Thoughts on Teaching – Drop Deadline – 11/16/2014

We have reached the late points in the semester.  With Thanksgiving Break coming quite late this semester, we have 2 1/2 weeks of classes left, followed by finals.  The deadline for withdrawing from classes was last Friday, and every semester I am surprised how late in the semester that students are allowed to drop their classes.  They can go 12 weeks into the a 15-week semester and drop the class at that point if they want to.  I do not know the reasoning behind it, but I can say that I do have my own opinions on what such a deadline does to students.  I know one of the reasons for it is to give the students as much leeway to succeed in a class as possible, and, if students used that time for that, I would wholeheartedly support the late drop deadline.  However, what I see from the teaching side is that the students who drop at the deadline overwhelmingly were ones who should have dropped after week 4 or 5.  That does not mean there aren’t a few who needed that extra time to carry forward and try to get it going over the rest of the semester, but the majority are not in that situation.  We are required to put a last date of attendance when we sign drop slips for our students, and the majority of the drop slips that I see are from students who have not participated since September, and they are dropping in November.  Again, there are always a couple who are attending and participating all the way up to the deadline, but even for many of these, the writing was already on the wall that they were not going to be successful.

So, what is my point here? Let’s start with the students who should have dropped much earlier.  We have an early alert system at my community college, where we send out warnings to students who are falling behind as the semester goes forward.  We can send as many or as few early alerts as we choose, and I know some who send none at all, while others have been known to end up sending some students 7-9 alerts over the course of the semester.  I send out two alerts, one just after count day, when I am first asked to sit down and officially look over my rosters.  At the first point, the alert is very simple, if you have not done any significant work at that point (meaning just a few introductory assignments and a couple of chapter assignments), then I send an early alert.  I have not sat down and looked at the numbers, but just on my general remembrance of names, a good number of these will drop the class or not drop and fail.  The second alert goes out when I have graded the first round of major assignments, which is usually by the 6th week of the semester.  The overlap between the first and second alerts is high, although a few more alerts do go out this second time.  I do not send out alerts after that, as the last round of alerts would hit so close to the drop deadline that I generally don’t have time to sit down and do them.  However, since 65% of the grade is determined by that point (ie. by the end of last week), there really is no further need for an alert at that point.  So, as I said, the majority of students who should drop are fairly obvious by fairly early in the semester.  Students who do not complete the early assignments are not likely to continue doing work.  Students who do not complete the first round of major assignments are not likely to pass the course.  What that means for me, when I look at it, is that the majority of the students who will drop generally should drop somewhere around the 6th to 7th week of the semester.  So, giving them 12 weeks only allows them to drag out the semester unnecessarily.

What about the others?  There are a few who do drop later in the semester who were not obvious earlier.  Some of these are people who were making marginal grades (low Ds and high Fs) after the first round of major grades who do not improve by the second.  Others are ones who don’t run into problems until that second round of major grades, where they either drop significantly in their performance or miss some of the assignments.  The final group are those who are not making the grade they want to make.  We always get a few students who drop because they are looking for an A when they have a C in the class.  I guess the question is, are these students worth the longer drop period?

Here is my fear of what the long drop period gives students.  They can drag out the decision for far too long, when some should cut their losses and get out once it become obvious that they will not be successful.  Of course, it might not be obvious to the students, but it certainly is obvious for me in looking at them.  I do not think we are doing them a good service by letting them keep hanging around.  What I mean by cutting their losses is that some students would be better dropping a course or two and concentrating on the ones that they can succeed in.  If they were to drop one or two early in the semester, they could do better in the classes they remained in.  Some might not take advantage of that, and there is the issue that people always hold out hope for success despite the evidence in their faces.  The financial aid system also makes this route difficult, as students who drop can lose their aid.  Those not on aid lose the money they spent on the class as well, which is something that makes them stay in longer in the hopes they can pull it out.

The question that remains, after this wandering look at the drop deadline as I see it, is, what can we do about this?  Certainly, systems like an early alert are a step in the right direction, but I have received very little feedback from students who I send alerts to.  It takes a couple of hours to get the alerts together and send them out, and I often wonder if it is worth it, as I see very little direct feedback from the students after sending out the alerts.  However, I can certainly say that I did my part to let them know, which is at least one step.  I can’t sit down with each of the students in trouble and get them going.  This is largely because the students who I would need to sit down with are already not coming to class or participating in my online class and I have no way to get a hold of them besides sending an email (which is what the early alert does anyway).

Of course, then the question is, would things really be any different if the drop deadline was earlier?  I don’t know if it would.  The same students would probably drop either way.  It is certainly not directly hurting anyone to have a later deadline, unless we believe that all students are rational and cut their losses earlier when they would need to by dropping the classes that were not going well early to concentrate on the ones left.  I think both psychology and financial aid makes that a difficult prospect.  It would make my own job neater and cleaner, as it certainly is nice to have people cleared off of the roster that I no longer have to keep entering 0’s for on every assignments.  It’s not that this really takes a significant amount of time, but it does get irritating as the semester goes on.  It also leads to lots of lamentations among the faculty, as I cannot count the number of conversations that I have either participated in or heard as we talk about the students who we have given chance after chance to without any real results.

So, maybe I am making too much out of something that is really not a big deal.  I don’t know, but it is what is on my mind.  What do you think?

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of three, student of life, owner of a parrot, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all around guy.

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