Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Third Time’s the Charm

Practice doesn’t make perfect.

In fact, students taking a class for the second time pass it at lower rates than students taking it the first time.  The third time at lower rates than the second.  With each new attempt, the percentage who pass gets lower.  (To be fair, the sample size gets pretty small once you hit really high numbers of attempts, so it’s hard to say if the percentage keeps going all the way to zero.  But it never reverses direction.)  You’d think it would get easier, but the data suggest otherwise.

I mention this because we had a discussion on campus this week about the kinds of interventions, if any, that might make a positive difference for students who’ve already failed a class two or three times.  But I haven’t seen any good studies on that.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard of or seen cases in which a well-aimed intervention made a difference.  For example, I’ve heard of students who struggled because of previously undiagnosed learning disabilities; in those cases, steering them to support services made a life-changing difference.  (Closely related is the student who has the diagnosis, but tries to “rough it” and go without supports to see what happens.)  I’ve personally worked with students who admitted, when asked, that they really didn’t like their major, but they thought it was what they were “supposed to” do.  When they got permission from an authority figure to switch to something they liked, their performance jumped.  Sometimes there’s an underlying medical issue.  Sometimes it’s just the wrong time, based on things happening (or that happened) in their personal lives.

And yes, sometimes it’s just the wrong match of abilities.  I tend to leave that as a when-all-else-fails explanation, though.  Jumping to it too quickly isn’t fair to students.

Apparently, community colleges have been immune to the grade inflation that has hit other sectors.  So we don’t have the “just pass ‘em anyway” option that you might find elsewhere.  I think that’s to our credit, but it sort of forces the issue.  (My back-of-the-envelope theory on the lack of grade inflation has to do with transfer.  Far more cc students go on to a particular four-year school than four-year grads go to a particular law, grad, or med school.  If we were giving away A’s like candy, it would show up faster for us, so we don’t.)

Some colleges mandate “student success” or “study skills” courses for students who place into multiple developmental courses.  The idea is that someone who went through thirteen years of education without developing good writing or math skills probably isn’t very good at studying.  Whatever the merits of that approach, though, I’m not sure it would make as much sense for the student who has failed, say, Anatomy and Physiology several times in a row.  I’d guess the latter case often comes from a different cause.  To be fair, though, that’s just a guess -- if anyone has seen good data on that, I’d love to hear about it.

With the lifetime limit on Pell grants down to 12 semesters, the question is more urgent than it used to be.  A student who spends five or six semesters spinning her wheels in one class will be hard-pressed to finish a degree before running out of aid.  And given what we know about the effects of delay on completion -- the longer it takes, the less likely to finish -- letting students spend years on a single class likely isn’t doing anyone any favors.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a strategy that works particularly well for students who get stuck on a particular class?  

Our state has a law that requires that students pay the "full cost" (defined as out-of-state tuition) for the third attempt and they are NOT allowed to withdraw. (Technically, that is the third try at any college or university in the state, but that seems to be looseley enforced. I've seen a student with five fails in the same class across several different state schools show up to fail it for the 6th time.) I don't know if that affects success rates, but just having to pay out of pocket can focus the mind. Or they go fail it at a different college.

We have a regular study skills class PLUS one that is just for students with multiple developmental classes. They take the regular one when they get to college-level classes. Yes, that wastes some credits, but we had data that show it works. Not sure if it still works "at scale" with a broader group of faculty.

BTW, your comment about it might have been a throwaway, but we do have data on why students fail anatomy and physiology. They don't know any chemistry or biology, so the physiology part (the lecture course part) kills them. We can't add a prerequisite course because that would mean too many pre-reqs for nursing, and we can't have one that says "or HS bio and chemistry" (which would be OK for nursing) because our computer system can't handle that.

There is also a sequencing problem. They sometimes take a hard class before an easier one, or don't take a college math class to refresh their skills before dealing with the numbers in physiology. Others can't spell all those crazy greek and latin words in the anatomy part, but there is a terminology course that helps with that if they are in one of the majors that requires it, or luck out and get good advising.
When I was teaching at Illinois State, this wasn't much of a problem. A student only had two shots at a course. But I do have a story about that. A good friend of mine was teaching intro to macroeconomics and intermediate macroeconomic theory in the same semester (both, of course, required for econ majors). He had a student in his intermediate class who was simultaneously in his intro class, hoping to pull his D in that course up. He got a D in intermediate...and an F in intro. And changed his major.

At Indiana University Northwest, where I spent a quarter century, students could re-take a course as often as they wanted (IU, systemwide also had a policy locally called FX--if you failed a course, you could retake it, and, if you got a better grade, the F would disappear from your transcript...but you could do that for only 10 credit hours of Fs...but I digress). My second semester there (spring 1988), I had a student who was taking a course (intro to microeconomics) for the 8th time...he had passed it every time, lowest grade a D, highest grade a C-...it did not go well for him. He missed two tests, out of three, and didn't drop the course.

I later had a student taking intro to micro for the third time. He needed a C in the course for it to count toward his major (and it was a required course). It was, in fact, his third attempt taking it from me. He had a difficulty generalizing...walk him through an example, and he more-or-less got it. Give him essentially the same example, but with a different product or different numbers, and it was like he'd never seen the concepts before. But the third time, he (barely) got a C, and thanked me for spending time with him (averaged 2 hours a week, I think...but it meant someone was there for my office hours).

And, no, I have no magic bullets.
"Practice doesn’t make perfect.

In fact, students taking a class for the second time pass it at lower rates than students taking it the first time. "

I imagine it's not really your point but pass rates is probably the wrong metric for comparing how students do on successive attempts at a course for the obvious reason that the stronger students pass on the first attempt. Is there any data on how each student's grade changes with successive attempts (i.e. from F to D to C-, etc)?
I have no data to contribute, but I would offer a small correction to the "Practice makes perfect" phrase. Among my teachers and other musician friends, it's "Perfect practice makes perfect." Playing things slowly enough at first to get it exactly right and then reinforcing the right habits accomplishes much more than practicing a bunch of times at (near) full speed and never fixing the underlying problems. To the extent that a solution to the multiple re-takes issue might involve a similar slowing down strategy seems reasonable. It certainly works for learning music that initially seems "impossible."
Pass rates are the wrong metric. The "first attempt" population includes a range of academic ability, the second attempt only includes students who failed (or at least did very poorly) on their first attempt. Declining pass rates for each attempt are exactly what you would expect if the average student actually improved on each attempt. The right metric is to compare the performance of the same students on consecutive attempts.
"Apparently, community colleges have been immune to the grade inflation that has hit other sectors."

That's not what the data in that link show. They show that CCs have had grade inflation comparable to other higher ed over time. The last three points show a leveling or slight decline, but they also flattened from 1985-1995 before jumping over the next decade. Based on the apparent need to smooth the CC data to every 5 years while the 4-year data was plotted for every year, I suspect that the CC data is considerably noisier, so I wouldn't read much into an apparent brief flattening. On top of that, the CC data stop at 2011, so who knows how well that reflects 2016.
I also have no magic bullets.

However, I've seen changing the pace of a class cause different students to succeed. For me, the best ways to take low-level math classes was in compressed summer terms, because I didn't have time to get bored, get busy with other stuff, and stop setting aside enough time to complete the grind of repetitive homework before every single class. I got through a year of majors-track calculus with A's and B's in a single summer that way after struggling in a regularly-paced class because I tended to flake out after a while and start trying to coast. (Interestingly, I had no problems with this in higher-level proof-based math classes because I found it a lot more interesting and kept setting aside the time for the work - I had no trouble taking, say, Abstract Algebra in the traditional year-long format. This also may have been a maturity issue since I was a younger teenager when I started college.)

I've also seen struggling students improve in a class taught at a slower pace (maybe 2 credits for two quarters each rather than 4 credits in a single quarter) if they need more time to absorb the material.

At the high school level, we seem to oscillate between having separate "repeaters sections" and mixing them in with the on-pace students, and both really have their own problems. We currently seem to be going through a "self-paced computer-based credit recovery" model for high school math repeaters, which sounds good in theory (students can test out of the parts they already understand and just learn what they missed the first time, which avoids the issue of the repeater who messes around for the first couple of months because they "already know this stuff" and then doesn't start paying attention when it hits the part the missed the previous time) but in practice tends to lead to students without the skills and mindset to work independently being expected to independent study the things they didn't learn in a structured class.

I'd love to see some other good options. The basic issue I'm always dealing with is that they need to get through three years of sequential math classes during their 4 years of high school (starting with, at the lowest, Algebra 1, regardless of their previous preparation level per state law), so they get a maximum of one "oops" before all of the remaining solutions are terrible and involve taking math classes at the same time as their prerequisite math course.

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