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?