Thursday, September 11, 2008


Class Shopping

I've never found an elegant way around the add/drop period.

This is the time of the semester when late-adding students show up to the second (or even third) meeting of a class, asking to be caught up and held harmless. In lecture classes, it's not that big a deal; you just tell the student he's responsible for whatever he has missed so far, and that's that. But in classes that do group work, or hands-on work, or anything intensely interactive, it's a real imposition.

It wreaks havoc with attendance policies, among other things. If a student wasn't enrolled yet, was he absent? My position is yes, because 'absent' means 'not present,' and he was not present. If a student happens to burn through his allotment of legal 'drops' in the first week, so be it.

The logic of grading, among other things, forces this position. Ideally, students are graded based on their demonstrated mastery of the designated learning outcomes for a given class. Also ideally, the number and depth of those learning outcomes is determined in part by reference to what's achievable in a given semester (or trimester, or quarter, or whatever the local system is). A student doesn't get a free pass on a learning outcome based on late registration. And the course grade doesn't come with an asterisk.

In a perfect world, we'd do away with the add/drop period altogether. But I know that's just not realistic. I recall dropping an Art History class after a single meeting in college when it became abundantly clear that my 'nap' reflex was entirely too strong to endure that long in a dark classroom. (I have the same reaction to Al Gore. TW laughed long and hard when she caught me snoring about a half-hour into the An Inconvenient Truth DVD. I still don't know how it ends.) And a class dropped usually entails another class added, since 'full-time' status usually requires a set number of credits, and the loss of full-time status often entails the loss of health insurance.

Although different schools handle the add/drop period differently, I've never seen a method that didn't bring headaches. I've heard tell of schools that let individual faculty decide who to let in and who not to, which strikes me as a 'due process' lawsuit waiting to happen. Some schools end the add period before ending the drop period, leading to the inevitable angry “now what am I supposed to do?” questions from students. And I worked at one college where the ERP system was so fouled up that a student could duck a prerequisite by dropping it during add/drop week; the computer wouldn't go back and re-check, so disturbing numbers of students were able to dodge math until remarkably late in their studies. What purpose they thought that served eludes me, but they did it in droves.

Some faculty get around the add/drop issue by making the first day of class non-substantive – just pass out the syllabus and some basic contact info and send them on their way. That way, late arrivals didn't have to be caught up, since they really didn't miss anything. This strikes me as a form of consumer fraud, though, and it's profoundly disrespectful to the students who commute to school. (I've had angry students in my office saying “I drove a half hour for this?”) Yes, making the first day substantive can be a challenge, since it's pretty much a given that nobody has done any reading yet, but it strikes me as the kind of challenge that a professional ought to be able to handle.

Wise and worldly readers – has your college found a reasonable way to handle the conflicting demands of add/drop?

Might I suggest the use of technology to deal with this?

For instance, podcasts/screencasts would be great for those classes that are predominantly lecture or "instructor" based. The students can "catch up" in the privacy of their own home (or car, or kitchen, or...)

For "teams" encourage them to work virtually. Quite often, the course management system used at "your school" will not only allow the assignment of teams, but will provide them with virtual meeting and storage spaces. In this way the late add can just in, catch up on the past team conversations, and begin to contribute--again on their own time. An added bonus in a commuter school is the freedom the teams now have to meet asynchronously.

I am not saying technology will solve all problems, but I would say that these sorts of tools could help to resolve many of the issues mentioned.
So the first class is a "here's the syllabus, bye" class, but it counts as one of your missed classes? That's absurd.

Generally, at my (non CC) school, the deal is that you are responsible to make up the work from the first week, but you won't be penalized on your grade for it, and the missed classes won't be held against you except in language classes. (It's made quite clear that you're expected to attend anyhow, as there are always drops.) As of week 2, though add-drop is still running, normal course policies are in full force.

In a quarter system, this won't work (and it doesn't work this way for summer classes), but it seems functional enough.
I don't have a solution to the system, but I know what I tell me students. "Go to ALL the classes you think you want to take on the first day of class. That way, if/when you drop one you haven't missed any classes of the one you are picking up." Of course this doesn't work if you want a course that meets at the same time, but it can be helpful.

