Failure is an Option

I honestly want to be the best teacher that I can be. It truly pains me when students fail or withdraw from my courses. This week two students dropped one of my courses, and there are others that haven’t showed up for several classes in a row. When this happens, I think it is important to take time to reflect about what went wrong. Sometimes though, we can be too hard on ourselves as teachers. I read an article this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “It’s the Little Things That Count in Teaching“. It was full of tips for how to cultivate student engagement through seemingly small details, such as maintaining a positive attitude, showing up early to class, etc. While this is all great advice, I think it is also important to bear in mind, that we can’t save them all. Some students simply won’t be successful, and that is ok.

In my state, the university system is placing increasing emphasis on student retention. Many of our schools (mine included) have somewhat abysmal completion rates. In recent history we have focused all of our attention on student enrollment. More students, means more tuition money for the institutions. Unfortunately, these students are not always graduating. One of the problems that comes along with this is an increasing number of people with large amounts of student debt, but no degree to show for it. The pendulum seems to be swinging in the opposite direction, and we are now going to be awarded state funding based on our enrollment and our retention rates.

Our administration has preached the gospel of retain, retain, retain. We are implementing new programs to help intervene early when students show signs of disengagement. We have started a special course for first year students to help them navigate the college process. Professors have been asked to work harder at keeping students in their classes. To be fair, these are all good things, but the truth is that some students just won’t succeed, no matter how hard we try. There must be a balance between maintaining academic standards and possessing an element of flexibility that allows for student success.

Sometimes I think that our American “can do” attitude makes it hard to us to accept failure, but failure is an essential part of life. Every successful business person can list for you the number of times that they tried an idea, and failed. I once read in a book about relationships that we tend to view breakups as heartbreaking events, but in reality a failed relationship can prevent a lifetime in a loveless marriage.  In this context, I want to discuss some of the reasons students fail and how I try to address them.

1) They are not ready for college. This is especially true at my school. We are an access institution which means that we serve students that aren’t adequately prepared for college. They don’t have the study habits and their high school courses were mostly inadequate. These students have a choice, gain the skills, or face failure. As an institution we provide tutoring services and study skills workshops. As a professor, I try to give my students all the tools and resources they need, but sometimes it isn’t enough.

2) Life gets in the way. Teaching has made me realize how privileged my life has been. This semester alone (and we are only a month in) I have had students lose a parent, some have been hospitalized, others have children facing life threatening illnesses. They struggle financially, balancing work and school. It is incredibly hard to focus under this sort of duress. I try to be as flexible as possible. As long as my students are communicating with me about their struggles, I can make accommodations within reason, I can extend deadlines and excuse absences, but it is an uphill battle and I cannot compromise the academic integrity of the course.

3) Some students just don’t care. One problem that we have created is that college has become a sort of rest area between high school and the real world. Students can spend time in college, aimlessly taking courses and accumulating student loans without bearing the burden of financial responsibility. This sets these students up for a rough road ahead. They should not be in college in the first place. It would serve them much better to spend some time in the workplace. As a professor, I have to accept that they are in my class and do my best to show them the value of my course and their degree path.

These are just a few reasons that students fail. What are some other possible reasons? And what can we do about them?

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