Failing courses and the University’s conscience

If many students are failing when general education students are in the same course as pre-majors, then something needs to be tried.

Now at the end of the term we are reminded once again that at every major university, certain courses fail predictably large numbers of undergraduates semester after semester, year after year.

Thirty, 40, and (if we include drops and withdrawals) even 60 percent failure rates are not uncommon, especially in introductory courses, such as mathematics, chemistry and biology, but also occasionally in the social sciences and humanities as well.

An institution whose avowed purpose is to educate students, you might think, would naturally interpret high failure rates as a sign of failure on the part of the course or teacher. Yet such self-indictments are rare, for lack of student success can always be attributed to a host of other causes. Here are two of the most popular.

Blame the victim

Since students must take responsibility for their own learning, it follows they must also be responsible for their failure to learn. Some students (the best and the brightest?) always manage to get through every course, and where some succeed, neither the course nor the teaching as such need be faulted for high failure rates.

The problems must lie elsewhere: for example, in 1) character faults that make students apathetic or lazy or lacking in proper study habits; 2) inadequate finances that force them to work low-paying jobs to pay for fancy apartments – or high tuition; or 3) being products of a secondary education system that leaves students (especially Americans) woefully unprepared for university-level work.

Praise the culprit

If the inadequacies of undergraduates are assumed to be pervasive and generally acknowledged – whatever their cause – then any course that does not fail a significant proportion of its enrollees cannot be doing its job.

“Gate keeper” courses exist for that very purpose, preventing masses of students from entering the promised land, and even in disciplines where there is no danger of admitting too many majors, high failure rates are often taken as evidence of academic rigor. Such courses, it is claimed, help maintain high intellectual standards by refusing to “dumb down” the content or succumb to the pressures of grade inflation. Hard subjects make for hard courses, and when the going gets hard, students start failing.

Now, what’s wrong with all the clichés by which a university shifts blame for student failure away from itself?

If students could in fact take complete responsibility for their learning, and hence for their failures, then teaching them wouldn’t be necessary at all. But they cannot. The responsibility for education rests as much with the educators as the educated, and so just as every instance of student success redounds to the credit of the teacher, the course and the institution, so also every failure constitutes an institutional failure.

It makes no difference whether the students are under prepared by the secondary schools they come from; it is a university’s job to teach the students it admits. For it makes a promise by admitting them – not to hand out free degrees, obviously, but to offer a series of learning opportunities suited to their talents and needs. And when it admits only the upper 25 percent of high school students, there’s not much excuse for a university’s inability to find ways to make virtually every student successful, not by changing the curve or “social passing,” but finding methods that actually work.

If too many students are failing when all of them are taught the same way, then something new needs to be tried. If too many students are failing when they’re in large lecture courses, then something new needs to be tried. If too many students are failing when good mentors have already been made available, then something new needs to be tried. If too many students are failing when general education students are enrolled in the same course as pre-majors, then something new needs to be tried.

But how many is too many? What is the percentage that should trigger self-reflection, self-doubt and change on the part of the institution? At what point must we admit that it’s not the students who are failing the courses but the courses that are failing the students?

That question only the conscience of the university can answer.

Joel Weinsheimer is a Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University.

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