I also give this advice for students wanting in a class that is full. That way the faculty member knows they are serious about attending and may give an override to add them, even if the class remains full (usually someone drops).

Being an honors college I also have to tell many of our students that it is OK to drop a class. They are so used to succeeding at anything and everything they try that they don't realize it is OK to let go sometimes. (And it is far better than failing!)
(Sorry, feeling a bit piraty talking about "me students." Avast!)
I'm glad to hear an administrator thinking that missed classes are indeed missed classes. We start rolling the first day - the syllabus is on the online course management system and it's up to them to get it downloaded and read. I hit the highlights given that I assume college students know how to read and the highlights include items that later students claim that they didn't know. Luckily, our administration stands behind the syllabus almost to the extent of it being a contract.

I had a student the other day email that I needed to let the registrar know it was okay to let her in my online course. My guess is that she assumed since it was online it hadn't really started (even though two sets of assignments had already been turned in given that it takes some "physical" reminders that an online class requires work just like the F2F classes. I just emailed back that I was sorry it was too late.

I don't know whether I prefer the straight out request or at least the "asking" component that doesn't assume a "yes" answer. Of courses, as colleges and universities in general move more toward being part of the consumer culture . . . .

I do agree that you don't get additional "free days" to miss later in the semester.

And, although I don't have exact statistics on this, my guess is that most students who enroll late and/or add/drop courses after the first couple of days of classes do it on a regular basis. I'm speaking as someone who never dropped a class even though there was one I should have given that I didn't fit the professor's profile of who he gave (and I do mean gave) A's to. But it was a real life lesson learned. Life isn't fair.

Our biggest issue is that students can drop into the 11th, yes eleventh, week of the semester. So, if they don't like their grade, they just drop and take it again. And we now have two "F" categories - non-attending Fs and "earned Fs". I really think there is only one category there. Plus, we still have students that don't acknowledge that it's their responsibility to drop a class and not the professor's even if they just quite coming to class. Passive versus active . . . .We still need to keep in mind that we are trying to prepare them for the real world. Not to mention that even if they aren't on any financial aid at all (which is rare), the state is paying 2/3rds to 3/4s of what it cost them to be there.
I just don't bother taking real attendance the first two weeks -- I print my rosters and call roll, but I don't start counting it until week 3, when add/drop slows down. It's just too difficult with students appearing and disappearing constantly -- our add/drop churn rate is very high. I try to focus the first couple of classes on a broad overview that isn't "testable" per se, but will help students structure their knowledge and see where we're going in the semester. Otherwise I spend the whole first four weeks trying to catch up students who added late and missed assignments. (My short assignments are also "Assign ten -- count eight" or whatever, so I refuse to let late adders make up the first assignment if they miss it. There are no late papers.)

I sometimes feel like I should be nicer or more accommodating about this, but it's an insane amount of work and my "part-time" schedule is four classes this semester, each one packed to the gills.

I am going to try podcasting next semester, if I can arrange it with tech services. My only qualm about that is that this semester I've had roars of outrage that I USE E-MAIL to reach students (who aren't in class anyway ... how am I supposed to reach them?) and expect them to access Blackboard. I can only imagine the howls of dismay if I try to use PODCASTS.

It's always surprisingly how different the tone of X number of randomly selected students from the same student population can be ... and this semester I'm a little discouraged, because three of my classes are full of very needy students who demand I cater to their every whim. That's probably why the above sounds so discouraged and frustrated. Before now I've only had a scattering of these, but I've got three whole classes where this is the norm.
"students can drop into the 11th, yes eleventh, week of the semester. ... And we now have two "F" categories - non-attending Fs and "earned Fs". ... Plus, we still have students that don't acknowledge that it's their responsibility to drop a class and not the professor's even if they just quite coming to class."

Kelly, we have the same policies. At midterm we're urged by our administration to drop "non-attenders" administratively -- a certain amount of state money gets saved that way, I'm not very clear on how it works. Usually I do this with glee, but in a once-a-week class where a student turned in the first couple assignments but hasn't shown up in four weeks, I'm never sure if they've "dropped" or if they're going to show up having a hissy fit that I've screwed their financial aid. Unfortunately the criteria for "non-attender" aren't super-clear ("never-attender" is easy, "non-attender" is not), and it can be difficult to apply in a once-a-week class.

