What to do when a class fails

How do we handle the problem of class failure?  Let’s consider a hypothetical situation. Say you have an introductory class that by some metrics is going well–students coming to class, participating in class discussion, telling you they are learning a lot–that come midterms, you are expecting a typical or even above-average performance, compared to prior sections.  Grading arrives…and the performance is abysmal.  Say only 20% of the students pass the exam. The essay questions and exam as a whole reveal a complete lack of understanding of basic concepts and principles discussed extensively in the class.  You start to believe that maybe, in a reverse of the classic dream where a student must take an exam for a class they never took, that you hallucinated actually showing up and teaching this class prior to the exam.

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In such a scenario, our minds first move to blame.  It is easy to view a high failure rate as a problem with the students themselves.  They didn’t read…didn’t study…didn’t meet with us to go over problem areas during office hours…eager to talk in class, but aren’t willing to put in the work necessary to succeed, etc. But reflection is essential here.  Maybe the test as a metric lacked validity as a test of their knowledge and understanding.  Maybe the instructor has become complacent, teaching the same material again and again, and is no longer tuned into whether students are really grasping everything.  Or perhaps this is a case of poor execution of standard instruction techniques, or in some other way a failure on the part of the instructor to check in with their students regarding their understanding of the material.

Understanding the causes certainly help us consider what solutions are at stake.  If it is a case of poorly prepared students, then you can either let them learn the hard the way the result of poor preparation and continue as planned, or try to create incentives to motivate them to put the work in (such as daily quizzes or weekly writing assignments).  If the instructor is at fault, then some self-reflection is in order, potentially in terms of teaching methods or assignment placement.  By the time the midterm arrives, it may be too late for students to withdraw from the class, so an earlier assignment that gives us metrics on how students are understanding the material may be crucial. Maybe reducing lecture and increasing more active-learning elements might help.

My recommendation? Talk to the students about what happened. Ask them about their preparation, and about where their troubles are coming from.  It may be that they are overwhelmed with other courses or life issues and aren’t making this course a priority.  Maybe they haven’t been taking good notes during the class discussions.  Or maybe you are speeding through the material and they feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it and are having trouble making sense of the connections.  There can be any number of reasons, and only by asking will you get a more complete picture of what is going on.

Reflection, ultimately, is a two-way street, and we cannot move forward with potential solutions without having a clear sense of the data.  While it is crucial that we do not simply blame our students and absolve ourselves of responsibility for poor performance, we must also recognize that without their input, we are only operating with half the available information. In addition, having them go through a process of reflection may help mitigate some of the student-side issues that may be affecting their coursework.  It may also lead to a discussion of potential solutions that everyone can agree will be helpful, so that by the time of the final, both students and instructors have invested more heavily in seeing a higher rate of success in the class.

3 thoughts on “What to do when a class fails

  1. I definitely like the idea of a debriefing after a tough exam. It’s easy to say “well, I taught you everything you needed to know,” but there is a lot that can happen between an instructor teaching and the student learning, which is the professional’s responsibility. (By the way, “two-way street.”)

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