I have been thinking about why students fail my courses. Besides, that is, my own inadequacies. Very few of my students fail because they cannot do college level reading and thinking and writing. Perhaps that number would be higher if more really tried to pass the course, but the advantage of not trying is not finding out one can’t do what one dreams of doing, and that is a powerful temptation. The irony is that if those students really did try, they would not fail; they only fear they would.
So here are my guesses as to why so many of my students fail my courses, at all levels. If I were to give this list to my classes on day #1 – which I am considering doing – would it make any difference?
- Aiming for the least they must do: This is followed by misjudging terribly how much work that is and missing the mark. “All I want is to pass” they say, meaning “All I want is a D,” thinking that a D is guaranteed by simple attendance. So they really mean to say, “I don’t want to work but I want to pass.” These students don’t know that it takes some work even to get a D.
- Overestimating how much credit they can generate in the last few weeks of the course: In every course I find students who have ignored assignments, blown off classes, in some cases not even bought the textbooks, coming to me in the last four weeks of the class, asking what they can do to pass the course. “It’s so important to me to pass the course,” they say, but their actions reveal the lie – at least to me if not to them. Students are shocked to discover it’s possible to fail the course before the course is over.
- Overestimating the grade they have already achieved: Another every-semester occurrence is a discussion I have with a student who has failed every work he has submitted but still thinks he has “oh, a C, maybe a B?” in the course. They are disciples of the power of positive thinking.
- Believing in the miracle cure: The most common cure they expect is unannounced extra credit, but miracles are expected to come via surprise grade recalculations, a sudden policy allowing revisions and re-revisions, a final exam option in classes which have no final exam, and “the curve” – something that few students understand the mathematics of and yet for which nearly all have a mystical reverence.
- Conviction that the professor lies: This may be the most widespread condition in my list. Many students read the syllabus and hear the explanations, but they remain convinced that profs lie about
- the importance of attending class
- the necessity of learning what happened in classes they missed
- how much time and effort is needed to pass the course
- the minimum requirements, or that anything less than minimum is unacceptable (“what does ‘minimum’ mean,” I ask), or that unacceptable means that I won’t accept it, won’t read it, won’t look at it (“what does ‘unacceptable’ mean, I ask).
- anything with the word “no” attached to it (as in “no extra credit negotiated with individual students”)
- their errors or weaknesses in writing and how important it is to eliminate them. They seem certain I am exaggerating the impact of basic sentence structure and grammatical errors, which they often defend by telling me how their high school teachers praised their work. I sometimes tell them that this praise happened back in the days when they were children.
- Trusting in what worked in high school: particularly in terms of high school standards but also high school study methods, amount of homework, self-esteem grading, layers of safety nets and a conviction that the responsibility for students passing a course rested with the faculty and not the students.