If at first you don’t succeed, quit

College students are inflating their own grades, while deflating their credits, by dropping classes to avoid a mediocre grade. Irascible Professor’s guest commentator, Tina Blue, who teaches at the University of Kansas, lost most of her C students and some of the B students.

The thing is, I know that many of the students who dropped my course were actually enjoying it.  But as I was told by one girl I ran into a couple of weeks after she dropped the class, a lot of them just don’t feel they can risk getting a “bad” grade — and in today’s academic environment, a C is definitely a bad grade,  In fact, a B might even be low enough to seriously damage their records, cost them their scholarships, or hurt their chances of getting into their preferred major or into the graduate program of their choice.

I think this puts an intolerable burden on our shoulders.  We should be able to grade our students fairly, without worrying that giving out anything less than A’s will destroy some kid’s life.

Most colleges now let students drop a class at any time for any reason. It’s one reason that so many students take five, six or seven years to complete a four-year degree.

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  1. I dropped my Algebra class because I was getting an “F” half-way thru it. The book was horrible and the professor worse; when I asked for extra help and explanations, he gave me the same examples over and over (the same as in the book), presented the way it was in the book.

    Now, I’m not stupid, and did fairly well in my high school math classes 17 years prior, but this really stressed me out. I had a GPA of 3.95, which I worked my butt off for, and I was going to flunk a lousy Algebra class – so I dropped it.

    I talked to the school counselor, and after looking at my grades, agreed that it was the best thing for me to do (yes, we discussed tutoring, but ruled it out for different reasons).

    I took the class with a different professor the next year, and got an “A”. We used the same lousy book (which he admitted was terrible, but it was what the school used), however, he explained everything in different ways to make sure we understood the material.

    Dropping the class was the best thing I ever did. But, I would never have dropped it if I was at least passing it!

  2. Kids were doing this when I was in college, and I graduated in 1982. In fact, one acquaintance dropped classes for reasons like this and was shocked when she applied for her degree and was turned down because she hadn’t satisfied the requirements for her major. She wanted to sue her advisor for signing off on her dropout slips! With difficulty, we persuaded her not to make a fool of herself. She did finish up later.

  3. Wacky Hermit says:

    I think withdrawing from classes is an excellent way to let students bow out gracefully when they realize they’ve made a mistake or their life circumstances change. I’ve had plenty of students withdraw from my classes, and the reasons are varied. Some recently had babies or other life-changing events and found themselves with too much to do, and had to cut back somewhere. Some change jobs mid-semester and can no longer attend. Some find that one of their other classes, more crucial to their graduation date, is becoming so time-consuming that they cannot devote as much attention as they’d like to my class.

    It is possible to abuse the W grade, but I think most universities that allow withdrawals for any reason also limit their quantity to eight or thereabouts.

    Personally, I think judicious use of the W grade shows maturity on the student’s part. Withdrawing from a class demonstrates that a student was able to set their priorities and rearrange their schedule accordingly. The easy thing to do would be to just stop showing up to class and get an F, but students who withdraw go and get the paperwork and fill it out to tie up the loose ends.

  4. [email protected] says:

    What about rising to the challenge? Sure, under extreme circumstances, withdrawal may be prudent; but unless there is some sort of penalty for it which can be as simple as a W on the transcript, it encourages gpa manipulation by taking the easiest possible classes and redoing everything.

  5. Timothy Taylor says:

    The big problem comes up when students sign up for extra courses above a normal full class load, because they are planning to drop any with low grades. But then they are overloaded with the extra courses, and all their grades end up low. I’ve seen a fair amount of this behavior. Dropping a course now and then in extreme circumstances if one thing, but if a student is dropping one or two courses every academic term, that’s not part of a solution, it’s part of a problem.

  6. I didn’t drop classes in college and I wish I had. My son and daughter both have dropped classes where they had C’s. I helped them keep scholarships or stay off of probation. My son is a college athlete and he must keep his grades high to remain eligible.

    Everything you do these days is “on your permanent record”.

  7. This is why we don’t use C-curves any more. The students would revolt and kill us on the evaluations. And, maybe sue.

    — e, who hates the phrase “Is this going to be on the test?”, and who is glad to have left academia

  8. As I take an average of two classes a semester (I have my associate’s degree), I don’t worry about the grade I receive, I worry about knowing the material as well as I should. I reviewed 13 chapter exams in one class, and found 3 chapters which I received low grades in, so that tells me I need to go back and review that information harder for the final exam, and the other stuff I can scan over and just make sure I nail the concepts down.

    Students who spend too much time worrying about their GPA often wind up missing out on the real lessons in the classroom, IMO.

  9. A moment of silence, please, for the “Gentleman’s C”. May it rest in peace.

  10. During the mid-80’s the university system in Florida only permitted a limited number of drops – 2, I think, in the lower classes, and 2 more in Junior-Senior years. After that: doom. (Or, convince the professor to allow a ‘redo.’)

  11. It’s one reason that so many students take five, six or seven years to complete a four-year degree

    How does that look any better then a “c” om a resume

  12. Someone who’s enjoying my class but getting a C isn’t doing the reading or attending class regularly, which is why I love it when people withdraw.

    First, I have fewer papers to grade.

    Second, it sends a message to the world that I’m harder than they like — which reduces my load of slackers next semester.

  13. Are none of these tough courses required courses? My students can drop my tough calc class (1/4 or more of them will fail it), but they’ll have to take it sometime. And the longer they put it off, the worse they’re likely to do. (They only have a month or so to drop it without penalty, though – and after the second month, they need to have a medical reason or something similar.)

