The 4-Stage Response to Low Student Achievement

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

March 01, 2011

When the results come in from the first test in my introductory survey course, I am not surprised by the large number of D's and F's. I've come rather to expect that many, if not most, of the students will fail.

The subject matter is not rocket science, and the homework load for each session of the course is modest: 15 pages of textbook reading, or 40 to 50 pages in supplementary nonfiction books written for a general audience. I average students' final grades from four objective tests and three subjective papers.

My homework expectations are near those found to produce the best results by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a stinging indictment of low expectations in higher education. I require a little less than the 20 pages of writing that Arum and Roksa deem optimal for an intro course, but I assign a little more than the 40 pages of reading a week that they recommend.

That amount of work, it turns out, is way more than many of my students have bargained for. Why that is the case can be variously explained, but the fact itself cannot be denied. It's something college instructors have to deal with. Here's what I've noticed about how we do that.

During an academic career, your response to low student achievement proceeds through several stages. First is shock at appallingly poor results, soon followed by the next stage—dismay or guilt. Dismay leads some instructors to fault themselves for setting the bar too high and move standards ever lower to accommodate their students' disinclination to work. Guilt drives other faculty members to revisit their policies, outlines, assignments, and assessments in search of some hidden failure on their part to account for such dismal results.

Next is contempt, when the dismayed pronounce their students incapable of better effort, and the guilt-stricken call them unworthy of the college opportunity, in both cases shifting the blame from themselves back to the students.

Finally comes acceptance—of the fact that students work at whatever level they can get by with, typically exploring the low end of the spectrum first, hoping it will be enough for a decent grade. When it is, no additional effort can be pried out of them. When it's not, that realization may take more time to dawn on them than they have left in the semester.

Like horseshoes and hand grenades, academic effort by students is determined through estimation, taking aim at a professor's expectations. If you overthrow and underthrow, you should be able to find the target in the middle. The problem is, many undergraduates fail at the logic of thrown projectiles, pitching their effort well short of the goal, and increasing it incrementally in hopes of eventually reaching the target by semester's end. The last-ditch plan to "make it all up on the final" might become mathematically impossible by then, but it still persists as a stubborn article of desperate faith among struggling students. In a course where the students' grades are averaged, that is a recipe for disaster.

I advise my students to overprepare for the first test. They can always ease up later on, I reason with them, if the first grade shows they prepared more than necessary. At worst, if their idea of overpreparing comes in under the mark, at least they limit the damage to their grade. Few heed the advice. The incentives are just too far away, and the risk is too easy to deny. Most students will take an A if they can get it without much effort, but they will accept B's or C's if that's all their effort earns.

Too many are blown away by expectations like mine.

In a recent class of 20 students, the first exam resulted in two A's, two B's, four C's, three D's, and nine F's. Half of the students planned to get by with no more effort than just showing up. If I didn't take attendance, I'm not sure they'd even do that.

Sometimes instructors think they've reached the fourth stage, acceptance, when they are actually stuck in the third stage, contempt. Contempt is passive acceptance, or resignation. "Watching them go down in flames" is one way of describing professors' passive acceptance of students' limited effort. When a student's early returns are not promising, such professors wait to see if a pattern emerges; once it does, the outcome is a foregone conclusion, so there's no point in intervening.

Another form of resignation is handing out inflated grades like Halloween candy, which shows contempt for the learning process and, arguably, for the students themselves. It is passive and resigned, a refusal to try to coax actual learning from reluctant masses.

The final stage of acceptance is not passive as such, but active and constructive. Active acceptance involves recognizing students' limitations and trying to work with them, around them, or in spite of them, to produce a better-than-predictable result.

It's like sending an announcement by batch e-mail, but then following up by phone. The limitations of e-mail are proven, and we accept them; some will respond, but it's passive communication, easily ignored. Phoning the nonresponders means making a targeted effort that won't reach everyone but may double the response rate, which is a realistic goal.

That kind of realistic goal is the other key component of constructive acceptance. I accept that I cannot rescue every college kid from self-sabotage. But plenty of students are right on the bubble, where a little nudge might bring them out of academic risk. Maybe a nudge from me, or a coach or an RA, will do the trick. We can enlist others to help.

My 20 students had fair warning. I showed them the range of grades for the first exam from the last time I'd taught the course. I challenged my new students to learn from the mistakes of the past. This they heeded no better than my advice to overprepare. For half of the students, getting lucky on test day was the plan, to the extent they had one.

Announcing before the first test that anyone scoring a D or F would have to meet with me before the second test, I saw a few eyes widen with apprehension, but mostly blank stares. After I handed back the test results, I e-mailed the failing students first to schedule a time for us to meet. A couple of them replied the same day. Over the next few days, I heard from a couple more, booking appointments in half-hour slots. One missed his slot, e-mailing 15 minutes late to reschedule, explaining he'd lost track of time reading. It's the kind of theatrical dodge you expect from this demographic. I told him to come right away and gave him the quick version.

My stock intervention speech is material for a future column, but my goals are more or less the same for every student: Disarm the wary, deflect excuses, restate expectations, and encourage them to make more of an effort. Test scores are the reference point because, while students have been known to dissemble, the numbers don't lie.

I still hadn't heard from five of the students who failed when the one with the lowest grade dropped the course. Another responded to my e-mail a day later. An assistant dean in charge of student retention was happy to help chase down the last few strays.

Various kinds of leverage can be applied when professors don't have the right angle. An assistant coach got one student to come in and meet with me. Another student was already on academic probation, meeting weekly with the same assistant dean. She responded immediately to the assistant dean's e-mail, having ignored a couple of mine.

The three D students all wanted to meet at the same time after class, which was fine by me. That turned out to be doubly advantageous: three birds, one spiel, and no lame excuses from any of them. Apparently they're not inclined to trot them out before a jury of their peers.

The first paper was due the week after the test. Several F students also had paper issues, so it helped that the ball of intervention was already rolling. Out of eight interventions with students, only two were lost causes. One of those lost causes turned in an egregious case of plagiarism for the paper; the other, no paper at all. The plagiarist was enrolled in more courses than he could manage and accepted the recommendation to drop mine.

The AWOL student resisted all overtures and extended deadlines, until finally summoned to discuss her options. A zero for the paper and an F on the test meant her options were few indeed: She would have to be a near-perfect student the rest of the term to pull her F average up to a D, or she could just take the F in this class and focus more on her other classes. She vowed to try, and made good on it for exactly one class meeting, after which I never saw her again.

Sometimes a lesson about consequences is the most you can hope for a student to learn. For professors, acceptance, in the active, constructive sense, means being OK with that outcome, once intervention has been attempted and failed. But if other students are capable of improvement, accepting their limitations means accepting that they need a nudge.

John Lemuel is the pseudonym of an associate professor in the social sciences at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest.