Why Do Students Drop a Course?
When Allan Megill, Professor of History, e-mailed the TRC to talk about analyzing why some students dropped his undergraduate course, we were intrigued by his interest in this elusive information. Together we devised a process to encourage students to respond anonymously, by mail to the TRC, in answer to the following questionnaire:
This questionnaire is designed to elicit your reasons for dropping HIEU 380: ORIGINS OF CONTEMPORARY THOUGHT, with a view to determining whether changes should be made in course design or presentation. We hope that you will take a moment to respond, and will return the questionnaire, in the enclosed envelope, to the Teaching Resource Center. Some possible responses are suggested, but you may prefer simply to answer the open-ended questions.
[Questionnaire includes space for responses.]
Some possible answers to the question, "Why did you drop the class?" Circle any appropriate answer, and feel free to elaborate on any answer circled.
I dropped the class because . . .
Here is Professor Megill's reaction to the results and his conclusions, created for self-illumination and then generously shared in Teaching Concerns:
I recently sent out a questionnaire to students listed on my pre-registration class list, but not on the preliminary class list, for my course HIEU 380 "Origins of Contemporary Thought," a class dealing with Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and related writers and themes. Why had students dropped? Course too difficult? Lecture style too free-form? Generally, the course is very well reviewed by the students who stick it out to the end; I wanted to see what students who dropped at the beginning said.
I have taught this course for many years, and have usually been very happy with it. Yet I have also been aware that, especially at a university like UVa, where boundaries between departments seem to loom high in students' minds (far higher than at the University of Iowa, where I previously taught), some students feel aggrieved because, in their view, the course ought to be listed as philosophy, not as history. They have quaintly absolutist notions concerning genre and discipline, in short.
Should I change my strategy in the first lecture? That was a question prominent in my mind. Of the five respondents (out of a total of 14 who dropped [from an original enrollment of 46]), one dropped because the course didn't fit her/his schedule, and made no comments. One dropped because of "too many credit hours," and responded negatively to the question of whether any changes in class design or approach should be made. One objected at length that the class was too much like a philosophy class and too unlike a history class. One vehemently objected to the teaching style, found the professor intimidating, and thought the class was too unlike a history class. Finally, one dropped partly because the class was at a very inconvenient time for him/her and partly because, based on the first lecture, he/she thought that the style was "slightly unorganized," and that this might make the course, although interesting, a bit hard "to take on."
I found that the questionnaire basically confirmed my suspicions. Since I am happy with this particular course, I shall do little to change my mode of presentation. (My wish is that students engage directly with the reading and think for themselves; too "smooth" a lecture style encourages them to regurgitate what I say back to me , and I loathe regurgitation).
Were I thinking of the course more as a contribution to a core of "cultural literacy," and if I were very interested in having in it substantially more than the 30-some currently enrolled, I think that I would, in fact, have considered changing my initial mode of presentation, in order to appeal more to the clientele that wants to sit back and get a coherent survey. I am teaching a new, more survey-oriented course next semester, and for that course my response would probably be different.
If you're interested in finding out what might be discouraging students from continuing in your course after the first day or two, we'd be happy to help!