Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Student Who Checked Out

As an educator, one of the things that comes up every semester is a student who has "checked out". They stop coming to class and turning in assignments, and you can see their downward trajectory.

What should simply be a small hurdle becomes a 15-foot high tsunami wave for these students. They don't have the psychological resources to go to office hours, work harder, put in the time. So they just let the missed work accumulate until it becomes impossible for them to recover.

When I was an undergraduate I had friends in this place, so it is gut-wrenching to blindly apply a syllabus policy and fail a student in the interest of "fairness". "Fairness" unfortunately means that students on the lower tail of the psychological resource distribution curve get left behind.

What's strange is that this "oh well, tough luck for the student, nothing we can do" sentiment doesn't seem to be quite as prevalent in elementary ed as it is in higher ed. Younger kids having academic trouble have more access to resources to help them - there is a concept of an intervention*. However, for some reason, our society has decided that by the time students are 18 if they struggle in their education it is fully up to them to fix it. Sink or swim.

When faced with a failing student, some people say, "Well, college isn't for everyone", or, worse, "Computer Science isn't for everyone". I disagree. I think everyone is able to do both -- it's just that some people are dealt better hands than others, and our system currently favors those with pocket aces.

(*) In well-resourced and caring schools, that is.


  1. I am facing exactly the same problem with a student right now and I have been thinking the "I am not your babysitter" thoughts. I am not sure what to do yet, but part of me is trying to figure out what stage of someone's career stops being "for everyone". I think we all agree that high school is for everyone and that CEO is not, but what about college? what about grad school?

  2. Personally I don't view it as babysitting, I view it as depression screening. The student who tries and still fails is one thing, but the student who rarely comes to class, stops turning things in, and appears despondent - that's where I get worried.

    I don't think "sink or swim" makes sense for undergrads. I'm not sure for grad students. There are clear differences between the students who grew up with learning resources and those who didn't. Especially for the ones that didn't, I feel like it's worth trying.

  3. You don't have to think of it as babysitting or parenting or anything that extreme to notice the problem and to intervene. Intervention comes in many sorts of levels and flavors, and if a professor hadn't said something when I was an undergrad and having an incredibly difficult time due to circumstances wildly beyond my control, I'd have failed a couple classes. I do the same for my students now, which is good, since the institution I'm working at doesn't give a shit about undergrads and is pretty proud of it. I don't want to be the person who sees something and says nothing - it's about me, too, after all.