University News

Dean of the College, Sheridan Center to study why students drop classes

Students who drop classes can complete confidential survey to be analyzed by Sheridan Center

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2016

The Office of the Dean of the College and the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning are launching a semester-long study with the help of the Undergraduate Council of Students to determine the reasons why students drop courses, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel.

From the end of shopping period until the deadline for dropping classes, students who drop a course will receive an email from the Sheridan Center asking them to fill out a brief survey about why they dropped it, Mandel said. The survey responses will then go to the Sheridan Center for analysis with the future goal of allowing academic departments to address any trends that emerge, she added.

“Without knowing exactly why students are dropping courses, we can’t begin to address some of these issues,” said Timothy Ittner ’18, vice president of UCS. “We’re hoping that the survey can provide concrete data and numbers.”

The suggestion for a study came from a variety of organizations and groups, Mandel said, adding that the council came to her independently to discuss the issue. Simultaneously, several other groups and departments either acted independently or approached her because they wanted to understand why students drop classes in light of the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, Mandel added.

The study was also conceived as a way to prepare for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation process, an evaluation for university accreditation on a federal level that occurs every 10 years, Mandel said. “We are looking for additional data to help us in our accreditation reporting about curricular issues on campus,” she added.

The computer science department has wanted to study why students drop courses for several years and brought the idea to Mandel some time ago, said Tom Doeppner, vice chair of the department. “We have all sorts of data on the students who stay in our courses, but we really would like to have more information about why people choose to leave,” he added. “Are we doing anything that’s making people unhappy about our courses, that’s making predominantly more women unhappy in our courses or more people in underrepresented minorities?”

UCS has also been pushing for this “concrete step” on “a student idea” since long before the beginning of the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan process, said Yvonne Diabene ’19, UCS spokesperson. Students have been instrumental in advocating the initiative, specifically in the computer science department, she added. UCS also heard from students who “wanted a way to officially report or give feedback on why they were dropping courses throughout the semester,” Ittner said.

UCS brought “the ideas and the student perspective” to the study and has helped to generate the questions for the survey, said UCS President Viet Nguyen ’17. But in order to ensure that the results of the study will be “100 percent confidential” and inaccessible to any students, the Dean of the College and the Sheridan Center will be responsible for its organization and implementation, Mandel said. “It has to be a confidential study because we want students to understand that there will be no problem for them in filling out the survey,” she said. “We want the faculty to have data that they can use in departments to address curricular issues if they come up.”

Doeppner said that the computer science department also recognizes that, in order for the study to be effective, access to the data must be limited. “If we were collecting the data, then students would understandably be a little uneasy about sending something that criticizes what’s going on in the courses that they might be identified with,” he added.

The computer science department has already embarked on several efforts to make its classes more accessible to and comfortable for students, Doeppner said. The department conducted a climate survey of all computer science students last spring and has begun holding diversity training for undergraduate teaching assistants. Last fall, with the voluntary cooperation of several faculty members, members of Women in Computer Science also began reporting statements made by professors in class “that were objectionable for any reason” to the faculty, Doeppner added.

While what the study will reveal is impossible to predict, Mandel said that the action taken as a result of the findings should fit into the University’s push for diversity and inclusion.

UCS hopes that the University will use the data “to be more preventative rather than reactive when it comes to certain pipeline issues,” Nguyen said. “Students who are dropping courses before grades are out, their voices aren’t being heard,” he added. “It’s always better to know what students are thinking so that we can better tailor our courses to them.”

Mandel said that she hopes to report the aggregate data back to the University in some form after it has been analyzed, with no concrete timeline yet. UCS also plans to address and try to resolve the issues that cause students to drop courses when they are identified by the survey, Ittner said.

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