Monday, November 23, 2015


Once More, with Feeling

How many times should a student be allowed to re-take a class she hasn’t passed?  In my context, that usually means either failing or withdrawing; we don’t do many incompletes.

Some colleges have policies on retakes and some don’t, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a fleshed-out argument for any given position.  I’ll offer a few gestures towards one, and then ask my wise and worldly readers to help me fill it out and reach a considered answer.

First, I think it’s obvious that any given number (assuming there is one) should have some sort of “exceptions” clause.  Weird stuff happens.  When the stuff is both documented and sufficiently extraordinary, I don’t see much point in being overly strict.  (Example: one semester, the professor falls ill six weeks into the class, and the college can’t find a replacement in time.  I don’t see why a student should be punished for that.)  That said, a policy of “infinite retakes” strikes me as hard to defend, given limited resources.  So assuming that infinity is off the table, and there’s some sort of safety valve for extraordinary cases, what would be a reasonable limit?

“One and done” strikes me as unnecessarily cruel.  People make mistakes.  If a withdrawal from a class means you can never take the class again, and that class is a prerequisite for other things and/or a degree requirement, then the student is basically done.  Say that a student has a medical issue or family emergency during Freshman Comp.  Freshman Comp is required in every degree program at the college.  Bar her from retaking the class, and you’ve basically expelled her.  Given that anybody can get sick at any time, that just seems unreasonable.

Two or three attempts both seem reasonable at first glance.  Either allows for a stray awful semester without banning the student from progressing.  But they both put a cap on throwing good money or effort after bad.  If you haven’t passed a class in three attempts, I’m thinking maybe that isn’t the class for you.  Getting blocked from self-registration for a fourth attempt may prompt a visit to an advisor, who might suggest other pathways.  Everybody is good at something, but nobody is good at everything; disappointment can be part of the process of narrowing down the fields that work for you.  If that weren’t true, I would have spent much of the 90’s and 00’s playing major league baseball.  The only thing that stopped me was a catastrophic lack of talent.

I’ve asked the Institutional Research offices at my last couple of colleges to run numbers on success rates for successive attempts at courses.  In both cases, success rates dropped from the first attempt to the second, the second to the third, and so on.  The drop was the largest from the first to the second.  I haven’t seen national figures on that, but I’d guess they’re consistent.  By the time you get to fourth or fifth attempts, it starts to look less like compassion and more like false hope, or tuition theft.  

The change in Pell limits in 2012 added urgency to the issue.  Prior to 2012, students had a lifetime limit of 18 semesters of Pell.  (That had to cover both undergrad and grad degrees.)  In 2012, the limit was shortened to 12 semesters.  If a student spends four or five semesters on a single class, the odds of her finishing a degree before running out of money drop dramatically.  And even if she finishes the associate’s, the odds of having enough money to complete a bachelor’s are vanishingly low.  If a student has a semester or two of ESL and/or developmental classes, and stops out once or twice, that 12 semester limit can come up fast.  I hate to base academic policy on financial aid, but I also find it irresponsible to enable behavior that would defeat the possibility of completing a degree.  

So I turn to my wise and worldly readers to shed light.  Is there another angle on this question that sheds useful light?  Is there a better answer?

I dealt with this daily as an advisor and manager of advising in Engineering and CS.

The university had a policy:
-Max 3 attempts on a given course
-max 5 retakes per degree
-GPA only counted from the best attempt.
(Another way to limit is to make all attempts count to cgpa - too many retakes = low GPA = fail the program.

We (eventually) implemented a good solution:
-students could use their 5 repeats on their own but got an intrusive advising invitation at the fourth global retake.
-students needed to meet an advisor to unlock the third attempt at a given course.

The last layer was what happened on exceptions. In our case, we had a generous enough policy on withdrawals for extenuating circumstances. Those didn't count against anything and we trusted the office responsible to decide whether any individual case met the bar.

We did, however grant exceptions.

Exceptions were predicated on a student writing a convincing case that they were at a different level of preparation today than their last attempt. If they needed additional overall repeats (the most common case), then they needed to show that they were likely to graduate from the program with no new failed classes. The gold standard for a yes was 2 semesters of significant course load taking courses of similar difficulty meeting a GPA standard of >2.4 (C+/B-) with no D or F grades. Less than that and ou had to make a really good case - only very rarely did such a case exist.

The downside: this was labour intensive and often involved teaching the students what we needed in terms of professionalism and reflective thought was that needed on the appeal.

The up side: it opened up conversations, showed we were not just there to say no, but also made clear what the student needed to do. It also gave us a pretty bomb proof reply to the refrain "but I promise I will work harder next time". This was in many ways my most impactful advising.

I will email your gmail in case you want to chat further.
At Illinois State University, the policy was (and so far as I know still is, but I was there from 1980 through 1987) that you had 2 shots--if you dropped once, you could take it again...and you could not take it elsewhere and transfer it in. I thought that was a little strict.

At Indiana University Northwest (1987-2012), there was (and is, so far as I know) no limit either on the number of times you can enroll-and drop, or even take-and-retake a course. I had a student take intro econ from me in three successive semesters, completing the course all three times (D-D-C; he had to take the course for his major, and he had to get a C in it for it to count). Also, IU has a policy called F-x--if you fail a course, you can re-take it, and if you pass it, the F is removed from your transcript altogether (but you can only do that for 10 credit hours worth of courses).

