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.
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?