Six Fs in an undergraduate class is normal

I just had to answer one of my new instructors and was a bit embarrassed at my cavalier attitude about this.

Yes, we have huge drop, failure, and withdrawal rates as a university in undergraduate courses, especially those that are completely online. The students don’t have an appropriate level of responsibility to be successful in college. When they are online, they forget they are in class and/or get lost. The systems they are asked to use are confusing in many respects and inconsistent. We have been through four versions of Blackboard since I got here six and a half years ago. Other students work full time, fall behind, and give up. There isn’t much we can do. Those sections with face-to-face meetings each week tend to be a bit better, but not by much.

We also get a lot of people that take the course so they can get financial aid and show up once to make sure they aren’t dropped at the 12th class day, but have no intention of doing the work. They are committing widespread fraud, but the university gets the money, so has no impetus to stop it. We often have the same students over and over again every semester and they just take different instructors. 

Systemically, we have a huge number of problems at most universities that need to be addressed, but most folks with power to do anything look at the top level. This instead of figuring out that the whole university needs to be reconfigured if we are going to support our students and make sure they are successful. This Darwinian approach leads to huge problems of retention and failure. It is not great. If I remember accurately, I had a 2.2 the first semester when I started college, because I was completely unprepared for the level of self-reliance that is expected at a university. The classes I was in had 300 students and I had no interactions with the instructor. A midterm and a final were our only grades. I went to a college preparatory-focused high school and was still clueless.

From an enrollment and educational level at universities, we are a mess and without wholesale change in the way we do things, I don’t see that changing. At my own university, we went from 27,000 students in 2000 to 35,000 students now. Not all of the 8,000 we added belong in college. Further, we never put in systems to support them, so they flounder. It remains sink or swim and many just drown. Then they pay the next semester for a new rubber raft and CPR. The new one floats just long enough to get them started and then they drown again, because they don’t realize that they have a pocket full of nails and no one is teaching them how to take them out and use them to build a wooden one.

In my research and that of several doctoral students on an introductory university-wide service course on computer literacy, we have found that students lack most self-regulated learning skills. These basic abilities include time management, organization, the ability to break large tasks into smaller ones, self-monitoring, and self-conseqentiation. Without these, the research shows that they fail.

Of course, we don’t bother to teach them in high school or early in college, which makes it impossible to expect them to be able to do these things. 

I’m not sure what to do about any of it, but I do know that the current approaches are not working.

Of course, it isn’t just undergraduates. I see the same things our of Masters and doctoral students increasingly now. Ah well. At least the semester is done and I can ruminate further over the break.


2 thoughts on “Six Fs in an undergraduate class is normal

  1. Students are often existing K12 public systems with an over inflated grade and lack the skill sets and motivation needed to push through an academic program. The quality of instruction along with an increase in expectations from students is needed. Students must begin to recognize the need for “owning their own learning.”

    • I very much agree with you. Part of the challenge I have found in both the K-12 and higher education settings is a difficulty in getting instructors to relinquish control and tell the students: “You can do this yourself.” It’s easy to be worried that if a student fails because they lack those skill sets and motivation, that it will come back on us. However, if we don’t say: “It’s time to get out there and do this independently,” they will never learn the skills because they will just keep waiting to be told what to do. I don’t know why this took so long to show up on my blog.

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