Why students drop

Each semester, most of my online classes fill and have a wait list. I usually email the top several people on the wait list, and invite them to join before the class starts. Then I let in about 5 over the limit (which is 40 – too many, but that’s another post). This way the enrollment will balance down to about 40 by the time our official census occurs, at three weeks in.

classef14But in two classes this semester, I’m down to 33. Usually only one section gets that low, and not until much later in the semester.

Why is this a problem, when 40 is too many for them to get to know each other, and 32 is about right? Because online classes are under the microscope everywhere. There are still people who don’t believe college classes can, or should, be taught online. I just last week heard about a college department all ready to go online, with skilled teachers, and then changing their mind upon hearing from an administrator that the subject just can’t be taught online. At our place, there is concern about the gap in “student success” (defined as those who finish with a grade of C or higher) between online and on-site classes.

Those of us doing this awhile know there are many reasons students might not be as successful online as they are on-site. We know that many students take an online class assuming it will be easier, or require fewer hours. We know they confuse flexibility with total workload. We know some don’t have the technical skills to know where to click or how to submit work. We know that some who aren’t prepared for college are even less prepared online.

But all this knowledge is based on experience, while admins like to focus on the less messy numbers. We do have some studies (like this one from 2005) that indicate some predictors of failure in online classes – students with a low GPA, young age, not taking an orientation, and a habit of dropping classes tend to fail. Another (from 2006) indicates that success online depends on time spent on the class, student initiative and student competence.  This one from 2007 concluded that “self-regulated learning strategies” are essential. A 2011 study concluded that individual student attributes (including persistence, academic achievement, and time management) plus life factors (including resources, skills and time) predict both student satisfaction and success. By 2013 we see a study claiming that self-efficacy and “task value” are the biggest predictors. Some studies note which types of students fail more often: males, younger students, AfricanAmerican students, and low GPA students (here). And “students with higher levels of technology self-efficacy and course satisfaction” earn higher grades (here).  Specifically referring to students who dropped out, another recent study showed that those who stayed in the class “had higher levels of academic locus of control and metacognitive self-regulation skills than dropout students” (here). An even more recent study decided that in addition to employment and academic preparation for the class, just the fact that the class was online was a predictor of final exam performance.

All of these suggest that the greatest predictors of student success reside in the student. And yet the pressure is on faculty, and the focus on instructional design. The implication is that if students succeed at high levels, it’s because we’re doing something right. If they don’t succeed, we’re doing something wrong. This view creates more pressure for cookie-cutter, idiot-proof, publisher-developed, team-created courses with no academic freedom or creativity for instructors.

CC Flickr Matthew Langham

It was too much work on board
CC Flickr Matthew Langham

So with such a high drop rate and such high stakes for me, I am surveying (anonymously, at a colleague’s suggestion) the students who dropped on or after the first day of the semester. So far, results are interesting. Most of them are saying that the class looked liked too much work, and that they wanted a class where they could log in just once per week. One said s/he dropped because the class wasn’t in Blackboard.

After years of designing my classes to provide quick, low-stakes assignments for the purpose of immediate feedback, so students can track their progress, this is a blow. I have no mid-term exam and no research paper – rather the writing is scaffolded, the quizzes are short and weekly, and the primary source posts take about half an hour of student time. The final exam is an essay they work on for several weeks, with feedback from each other and me.

Does this bring us to the last thing we know, but only anecdotally: that not all online instructors are requiring a similar workload for similar number of units? That my class is now too hard because other online classes are easier? And (a horrible thought) to what extent has my encouragement of online classes led to this?

Or does this bring us back to the studies, where student success clearly resides in student self-efficacy?

As they say, watch this space…


3 comments to Why students drop

  • Lisa, this is a big issue for me too. I enroll about 100 students total (three sections), expecting that I will end up with between 80 and 90, but it’s such a gamble because it is very much about how individual students react to the class for their own reasons. Anything could happen really! I also have a waiting list as you do, and I feel badly about people on the waiting list who really want to be in the class, while other people drop in the second week, after the add window is closed.

    My class is what many students consider a lot of work (6-8 hours of work per week, every week – but no scheduled class meetings of course) … but I don’t think it is just that they are comparing that to undemanding online classes; they are also comparing the class to undemanding face-to-face classes where the de facto weekly minimum is just showing up for class 3 hours per week, with the obligatory cramming for midterm, paper, final. My class schedule is really flexible, very forgiving, so I rarely have students who fail. But there are students who remain unhappy with the workload all semester long. I keep modifying my classes to include more student choice, more engaging assignments, more scheduling flexibility… but I have not backed away from the time I ask the students to commit. I just don’t see how I can teach a course with substantial reading and substantial writing without asking for substantial time from students.

    I guess one of my biggest gripes with university culture is the way we label courses based on contact hours. The courses I teach are “3-hour courses.” Some students honestly expect that 3 hours is about the amount of time they will put in, except when there is midterm, paper, final etc. Sadly, I suspect there are some classes out there that reinforce that assumption. And, of course, at work their boss does not tell them, “I’m scheduling you for 3 hours next week,” expecting they will REALLY be at work for six hours or more. 3 hours means 3 hours on the job… but not in the weird culture of higher ed contact hours!

    • Hi Laura! At our place, it’s supposed to be 6 “out of class” hours for every 3 “in class” hours, so according to law, my classes should take 9 hours a week. Yes, I tell them that….

      Student comment just came in:

      “To be honest its too much little work. I like assignments in small increments and worth more credit. It allows me to plan ahead and makes my already overloaded scheduling easier. For an online class I didn’t have the time to stay continuously active….{I} hope you strive to teach what you love as efficiently as possible.”

  • I’m not even sure students get that message about 3+6 anymore… I mean, how would they? Is it even written down anywhere? I wonder how many syllabuses are explicit about hours of time per week and how instructors expect that time to be spent…? I am super-explicit about that, but that’s easier to do in an online class with more flexible, granular assignments.

    I know there are some (many?) classes that do not give students structured work to do every week, much less feedback to point out that the time invested really does matter. Even when I tell students to spend an hour or two on an assignment, it’s easy to tell that some of them throw it together in ten or fifteen minutes, and they are sincerely surprised when I point out that, yes, I really did mean one to two hours, and that, yes, the difference is noticeable in their work. Not just in the grade (I don’t grade), but in terms of the substance of their work. They are surprised both to have a dialogue about substance rather than grades, and they are also surprised to have an honest conversation about time spent. For me, I think they are very important conversations to have. I could never really do that teaching in the classroom but online, yep, I am more time-aware, and I hope that I can make them more time-aware too. In a good way! 🙂