Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Summer and Fall College Students: Do You Have an Exit Strategy for Your Classes? Rethink It!

Update  5/24/2011, 3:12 p.m.: Just an FYI that this post is a compilation of numerous similar student situations. Many logistical details have been altered to protect student privacy. Some seemingly distinguishing facts remain the same every quarter: I have been teaching a night course for many years now, same time format. Every one of my courses requires speeches. My first required speech is always on a topic with which the student is pretty familiar (a career speech or other area that is fairly easy for content connection and research). I attend at least two to three conferences per year. I will always match students who miss work in this class with other students who have had unexpected emergencies so they can pair up and record their missed presentations. And, finally, it is not unusual for students to come see me several times before they actually drop, even come to class and request the drop there. I actually feel good that this happens so much since students obviously feel comfortable enough to be honest with me!

"I'm going to drop this class."

Student made this statement with no harsh tone, no subliminal message of "I can't stand you, your family, your cat, or your Mom minivan."

Just matter of factness.

"Why?" I asked. "We're over halfway through the quarter. Why drop now?"

"Because our next assignment seems really hard. Like you're really strict on what you're looking for."

"Well, I am. A good outline provides a solid foundation for your speech," I said. "But we have plenty of time to work on it and if you get started early, I'm glad to work on it with you. Also, your other work has gone well. Why throw it all away?"

Student didn't respond, but seemed to think about what I was saying--for the moment.

Next conversation, I reminded Student of the personal experience that Student had with the topic. That all Student needed to do was find some sources and organize the points.

I made a plan with Student: Contact me during the week with the in-progress assignment. I'd give feedback. Student would move ahead.

My plan was not Student's plan.

Student e-mailed me: "I can't do this."

I e-mailed back and simply said, "You can. Here's how."

I offered the same points I discussed during the last class. Now Student had a concrete list. The framework was there. Student had to take the next step, do the research, fill in the outline.

Next communication with Student?

Again, no draft work, but a visit to my office on the day the speech was due . . .

. . . with a drop form in hand.

I waved it away.

"No, no, no," I said. "You're not dropping. You know what you need to do. You know this topic well. Why would you drop?"

Student looked at the floor. "It just seems really hard. I've never been very good at writing."

(For readers thinking, "Fear of public speaking," ironically, Student was truly okay with that. The writing piece was the recurring theme of concern).

"I'm not buying it. You did so well with your last written assignment."

I could tell by Student's expression that my encouragement wasn't working.

Time to get firm. 

"So what are you going to do? Drop the course and lose your money? Lose your financial aid or your parents' money? You're going to have to retake this course, anyway, either here or at the university. You might as well stay in a class where you know everyone and where you have the exact help that you need."

Then my persuasive close (wait for it!):  "You can do this! Now is not the time to give up! You have everything you need to make this happen."

"But I'm already late on the assignment," Student said.

Phew. I'll take concern about lateness over bailing out.

I said, "Another student had a crisis and will be late on this speech. The two of you can work together. We'll figure it out."

(PS:  This class meets once per week for four hours; rest is online. I'm very firm about no make up speeches in class).

That evening, I was thrilled when Almost Dropped Student did connect with Crisis Student and the two of them forged a plan.

I chatted with Almost Dropped Student a bit after class. Small talk, then the conversation turned to Student's family: Student had much support for being in school. 

I shared one of my own college struggles where I nearly bailed: Math. I was nearly 30 at the time; I hired a 19-year-old math whiz with a Mohawk and a spike bracelet to tutor me twice a week. I told Student that for me, not getting through math meant no teaching career that I so desperately wanted. I knew I didn't have to get an 'A'; I just needed to pass.

My conversation with Student was connecting--the type that student retention studies say can make a difference between students staying in college or not.

When I left the college that evening, I felt good. Likewise, Student seemed lighter.

Student said, "I feel better. I know what to do now."

I was hopeful:  If I could just get Student through this particular hiccup, then it could serve as a change agent for other college moments--or even life moments--that seem insurmountable.

Maybe Student would see that when the work gets hard, working harder--with support--is the way to go. In my mind, it's the only way to go.