I frankly don't mind the ones who drop really late -- it's that much less complaining and paperwork when they inevitably fail at the end of the semester, and then protest the fail. I do, however, try to assign groupwork based on which students I suspect will punk out in week 11, so some poor person doesn't get screwed with a week 12 presentation where they're the only one left!
Cb, we're fairly close to Talk Like a Pirate Day, so I think you're excused. You're also right about the "go to ALL possible classes" advice.

I don't penalize students for missing face-to-face classes if they weren't yet enrolled, but I *DO* give a small reward to those who came prepared the first day. I have to blog sometime about my "class leave time" policy, which I've experimented with in a few classes and (thus far) working beautifully to do the right things for students who show up and eliminate all arguments for students who don't.
The drop-add thing is a nightmare. We're ending the third week of classes, and I just got off the phone with a student who wanted to add one of my classes (it's still possible, inside the rules, to do that, believe it or not). I said (a) you've missed the first five class meetings and (b) you've missed the first four quizzes and (c) no. Five class meetings is 1/6 of the classes.

Now, I don't take attendance and I don't explicitly count attendance (except that I give a daily quiz...). So from that perspective, I have fewer issues. But once a student starts that far behind, s/he has almost no chance of catching up.

I understand the seduction of technology (podcasts, etc.) as a mechanism that might make catching up easier. But. The semester has a start date. Anything that makes it easier for students to do the extremely late add the course thing makes the start date less meaningful. So while I might make podcasts (for example) available to students who were enrolled, using them to facilitate behavior I want to discourage strikes me as misguided.
And I wanted to comment on cb's advice to attend all the classes you might want to be in.

Sure, it's useful for the student. But I'd ask the faculty member if it's OK. I have two classes this semester in which I have more students registered than there are seats (which wil make testing, well, testing). So unregistered students who attend are effectively taking the space away from registered students.
Do not do that.
I'm in the "use technology to deal with this" camp.

I teach two calculus classes, one F2F and one online. But, I've now blended the courses together so that students can smoothly move between the two classes.

A small component of the grade for either group is "participation." For F2F students, they earn the points when they attend class. For online students, they earn the points by doing the class activities (watching short lessons, doing activities, etc.) online.

When a F2F student misses class, they have to earn their points by acting as an online student. This not only solves the beginning of the semester problem, but also all of those "forced vacations to Disneyworld" that crop up later in the semester.

If a F2F student just doesn't want to attend class, that's fine - and you'd think that there would be a marked decrease in attendance. Strangely, attendance in class has never been better.

If we move more towards a learning environment where it is the learning that is important, and not the physical presence of the student, I suspect that these problems will cease to cause us headaches.

Of course, then we will have new problems...
Off the path a bit here, but...

Let me toss out another thought about podcasting: Use it for those that need/want it, but don't be discouraged by those who don't.

What do I mean by this? Podcasting allows for the delivery of content to the students "Portable, and On Demand" (POD) and allows those students who don't quite understand things the first time through to go back, listen again, and work through it. Often, just having that as an option allows the student to focus on the lecture when it is given, and not fret about trying to ask a question (and doesn't disrupt the flow for those students that do "get it.")

So, when you see that only a few students regularly download and listen, feel good that you are reaching those that might have been struggling, and don't feel bad that not everyone listens. You have met a need, with really minimal blood, sweat, and tears.
As for intentionally ducking a math requirement, think of it as improving your commitment to graduation: Suppose I hate math, and in my first semester I have to take a math course - what do I get for it? a degree in 8 semesters, maybe. I may well decide to bail. But suppose I manage to duck it till the last semester. I've committed to the degree, and now when the requirement comes around, the question is "take this course for a degree at the end of this semester." I may be more able to commit to this course of action. That math course just got a lot more tolerable.

So probably this is just students acting rationally.
Really, "because 'absent' means 'not present'"? That doesn't strike you as a little persnickety, an overly legalistic use of language that dickishly justifies something that's just a personal gripe?

