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16 October 2012

"But I'm not a C student!"

The dynamics of my introductory-level courses invariably change the day after I return their first major assignments. We're all happy-go-lucky, and they like my demeanor--until they see that their score does not match their inflated sense of self. Over the semesters, I've noticed four categories of responses from students.
  1. Most students do nothing. They show up as if nothing has changed. I suspect that these are the students who have done well on their assignments and those who are too lazy to actually open the email attachment that includes comments and their score.
  2. Several students simply drop the course. I absolutely hate that this is an option. At my institution, there is a ridiculously late drop deadline and an equally ridiculously high cap on the number of courses the students can drop in this manner. Seriously, what else can this be teaching students except that it's better to quit than to put forth the effort to accomplish something that, while difficult, can be truly transformative? (More here.)
  3. A few students get angry--and aren't afraid to let me know. It is dangerous to read tone into electronic communications, but the passive-aggressive emails I occasionally receive are hilarious if not unfortunate; though, face to face confrontations are exceedingly rare.
  4. A handful of students do what students are supposed to do; they show up for my office hours and ask about how they can work to improve on the future assignments.
Despite increased and regular warnings to my students that the class is challenging, that they will received a great deal of feedback from me and that that feedback is a statement about how much I care about them and not a personal rebuke, etc., I have found it difficult to funnel students who would otherwise align with the first three responses above into the fourth. I suspect that this is because, instead of being an individual problem for me, it is actually an institutional problem by which I mean one that is endemic to the way that we do education in the United States, not one that is particular to my college. Students, and specifically the type of students who attend a liberal arts college (i.e. disproportionately white and affluent), come to us with a general sense of entitlement having been coddled by parents and teachers through 13+ years of schooling. Granted, most of these students were among the most highly ranked in their high school classes, but this alone does not seem to explain the most likely behaviors listed above.

UPDATE (10/19/2012):

SLACer has this to add, and I think he's right on.


  1. Okay, I am going to have to ask you to explain this one a bit. You call two different policies ridiculous without any supporting arguments.

    To start with, the last day to drop is the first week of class, but I believe you are referring to the last day to withdraw. Yes, it is week after the due date for midterm grades (which many instructors post late). But it is still only 3 working days (Friday, Wednesday, Thursday) between the due date and the deadline. During that time, the academic support offices are trying desperately to contact students and get them to discuss course standings.

    Secondly, you refer to the "equally ridiculously high cap" on the number of withdrawals. How is five, over the entire course of study, "ridiculously high?" Not to mention that science courses, which have some of the highest withdraw rates, count as two withdraws because the lecture and the lab are different courses.

    So, the burning question to the policy researcher inside of me, what would you propose to do differently? The five Withdraw limit is currently under review by APC and University Senate. What would you suggest to them? Before students can withdraw, they must meet with their instructor. What kind of discussion do you have with them during that process?

  2. Good questions, Daniel. Let me take them up in the next post.