Helping students with these kinds of revelations (not to mention my freakish love of public speaking and interpersonal communication) is why I absolutely love this career...
But what is equally hard and, dare I say, sometimes painful about this career is the knowledge that some students view their classes like some couples view marriage:

"If it doesn't work, I'll just get divorced."

In other words:

"Class gets too hard? I'll just drop."

Having an exit strategy before going into a class seems crazy to me.

Yes, the drop policy is there for a reason. Like if some life situation happens and going to class is literally no longer feasible (or you've been hauled away by aliens who don't support your college education and won't pay for it.).

But I do not count disliking the professor, finding the work too hard, too much, or not getting the grades that you deserve as good reasons to drop. And these are some of the most common reasons that students drop classes.

If you don't like a professor, guess what? "Like" in the student-professor relationship is a wonderful bonus (and a bonus that you will probably have, more often than not!), but not a given.

You are supposed to learn from a professor, be treated fairly, and have a comfortable working relationship. That relationship is finite. If you are bored or just plain don't click with the person, this is still not a reason to drop. A term is only 10-15 weeks at most. You can deal with almost anything when there is an end in sight.

If you aren't getting the grades you feel you deserve, there are also ways to deal with that. You first  communicate with your professor (yes, even if you don't like them!). That doesn't work? You advocate for yourself and take your argument higher (saving this discussion for a later blog post). Still, you don't drop the course.

Why? First and foremost because of the practical reasons I told Student:

-You will likely lose money--or someone will lose money--if you're past a certain date;
-Depending on the class, you delay the inevitable. You will have to take the class again!

But most of all, you will gain far, far more by dealing with that frustrating prof/assignment/class-as-a-whole head-on than if you simply bail out.

Look at sticking with the class as a selfish move, if you have to:  Every day is one less day that you never have to see this prof, class, or topic again. Why on earth would you want to start over?

Enough with my diatribe. Back to the story...

I didn't see Student the following week because I was attending a conference.

When I returned and moved into my usual crazy morning routine, wrangling a 3-year-old, keeping an 8-year-old in check, suddenly it hit me:

In a week and a half, I hadn't heard from Student. Again, Student was going to run the outline by me before recording with Crisis Student.

I had a heaviness in my stomach, that "knowing."

(My stomach is very wise. It could have its own psychic hotline.)

As my kids started to argue over who was going to get the Nemo fruit snacks and who was going to get the Scooby Doo fruit snacks (when neither should be having fruit snacks at 8:15 a.m.), I couldn't help myself: I grabbed my laptop, hopped on to the college website, and logged into the master roster for the class.

My mind was saying, "Noooooo!" 

But my telepathic stomach already gave me my answer. 

There it was:  The big, fat "W" next to Student's name.

W = Withdrew.

(Ironically, Crisis Student's missing work was waiting for me in my Outlook in-box. So, one half of the duo held up the agreement).

I don't remember saying much to my kids on the drive to their schools. They were too busy chewing fruit snacks. (I was in a weak point. What can I say?).

This one hit me hard.

And, I suppose I should be thankful that after 13 years of teaching, losing a student can still make me feel that way.

I was flummoxed. I couldn't shake the feeling of defeat.

This post would be so much easier to write if Student failed to talk to me, neglected to share the real feelings about wanting to drop the class.

Then I could say:  So, what's the communication lesson here?

But from a communication standpoint, Student did almost everything right.

And for every student reading this, I would advise you to:

-Go to your prof at the very first sign of trouble and be specific with your problem. Don't just say, "I'm so confused and don't know what to do."

Say, "I'm starting to feel a little confused about X concept or X chapter and am concerned that I may not get through this class." You can also say, "I got totally lost when you went over X."

If you missed work (hopefully you deal with the problem before this happens!), tell the prof, "I missed the last assignment because I did not understand it. I should have come to you sooner and I will next time. I can have the assignment to you by Tuesday. Will you still accept it? Will you help me 'get it'?"

-Tell your prof if you have a life situation that threatens your success in the class. But do it the second you know that there is a problem! I can't tell you how many students tell me that a disaster was unfolding after the fact! E-mail your prof, call them, make an appointment, but tell them! You never have to disclose what is going on, you can say: "I have had an unexpected life emergency and I worry that it will threaten my success in this class. Can you help me figure out if I can still pass?" (Or get ____ grade, if that is your goal).