And, granted that "[i]deally, students are graded based on their demonstrated mastery of the designated learning outcomes for a given class", but what mastery can a student be expected to have gained within the first few days of class? Of course "[a] student doesn't get a free pass on a learning outcome based on late registration", but what "learning outcomes" are you really holding students to during the first week of class that they can't catch up with the rest of the class?

I just, I guess, can't see this is that serious a problem.
I established the following in my syllabus...

1) Every class counts, whether or not you were registered.

2) I will not sign add slips unless you've been in class and demonstrate that you are caught-up.

3) A syllabus quiz, so that those who miss the first discussion need to demonstrate knowledge of the basic stuff. It is pass/fail, with re-dos -- but, it must be turned in to pass the class. They have all semester to do it.

4) A statement that I will not, under any circumstances, re-teach class in my office hours. If they miss, they need to make friends with someone who was there.

So far these policies are working pretty well.
doc said, "Sure, it's useful for the student. But I'd ask the faculty member if it's OK. I have two classes this semester in which I have more students registered than there are seats (which will make testing, well, testing)."

Just to clarify, as I do to my students, I encourage them to go to the first class and speak with the professor. Usually they have a pretty good idea in that first class if this is a course they want to attend. The prof will be able to tell them whether or not it is feasible for them to add the class. All that on the first day of class and they can move on/in.

BTW I just finished meeting with one of our first year students. I asked about her classes and, as with so many honors students, she was a little surprised to find that she was not honors in every subject. Honors Econ was proving just too much for this budding English major. She is likely to drop the class and either move to a non-honors section or in another semester pick up a replacement course for that requirement. (She has enough credits not to require adding a course this late.)
Don't you all have a union? With class maximums in the contract? Our add period goes into the third week of classes, but adding students that late is never an issue because classes are usually full on day 1.

Thank you, thank you to the commentor who mentioned a syllabus quiz. I have been looking for a way to "catch up" those students who inevitably show up in my class on the second and third day, get the syllabus, and then are "surprised" by both lab quizzes and tests (all of which are explained and scheduled for the semester in the syllabus)!

Frankly, late add students generally piss me off. Not because they add late or because I have a little inconvenience... no... it's because they think that I should stop everything I am doing just to catch them up. Sometimes in the middle of the second or third class. It is the level of rudeness that just irks me to no end.

Oh, and we let the students here drop a class the last day before finals. I don't mind at all. I rather deal with all of the people coming by my office whining and crying the week before finals than sometime in the middle of the semester. For a few reasons, my last week of lecture is fairly easy and that leaves me time for the endless grade calculation questions and such.
You'd like our system: it makes most of those problems your problems. ;-)

First, when we say "drop" it means "class disappears from your transcript and you get your money back". You can do that for a week. After that, we keep your money (and what the state gives us for your presence) and you get a grade of some kind on the transcript (a W if you 'drop' after that first week).

Students can only add for the first two days, but a student can still do a section change or add late with the Dean's permission (and sometimes the instructor's permission), so some vacated seats will get filled. That makes for a lot of work for the Dean, but the Dean can also filter out students who shouldn't be adding that class because it moving into chapter 3 at the end of the first week.

Like Kelly in Kansas, I do physics the first day and assign homework on the key parts of the syllabus, mostly grading. The only dead class I have is when a lab meets on an add day. We still do some important things that students will have to get on their own, but never something that is critical.
I assign a math quiz on the first day to gauge my students' understanding and frighten them into dropping if necessary.

The incoming students are warned by the folks still in the class, so it serves a long-term positive effect.

YMMV, but it works for econ.
Thanks to Eyebrows McGee for clarifying that our two "F" categories might have something to do with financial aid.

Because of enrollment pressures and grade inflation pressures, I've been reticent to drop students. Usually the ones who regularly skip classes figure out the first day that isn't going to work well and get out then. Just disappearing from work isn't an option unless you want to get fired so why should you be able to just quit coming to class and expect someone else to handle your responsibilities?

I fear that many students just want to hang onto financial aid whether they are actively attending school or not.
"I fear that many students just want to hang onto financial aid whether they are actively attending school or not."

