Monday, November 27, 2006

postal scrotum: M on student attrition

M writes (email edited for privacy):

Kevin said:

[NB: You folks teaching for-credit course at uni probably don't have nearly the student attrition we hagwon-style teachers do. I'd love to hear from teachers of non-credit courses about what positive and negative measures they take to minimize attrition. No airy-fairy, vague stuff about "find out what interests them," please. I'm looking for specifics.]


I teach required courses, but I'm not sure that is a factor in retention (percentage of students who are not dropped/do not drop) and success (percentage of students who pass with a grade of "C" or better) figures. Making a course required may have the opposite of the effect you would think.

At the statewide level here in CA (probably elsewhere too, but I can't speak with as much authority to elsewhere), we typically break community college classes into two groups: pre-baccalaureate (a.k.a. developmental or remedial) and college-level (a.k.a. "transferable," as in "transferable to four-year institutions"). Pre-baccalaureate classes usually exhibit lower retention & success rates than the transfer-level courses. When you look at the retention and success statistics across the curriculum, two main areas tend to be low: English and Math. Generally, it is the required courses that display the lowest retention and success numbers; I like to think that grade inflation is the main reason that we don't see the trend carrying over to the non-required subjects, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, in math, at the statewide level, we typically see the retention and success numbers playing out as follows:

Pre-baccalaureate math courses: retention around 75%, success around 50%.
Transfer-level math courses: retention around 75%, success around 50-55%.

At my campus, we see:

Pre-baccalaureate math courses: retention around 65%, success around 45%.
Transfer-level math courses: retention around 65%, success around 50%.

So for example, in a class of 40 students, in a typical semester, we'll see 10-15 take a hike before the final exam, and of the 25-30 students who remain, maybe half will pass the class.

Different colleges and different instructors approach this problem in different ways.

Personally, having seen what passes for math instruction in local public high schools, I believe that the best way I can salvage the maximum number from the bottom 60% of the high school graduating class (a big chunk of my clientele), is to help them understand the difference between the college level and the secondary level, and also to confront immaturity and unrealistic expectations.

The first day, I may not lecture on mathematics at all. I'll talk about the retention and success statistics and what they mean on a practical, individual level.

I have a little powerpoint presentation that I custom-tailor to my various classes (attached, if you care to see it; I have one version for transfer-level, one version for pre-baccalaureate, with certain content for certain classes). I think it is a sobering little chat for many of the students. To me, there is nothing surprising or ground-breaking contained in it, but my perspective is apparently quite different than what my students commonly bring to the table, as I typically have a rapt audience on day 1.

I also use various online ancillaries to help me crack the whip; I collect all homework electronically, and the assignments that the students do feature similar problems with different numbers for everyone, so it is practically impossible for them to cheat on the homework. Most of the homework problems are open-ended (not multiple choice).

In my pre-baccalaureate classes, I devote a huge chunk of the grade-- 25% in one course-- to homework. Students who refuse to do it can just squeak by if they really know their stuff, but the vast majority have to do it. The reaction of many students is negative; they don't like having a light shined in that area, and they apparently prefer to fool themselves into thinking they can fake it. But, as one of the old-time administrators (at the high school where I once worked) liked to say, "You can't make chicken salad from chicken shit." Uncharitable, yes, but true. Students who don't want to work are very hard to motivate. I guess you could summarize my approach as follows: I try to get them to understand the realities of the situation, and I fail everyone who refuses to get with the program.

It is true that I have a certain amount of protection in the form of tenure, but even when I have not had that, I've done business the same way.

You might notice a few other items that I use on my Web site. For example, I post mock exams. Back before I had kids, I would actually release my old exams with a full answer key. Nowadays, I use publisher-provided test generation software to generate longer mock exams, and I hold my actual exams a little more securely.

I may use other approaches depending on the class. For example, my calculus class totally bombed my first exam this semester. It was their bad, not mine. But I allowed them to correct the test and recoup some of the points they lost. One has to be careful not to extinguish hope completely. The reality is, some will learn from their mistakes, and some won't. I'm confident I can ferret out the ones who won't learn and get rid of them or flunk them at the end. I'm not doing anyone a service by passing them.




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