    What blows my mind is the unbelieveable level of inflation of marks in grad school. It’s common knowledge around here that no one gets less than an A – maybe an A minus – in a grad course unless they don’t show up. I’ve gotten A+’s in courses in which I didn’t understand the material at all, and did little of the work. My friends at other Canadian and American universities report the same sort of thing – an undergraduate who slacks off for a week or two risks a C, but a grad student who does the same doesn’t is guaranteed an A. (I have a friend in grad school, who dropped a course after three weeks. The prof didn’t know he’d dropped it, and at the end of the term called my friend – who’d missed 4 our of 5 assignments, and all three tests – to his office. “I’m going to have to give you an A minus in this course,” he said, “Unless you can give me a good reason not to.” My friend did (“I’m not in the class – you shouldn’t give me ANY mark” – but that wasn’t what the professor had in mind.)

  14. Hmmmm, this doesn’t surprise me at all, but I have a professor friend who teaches upper-division MIS and graduate level courses, and her biggest complaint from students was about the length of a report she had assigned (a whopping five pages!!!).

    I was somewhat surprised when she told me, and perhaps I should visit her students and tell them that the book reports I used to write in high school 23 years ago were at least twice as long (if not longer), and this was for high school.

    I can see why some people question the value of degrees in society any more, given that in 2002, the average knowledge level of a college graduate was no better or worse than a high school graduate in the 1950’s (shocking, but true. If you want more info, search for the national assoc. of scholars on the internet, they are based in D.C., if memory serves).

  15. While going to college, I worked for three different college bookstores. I couldn’t believe the number of students who’d come in and shop for classes by the number of books required. Sure, “History of Women in the US” might be interesting and the prof was great, but it had four books. “History of Jazz” only had one book and was an “easy” class.

    So, no. People dropping classes because they’re getting a C doesn’t surprise me. A lot of the students I met up with were looking for the easiest way to fulfill their requirements they could find, particularly their general education requirements. All they wanted was to get that little piece of paper that says, “I’m qualified to do job X.” Too many didn’t give a damn about learning something outside their chosen field. And some of them, too many of them, didn’t even like what they were majoring in, but were doing it because they were pushed to do it by their parents or because that’s where the money is. Rather than studying English, History, or Anthropology, they were Business, Engineering, or CS majors. I won’t be surprised at all if there’s some big article 20 years from now about how a lot of these people regret their choice of career.

  16. Wacky Hermit says:

    I give plenty of C’s. Most of my students who withdraw for non-medical reasons are getting grades worse than C’s. I can’t speak for other classes or other universities, but my typical withdrawal student is NOT withdrawing because he is getting an unsatisfactory but passing grade.

  17. I’m curious… what about a national graduation-level exam? I’m not suggesting that the exam would be required for college or university graduation, but since we recognize that a grade can be subjective, and employers would like to have some reasonable certainty about the qualifications of someone they are hiring, why not an exit equivalent of an SAT?

    It could also be offered to folks who didn’t attend or finish college. We should be more interested in what they’ve learned, not how or where they’ve learned it.

    It could also be used as a test-out mechanism for people in college. If you can pass a Calculus exam (or any other subject) there should be no reason for you to take it in college (except to inflate your grade).

  18. Many states are already doing this at the high school level, but the problem is that the bar is set so low, the test itself means NOTHING.

    California’s new exit exam (required for 12th graders finishing in 2006 and after) only tests math concepts at grades 6 through 9 at best, and this is with the student being allowed to take the exit exam a whopping eight (8) times.

    The passing score for this math exam is 55/100, and the exam is 100 multiple choice questions (my state of Nevada isn’t much better, requiring 290/500 (58%)) to pass the math portion (this was lowered from 304/500 by idiots in our legislature so that 1300 plus 12th graders who had failed the exam 5 times could “feel good” about themselves, and receive a diploma which is about as useful as toilet paper these days).

    They should institute an examination at the college level to receive your degree (at the associate’s or bachelor’s level) to test your general knowledge level and your knowledge in major (I have heard some colleges may be looking at this concept in the not-so-distant future).

  19. For me, the problem is that grade grubbers who grub their grades this way are learning that it’s okay to drop a project if there’s any danger to your permanent record.

    These are the people who end up trying to push back deadlines because they’ll look bad if a project comes in on time and on spec. Never mind the other teams and the credit they deserve.

    I’ve heard stories of dropping classes AFTER the final grades are posted. So you can see how getting into an Ivy really helps your career.

  20. I majored in history. There’s a reason for that: past pre-calculus, I felt lost. Math instructors/professors should realize that their subject can be intimidating for some of us, and that explaining the same thing a different way is not only helpful but appropriate. I remember in particular a professor explaining a point; I didn’t quite get it; he explained it again slightly differently; I came closer but still didn’t it solidly; he explained it a third time, and it clicked. I got it – forever. I feel it appropriate to point out my IQ is quite high and I’m pursuing my doctorate; all of us who may struggle in math are neither lazy nor addle-pated. Even quite intelligent folk may need more than one pass of a point in mathematics or physics. The professor who is not willing to make the second pass, or the third, should find another vocation.


  1. Joanne takes us to lunch

    Joanne Jacobs, by way of Michelle from A Small Victory, envisions a politically correct holiday. (I’m linking to Joanne because I already read Michelle’s post.) It’s been a while since I’ve read from Joanne, so here’s an entirely different look…