In Fall 2016, the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning collaborated with the Undergraduate Council of Students and the Office of the Dean of the College to conduct a study about the reasons Brown students attributed to their course drop decisions. The good news? Relatively few courses were dropped, only about 4% of all enrolled courses. Of the students who disenrolled and responded to the survey, some attributed their decision to strategic reasons, such as enrolling for five courses at the start of the term while planning to end up with four. However, there was also a sizeable group of students (34%) for whom a course drop could potentially have an impact on their educational careers, reporting that the dropped course was a prerequisite or requirement for a concentration. Additionally, Sheridan found that many drops took place at the end of the term (39% in weeks 13-14), an unnecessary expense of resources for both faculty and students.
The number one reason that students attributed to their course drop decision? Pace. Among students who had not initially intended to drop a course, fast pace of course was named most frequently (46% agreement). For example, one student in a STEM course noted, “I was extremely overwhelmed by the pace and difficulty of the course that I was constantly full of stress over it.” Likewise, multilingual learners commented on reading in humanities and social science courses (see textbox).
"The workload, specifically the amount of reading, was overwhelming. As English is not my first language, I read a lot slower than my peers and this had a disadvantage when entering the course. As an international freshman I also trying to adapt to life in the US, which takes a toll. I am fascinated by the topic and content of the course but I was too stressed to enjoy learning it."
Therefore, the findings of the course drop study suggest that inclusive teaching involves attention to pace. However, this is also effective teaching, as a large national study finds that clarity and organization – which includes using class time effectively, reviewing material, and clearly explaining course goals and requirements – is positively related to student development of critical thinking skills (Blaich, Wise, Pascarella, & Roksa, 2017).
Brown Faculty who teach courses with fewer drops indicate that tools they use to regulate pace include:
- Assigning regular homework or assignments, which are returned within a week for regular feedback
- Developing assignments that build upon each other (e.g. homework questions that align with test questions)
- For quantitative classes, using chalk or whiteboards to solve problems and slow down explanations
What are key evidence-based principles that instructors can use to address pace?
- Structure: Although many students recognize that cramming is an ineffective way to study, most still use this approach (Hora & Oleson, 2017). Effective course design can help students space out their learning. For example, in a large, general biology course, faculty found that a “moderate structure” class increased exam performance for all students -- but it had a particularly positive impact on first-generation and African-American students (Eddy & Hogan, 2014). Each week, students were assigned practice problems or an ungraded reading guide to promote active reading - to engage with the text through formulating or answering questions - and encourage them to study on a regular basis. In class, students worked for about a third of class time in groups to solve clicker-type problems. In writing-intensive courses, a parallel strategy is the scaffolding of larger papers through a series of drafts assigned to students throughout the term.
- Cue study habits: A recent study suggests that most students tend to look to faculty for cues about when to study (Hora & Oleson, 2017). Simple announcements about upcoming exams can help remind students to initiate studying. The same research found that the most frequently used learning approach by students was re-reading the text or lecture notes, which others have found to be an ineffective learning strategy, especially for retaining information (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013). Therefore, instructors can offer helpful guidance by pairing recommendations for how to study along with when to study. For example, one recent study suggests that students are better able to allocate their time towards reading on the weekend, and syllabi, reading quizzes, or even simple reminders could be structured with this rhythm in mind (Sharma, Van Hoof, & Ramsay, 2017).
- Practice exercises: Low- or no-stakes practice tests are one of the most powerful tools for learning, and practice tests can help students keep up with material and gauge where gaps lie. Often, one practice test per exam is sufficient, and for time-strapped instructors, there is some evidence that feedback is not necessary in order for students to reap the benefits of this approach (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017).
- Reading guides: Even practiced readers can have difficulty keeping up with all the reading that goes into a four-course load or to understand how a monograph in history might be read differently than an empirical article in sociology or a textbook in physics. Reading guides – which range from .pdf annotation of a sample text to questions the student should answer through the reading – can offer helpful signposts. This Sheridan guide on promoting effective course reading offers more detail on this strategy for faculty, and A Writer’s Guide to Mindful Reading is a useful resource for students.
- Checking for understanding: Checking to see if students have grasped a concept can help instructors decide if a course can move forward or if spending more time on an idea would be beneficial. However, most checking for understanding in classrooms happens at an individual level, by asking questions like, “Does that make sense? and “What is X?” (Hora & Ferrare, 2014). Classroom assessment techniques -- or ungraded group-based understanding checks – offer cues for instructors about how to pace a course. Find examples here.
Transparency: A multi-institution collaboration found that the following small strategies were helpful for giving all students tools to understand and navigate course expectations (Winkelmes, Bernacki, Butler, Zochowski, Golanics & Weavil, 2015):
- Provide criteria for success (e.g., rubrics) and annotated examples of successful work to students – what makes it work?
- For assignments, detail the purpose. How might the knowledge or skills involved in the paper or project be important in students’ future lives? The researchers found that a discussion of relevance and purpose helped cue student motivation to engage in the task and their learning from it.
This template offers some examples about how to increase transparency in assignments.
When students feel a class is too fast, they may need additional guidance from faculty to organize their reading and study efforts. With the right structures in place, students can master difficult material without significant changes to the course.
Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., Sundararajan, N. (2017). Rethinking the use of tests: A meta-analysis of practice testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3): 659-701.
Blaich, C., Wise, K., Pascarella, E. T., & Roksa, J. (2016) Instructional clarity and organization: It's not new or fancy, but it matters, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48(4): 6-13.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1): 4-58. Available: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1529100612453266
Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE – Life Sciences Education, 13: 453-468. Available: http://www.lifescied.org/content/13/3/453.full
Hora, M.T. & Oleson, A.K. (2017). Examining study habits in undergraduate STEM courses from a situative perspective. International Journal of STEM Education, 4(1), 1-19.
Hora, M.T., & Ferrare, J.J. (2014). Remeasuring postsecondary teaching: How singular categories of instruction obscure the multiple dimensions of classroom practice. Journal of College Science Teaching, 43(3): 36-41.
Sharma, A., Van Hoof, H.B., & Ramsay, C. (2017). The influence of time on the decisions that students make about their academic reading. Active Learning in Higher Education, 1-14.
Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K.H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1-2). Available: https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2016/winter-spring/Winkelmes