I actually have no clear idea of what is an optimal policy.
The policy at UCSC is two tries, then adviser's approval is needed. As undergrad director for bioengineering, I get a lot of appeals to allow a 3rd try. I generally will allow that if there is convincing evidence that the student is doing something different this time (joined an official study group, arranged for a tutor, reduced work hours, …). If a student has a history of repeatedly failing several courses required for the major, I don't generally approve a third try at a failed course—it is time for them to try a major they can finish.

One exception is that I will allow a student with only one course left on their degree as many retries as they need, after counseling them to do something different on this attempt. Unfortunately, one course that has repeatedly served as that "last to complete" course is one I teach. (Students can do that "one last course" without being matriculated students, at a much lower cost than registering even as a part-time student.) I have had students fail my course 4 or 5 times—making no progress from one year to the next, despite the assignments being essentially the same each year, and despite advice that they take a programming course at a community college between annual attempts, to get their skills up to a passing level. I did have one student pass it (barely) on the 4th attempt.

It is not fun for me or the students to see them give up on the 2nd or 3rd week of the quarter year after year. Their unwillingness to do anything to prepare for the course suggests to me that they believe that passing a course is just a matter of luck, and if they roll the dice often enough they are bound to pass sometime.
I don't know that they're the best, but here are our local policies.

1) Withdrawals are allowed until about halfway through the semester. Each student is allowed up to 16 hours of course withdrawals. Retaking a course after withdrawing from it does not count against course repeats described in point 3.

2) Withdrawals for extenuating circumstances (for example, medical issues), are not counted against the 16 hours of regular withdrawals.

3) If a student does not withdraw and gets a grade, they can retake the course only if their grade is below a C.
a) The first time a student retakes a course, they can replace their grade with the new grade. After the first time retaking a course, grade replacement no longer applies. Instead, both grades count towards their GPA.
b) Students are allowed grade replacement for a maximum of three courses. They may retake as many courses as they choose, but after the first three, the original grade will remain as part of their GPA.
Whatever you do, don't do what the University of Hawai'i at Manoa does and count courses from 25 years ago. That BS is cray.


At my CC, we allow two repeats of graded courses. However, withdrawals without earning a grade are not counted, and there is no limit on the number of withdrawals students may take.
After three attempts at a given course, it becomes "by permission of the department."
My college follows state law in limiting students to a maximum of three attempts unless some specific conditions are documented and approved at the Student Affairs VP level. These exceptions are rare, and often involve students who have sat out for some period of time and have gone through a special counseling program we have for students who have been suspended for low grades. However, several of your special situations don't arise in this context because we allow late drops (after a documented appeal) in cases like hospitalization or other "not my fault" disruptions of a semester. Students can, of course, merely transfer to another college and get a few attempts in there as well. (Most I've ever seen was 7 attempts across 3 CCs before arriving at ours.) Financial aid won't cover those excessive repeats, so that usually gets their attention.

Universities that I know about have a mix of policies. Most only allow two repeats for a course required in their major (as distinct from gen ed requirements), but vary on whether the repeated grade is forgiven and/or on how many withdrawals are allowed. Those end up with a student on academic probation (and off to a CC to get their transcript laundered) long before they can repeat very many classes.

As you note, repeating students tend to fall into the A or F category depending on whether they repeat it by changing what they do in a dramatic fashion or merely repeat exactly what they did the first time. I always schedule a first-week conference with students repeating the class for just that reason, but the F students don't bother to show up to discuss a plan. The folks who think retention is our responsibility don't seem to appreciate that detail!
It took me three tries to finally pass Intro English - I'd do fine in the fall semester and then hit a wall in the winter, and I ended up scraping with a grade just enough to earn the credit and not need to do it over a fourth time.

But the reason I kept repeating wasn't because I liked the class - it was a core requirement that I needed in order to get my degree.

So what happens if a student hits their maximum number of retries and still needs that credit for degree completion, and isn't allowed to substitute another course for it?
Unknown 11:51 raises a good point; at my undergrad you needed to pass English Comp to graduate with any degree, and it was a significant barrier for a number of underprepared students. I don't think that there should ever be a lifetime ban on a class like this, although after a certain number of failures it might make sense to require the student to wait a year before taking it again.

Perhaps restricting should depend on on a variety of factors. If workshops/study groups/tutor sessions are available, perhaps require a repeating student to attend those & get verification from such services to make sure they are putting in the effort this time around. This of course in addition to academic/career counselling to see if the class or programme is really the right pick for the student. In my case, as a student taking many maths classes, I see my tutors & attend discussion workshops probably more than I really need to, & all of those services require written proof from both student & tutor each & every time a student attends a session, which can be multiple times per week for up to 3 months straight (it was for me, anyway). Perhaps another thing could be allow the student to retake the class as many times as they like as long as they are paying out of pocket (maybe restrict number of times only for financial aid reasons). Something easy to remember is that it is always easier to start getting help early on, when you are just starting to have an issue in the class. In addition, I would be worried at myself if I had say too many C or even B- grades in earlier coursework that builds on for harder stuff later on. I don't know how much this can affect students down the road but I bet that getting a B- in precalc 1 & 2 then a C in calc 1 & 2 may cause problems for students who may think they are ready for harder material just because the next classes have such grades as prereq for the next class. I for one had a B in both precalc 1 & 2 but had a lot of trouble in calc 1 as it turned out I had easier, more lenient, profs in precalc. Perhaps it would've been better for me if I had the harder profs in the lower classes.
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