Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Early on last fall, as I was adjusting to the new culture of BRU, I was shocked by the number of student disappearances from my classroom--some formal drops, others just, well, less formal. A colleague informed me that attrition was part of the game here, and that a lenient withdraw policy and a town party culture meant that some students over registered and had planned to drop a course, while others just don't make it through here (our 6-year graduate rate is a bit wanting as well).

So I had begun to take as a given that between 20 and 25% of my initial enrollments in the survey was normal. Of course there were patterns...before the first paper, and after the return of that paper and the very subsequent midterm, more students would disappear than at more random times, but this was all logical within the framework that attrition happens here.

I found out yesterday from someone who knows, but who isn't interested in making anything of it, necessarily, that my survey course (which I've taught every semester since I've been here), has a higher drop rate than anyone else's. This has me understandably concerned, but the following factors are in play:
  • My evaluations are, not to be modest, very good. In the three sections of this course I taught, the average response to a rating of my teaching effectiveness was a 4.85 out of 5, and the rating of the course was a 4.74 out of 5, both exceeding the 80th percentile for the university (the former is around 90th percentile, but I'm bragging a bit here). Students, generally, don't hate me.
  • I am, however, not an "easy" professor. Just as much as I take pride in my high ratings on my evaluations, I also take pride in my low scores on the easiness scale on RMP, (2.3). This is, as I see it the goal of good teaching...to be as difficult and challenging as possible without alienating the students.
  • I assign more work than most survey course require, specifically, the two papers, which are not simply close reading papers. I ask them to engage key terms and ideally advance a coherent argument, skills that are sorely lacking in many of the students who enter my class. The first paper comes early in the semester which is also an anomaly. While written page requirements are not in place for this level of course, I believe it's important for there to be formal writing in every English class at the university level (if not here, where?). I also believe that if I am going to push my students beyond their current abilities, I cannot simply give them one shot at it. Students often need the second paper to really produce better work than they're used to producing. But the challenge of the first paper is one of the key reasons so many drop in the first place.
  • I visibly take attendance and rigorous enforce the attendance policy. Granted, students may miss up to 3 full weeks of class without penalty (besides missed work), but some students seem to be intimidated by that, and after missing a week of classes for reasons good and bad, some students panic and disappear.
It is entirely possible that this is just what happens in a high enrollment course with a challenging professor and lots of options for other faculty (who are by all indications also facilitating excellent classroom experiences)...

Do I cut back on the work load (which is admittedly higher than the norm) at what I believe is the expense of student learning?

Do I write off the attrition (which isn't raising eyebrows yet, but may over time) as the inevitable effect of being unyielding in my commitment to a rigorous classroom?

Are there intermediate steps that I can take?



Anonymous said...

Maybe if you wanted to cut the workload a little you could make the second paper a revised and resubmitted version (or extended version) of the first. That would give the students the chance to produce higher quality work than usual without the double workload.

On the other hand I don't think there is anything wrong with making your class more challenging than most, and I would have thought students who would be intimidated by that would not sign up for the class in the first place rather than back out after trying it. The assessment requirements are clear before the student enrols, I presume?

Horace said...

The revision is a good suggestion on its own, but it doesn't change the front-end workload, which I suspect is what is causing the attrition problems...

That said, students don't knwo my specific requirements before they register...it's a required course for the major and counts as a general education requirement as well, so I have some students in there who literally know nothing but the course title by the first day of class. These are often first-years who don't yet know how much control they have over their schedule in the first week of classes, and so they stay in the course when in another year they may have dropped.

Flavia said...

Since I'm in my first semester on the t-t, I don't know nothin' about nothin'. . . but I wonder whether those numbers won't stablize over time, as you get a certain kind of reputation. Students hear the reports that you're "hard," but will also, if they're the motivated sort, learn that you're an excellent teacher, and I imagine that you could wind up with a largely self-selected bunch. There will always be those who sign up for the class just because they absolutely need the requirement, or because it meets at a good time, but perhaps fewer who are likely to be scared off by the work.

Horace said...

Maybe, but this is a course required by all majors, and by the end of this year, I will have taught a third of all the sections offered...so while they have a choice, they don't always have THAT much of a choice.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

This is not meant as a criticism at all (for one thing, I don't know how many students are in this class), but I find it interesting that two papers is considered a heavy workload (for the students). How long are the papers? (Most of the classes in my department require more like 4-5 papers, but they're also pretty small.) What else do they do besides the papers?

(I realize this has nothing to do with your actual question, sorry!)

Dr. Crazy said...

I'm late to this, but a couple of thoughts:

1) Does this course also count for general studies? If it does, it may not be the majors you're losing but those who are taking it to fulfill a humanities requirement. If this is the case, you may consider doing what I do, which is to have to different paper options - one strongly encouraged for majors and minors, and one that is more of a "close reading" assignment that is for the non-majors. If it doesn't count for general studies, ignore.

2) Two papers is not too much for the survey. I assume they're the usual 3-5 page literary analysis sorts of papers? If so, that's what I do. It's not what all of my colleagues do.

3) Is it possible that this isn't an issue related to the course but rather to the time of day at which you teach it? I've found that certain times of day can have higher attrition than others, so it may not be the course at all.

Not sure if any of this helps, but I don't think that this is an issue with your assignments from what you describe. Oh, but one thing is that you might consider weighting the second paper less than the first (if you're not already doing that). That's what I do, as well, and it's helped (didn't do that in the first semester I taught the survey, and it hurt me).