Friday, October 14, 2005

Drop Date

Today is the last day in our fall semester where students can drop a course without getting permission (from a dean in the college in which the student is enrolled). As one instructor pointed out to me recently, this means the week or so before becomes a period of reckoning for students who perceive themselves on the margin. (And this doesn’t have to be on the pass-fail margin. Student’s who carry a high GPA may want to protect that and drop a course that will have give them a C.) In large classes, in particular, this might create certain communication between instructor and student that could have both a beneficial and a pernicious aspect. On the plus side both likely become more aware of the students standing and progress to date. One the minus side this may result in some haggling about grades that most instructors find unwelcome.

I believe that most people don’t consider campus regulations of this sort and treat them as part of the institutional firmament. But I’m an economist, prone to be anti regulation by nature (really from four years of graduate school nurture and twenty plus years in the profession), and want to consider this along with other campus regulations as to their rationale and their consequence. Also, let me not here that by rationale I don’t mean that campus has various reporting requirements to the state and that some of the campus regulations emerge to fulfill these requirements. I mean, instead, what’s in it for the students and the faculty? With the drop date, for example, one might consider two extremes as alternatives. First, students can never drop a class without getting permission from a dean. Second, students can drop a class even after final exams have been given and the student learns his score on that.

I know that some private colleges do the latter. I don’t think that makes sense here because for students who are not doing well, there is too much of an opportunity for them to spin their wheels before they get some assistance. But I am intrigued by the former. In itself it would substantially reduce the churn that we see at the beginning of the semester. If the “cost” of dropping courses rose students wouldn’t so freely add them earlier. The churn, which is huge and clearly has been facilitated by online registration systems, has no obvious social benefit to me. And from the instructors point of view it is quite pernicious. When does the semester really start, on day one or after day ten?

I know for sure that we in IT, on the both the administrative and academic side of the house, pay a big cost for enabling that churn. In supporting the course management system we have to continually update rosters and, indeed, because there is so much churn the administrative student system has to have enough bandwidth and crunching power to accommodate it.

Does the institution understand the extent of these costs? Who out there now really argues for all the adds and drops. During that early part of the semester they are almost certainly not driven by student performance in the course. What if we took did in fact move the drop date to day one and then took the savings that would produce and put it into advising? Might not that produce a better outcome?

Now let me turn to a related regulation, the grading scheme used by the university. When I start at the U of I in 1980 we had letter grade only. Somewhere in the mid 90s they moved to plus/minus grades, but in an either/or way. Some classes had them, others didn’t. This is insane, especially at a big institution. It creates big cost to sustain. Where is the offsetting benefit? I have a mild preference for letter grade only schemes (less haggling about grades with students) but I’d certainly rather see one scheme applied uniformly than to have instructor choice.

We are in an era where efficiency is paramount and yet I don’t think anyone is looking at all these regulations and asking whether they are serving or hurting the institution. Why not?


Anonymous said...

Along the same thought path - my pet peeve is "late registration". This custom or tradition - and that's what add/drop is, really - creates weeks of chaos at our school for faculty, students - the harried IT folks who scramble to create accounts...or look for reasons why students don't have one. Students expect their accounts to be usable upon arrival at school. That is typically weeks before the end of accepted late registrations.

Lanny Arvan said...

If we did a closer examination of the various business processes around enrollment and grading I think we'd find a variety that may have made sense at one time but no longer do. The primary reasons for not changing them are faculty governance and fear that a unilateral move would create a competitive disadvantage with peer institutions.