough start to do really well in school. It's one thing to tell a student this, and another to know that the student probably has to talk to her parents about it; and typically of our students, mine is the first course they've ever failed, so that's a difficult talk. I hope her parents are understanding and supportive, because most students DO get through an initial rough adjustment, and most do much better in their second semesters and thereafter.
I advised her to use the final assignment to learn what she could, but to put most of her energies for the rest of the term into doing better in all her other classes. I explained the math of being put on probation, and the importance of doing well when she repeats the course (because the grade will get wiped off the GPA).
I tried to be reassuring that I feel positive about students even when they fail, and that I recognize the difficulty of adjusting to college life. Failing a college class doesn't mean anything about a person's character or worthiness; it means she messed up. And most of us have messed up in life.
And in the end, did it do any good? Time will tell, but probably won't tell me. This student will go forward, retake the class with a different instructor, and we'll probably never cross paths again.
It's weird: at that moment, we're in my office chatting, and it's very important. But in the long run?