I think some of them also are embarrassed/stressed by their failure in the class and can't face dealing with it because dealing with it means admitting it.

I recall being like this about bills a few times when I was first out on my own. :)
The enthusiasm for grading/assigning points for attendance has always perplexed me. As Anon at 10:31 above points out, if we're assessing mastery of course material, the first few days of class are not absolutely necessary to master course objectives to be learned over a whole semester.

I know the argument is that points for attendance will encourage attendance and thus help students learn. However, by this logic, we should give students points for any effective study habits, not just attendance. Why not just directly assess the important course objectives? If a student masters the course objectives, their attendance record in the course is irrelevant.
To milo mindbender: Awarding points for attendance encourages a community of learners.

Being in class isn't just an opportunity for one person to learn: if all learning was about what one person learned, we wouldn't need groups together at all. Attending and discussing helps *other* people learn, too: this social construction of knowledge, if you will, is something I stress as a student's responsibility as a member of the class community.
@Milo: "The enthusiasm for grading/assigning points for attendance has always perplexed me"

The state legislature makes me.

"Why not just directly assess the important course objectives?"

These can be hard to measure numerically, especially in liberal arts and social sciences. The legislature demands hard numbers to show our worthy stewardship of taxpayer funds. Attendance is a very easy hard number. They want everything six-sigma'ed within an inch of its life, so we have to find numbers SOMEWHERE.
This is a timely discussion for me too. We're into our second full week of classes at my U but if spaces are available (or become so), students can add themselves to the class (or drop it) until the end of this week, entirely on their own--so I envy those who have the option to sign or not sign add or drop forms. Our system means students can show up next Monday in my first-year English class having missed the first 7 classes, an in-class essay, and several reading responses, and never having seen me in person or declared their intention to come and play. My experience is late joiners also by and large haven't looked for the course website or Blackboard site or otherwise tried to get up to speed before showing up the first time. I don't understand why students think they should not suffer in any way for missing 2 of our meager 12 weeks. Sure, you can join us late, but being late for something usually means you're behind in some way. That's not a great start, even if the Registrar is OK with this system. The rest of us started working a while back. Generally my concession is not to penalize them for missed classes prior to their having registered for the course (after all, they can't find out the course attendance policy until then). But I typically don't allow them to make up missed work, as the class and I have moved on. I allow a couple of bonus point opportunities later on and stress that they should seize those.

As for knowing what's on the syllabus, well, the most frequent words out of my mouth in the first week or two of class seem to be "that information is in your syllabus" and yet students are still putting their hands up and asking what the reading is for the next class meeting.
Out of eight post-secondary institutions, haven't found one which made drop/add a non-issue. In my mind, the issue with drop/add is systemic, and your post does mention some factors (requirements for full-time status and the importance of grades, for instance...).
In my mind, instructors find their own ways to deal with effects of drop/add. The system won't change just yet so we better adapt.
Thinking about the one time when drop/add had the largest impact on my teaching. It was a rather large class (140 students) and I wanted to have students do a semester-long project. For the first time in my teaching life, I decided to have students do team projects. Problem is, I was assuming that few changes would happen in the last 24h before the drop/add cutoff date. Had been looking at the list and it seemed relatively stable, at that point. So I put people into teams before the full results of drop/add had come through. A major mistake on my part, which had negative effects during the whole semester. Learnt my lesson.
This semester, the effect wasn't dramatic but I was still a bit surprised by how much change there was. It's a seminar with 25 upper-level students. My impression was that there wouldn't be that much change. So, the first class meeting, we started on a kind of interesting dynamic, getting prepared for the semester together. Not a whole lot of content, but enough to get people started. Second week, the classroom had changed sufficiently that it was necessary for me to address a lot of things which had been done the previous week (even though I do podcast those sessions and make the material I use available through Moodle). The third class meeting (this week), some new people showed up but the dynamic was already well-established enough that it wasn't an issue. Those students who'll have to catch-up will do so on their own.
There's no exam in this seminar and I'm not "training" those students. We're constructing something together and those who came in late seem even more enthusiastic about participating in the process.
The Moodle site does help as some of the interactions through the group are happening online. Classroom time benefits from those interactions.
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