If you are taking an on-campus class, maybe you can transition to an online class to finish up your term. Maybe you can take an "Incomplete" in the course, depending on your school's policy or how the rest of your work has gone. But don't just drop without investigating all of your options!

-Remember the other support services at your college ALL designed to help you:  Your counseling center, tutoring centers, math resource centers, even your librarians. Utilize these people and put them on your "stay in class" team. It's what they are there for!

-Keep the feedback loop going with your prof. Follow through! Say, "I did what you recommended. Would you please take a look again? I am still feeling unsure."  Go ask for help as many times as you need it. Just because you had one conversation doesn't mean that's the end. Follow up on your plan.

The one disclaimer to these recommendations:  If you have not attended class all term or you have missed a ton of work without contacting your prof, catching yourself back up and having your prof's support to do that is going to be extremely difficult. Then, unfortunately, you may have to drop the class or take the grade consequence, if you've passed the drop date. If a major life emergency is the reason that you didn't go to class and you do end up with a failing grade, your Registrar's office can help you identify your options. You will likely have to retake the class, though. 

I e-mailed Student a few days after I saw the "W". I connected with this student. Closure, in my mind, was important. 

I told Student I was sorry to see the drop, that I respect some things need to happen in one's own time, and that I wished Student would have investigated other options to avoid this outcome. 

I told Student I hoped that this experience could be a "teachable moment"--that Student had all the tools needed to succeed and that one "off" assignment (if that even happened) would not have ruined the other good work already completed.

My final words? "You learn so, so much more from fighting through what is perceived as difficult, than what ends up being easy. It's what builds character :-). But again, you're going to learn that in your own time. I wish you well."

I found myself extremely unsettled, even after this e-mail.

Student didn't respond.

I expected that.

But maybe something will stick.

I have actually started to question myself over this situation. Why? Because I have a pretty great retention track record. But I wondered, have I been out of school too long? Am I no longer able to think like a student? To see things from a student's perspective?

I asked two superstar students who were not always superstars i.e., students who overcame some serious situational odds to transform themselves into mega-Honors students/scholarship winners heading to amazing universities soon, about their perception of dropping a class. They said I could quote them:

From Spencer Wright: "I think the ONLY time when it's alright to drop a class is when someone's personal life is negatively affecting their school performance. If life is going well, keep the devotion to your classes, right?"
From Serenity Carr:  "In my opinion, a student should figure out if they want to stay in a class within a week. But that's me, the overly ambitious student. And, it affects financial aid if you don't also add the same number of credits, so I have never dropped a class. (cried and swore I would? Yes. But dropped, no.) I would say that you should do it before the date you can get a full refund. If you wait too long, you waste money, and even longer, you get a W. No good no matter how you look at it. I learned the most from the classes I wanted to drop. But I stuck it through. It's good for students." 

I feel better reading their responses. 

An exit strategy for a college class? Bad, bad idea.

Their quotes led me to think about a quote that I absolutely love and live. 

It's from John "The Penguin" Bingham, a back-of-the-pack runner (like me) who went from being an out-of-shape couch potato to marathoner, but a sloooow marathoner:  

"The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start." 

I'll add:  "And the courage to stay." 


  1. There is, I think, a flip side to this. If a prof/instructor/teacher recommends that you drop, it is usually for a good reason. I sometimes have students who have bit off more than they can chew and somehow think that they can suddenly go from getting 30% in a class to 100%. If you are seriously overloaded it is sometimes better to throw one class overboard than have your entire boat sink.

  2. I totally agree, which is why I put the disclaimer there. Like Serenity said, though, some students indicate that there is a financial aid ramification if credits are dropped. It's a good point, though, to take classes that balance workload, if at all possible. And, of course, to stay on top of it. Thanks, Eric B.!!!!

  3. Such a great post! Thank you, thank you! It's also nice to know another prof. who is gaga about teaching PS! It's my favorite class to teach and I look forward to it every semester. Lisa Athearn

  4. Thank you! It's so nice to know I'm not alone in that. I had to have a cavity filled a couple years ago and I told my dentist, "My students would rather do this, and I'd rather be public speaking!" Thank you for writing!!! Ellen

  5. Very Nice post
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